Japanese Tea tea ceremony Tea Theory teaism zen

Zen Tea Cups

Beauty, Wabi 侘, Sabi 寂, and the Aesthetics of Zen Teaism

Disclaimer: I am perfectly imperfect. These are merely my own reflections on my personal journey to tea mastery. I may update these thoughts as I learn more and update my own thoughts.

My opinion is not a fact.

A number of years ago, while I was tutoring English and writing in Vancouver, a student gifted me this beautiful set of tea cups. I confess that I thought they were lovely, but I didn’t really understand them. They were all different. There were only five of them; shouldn’t tea cups come in an even numbered set? To my Western imagination of tea, this was weird.
They each seemed to represent a different aspect of nature, which drew me into them.

my prized Zen tea set

Although I’ve used these cups for years, I have only recently come to understand the tradition behind them, and why they’re rough, mottled, and imperfect. Having and learned more about the Zen aesthetic and the Japanese concepts of wabi and sabi, I can truly begin to appreciate this set. As I held these cups in my hands and reflected on their unique beauty, I realized that this set was the perfect example to synthesize and explain what I’ve learned.

Japan as seen from the world

As the box says, these cups represent different natural aspects of Japan, viewed from without.

The set embodies the the island’s natural surroundings. My favourite cup is the one I call the sandy shore cup. It has a creamy sand colour, a gritty unfinished outer texture, and inside, a surprise; glazed hues of ocean blue.

The sandy beach or ocean cup

There’s the earthen coloured cup, reminiscent of forest soil, with roughness, and streaks of loam and clay. There’s the snowy white cup with what could be the first cherry blossom buds signaling the end of winter.

The snowy cup with the broad leaf and first buds of spring

There’s the cup with vertical bamboo forests, and the single leaf cup. All are beautiful in their own right. Together they create a sense of place and season.

The Tea Room as “the Abode of the Unsymmetrical”

Unlike many other traditions which emphasize perfection, Zen philosophy, and by extension, Teaism, values asymmetry and emphasizes the beauty in imperfection.

the earthen cup is beautifully asymmetrical

“The absence of symmetry in Japanese art objects… is a result of a working out through Zennism of Taoist ideals”

Okakura, The Book of Tea

This is true even in the design of the tea house, which The Book of Tea refers to as the Abode of the Unsymmetrical,  “consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect”. These cups are unsymmetrical, masterfully imperfect, with triangular bases and roughly rounded uppers. Like the tea ceremony itself, these cups are all about the process, not the end result.

“The Taoist and Zen conception of perfection [is based on the] dynamic nature of their philosophy [which] laid more stress upon the process through which perfection was sought than on perfection itself.”

Okakura, The Book of Tea
the brushstrokes on the single leaf cup provide visual texture

The Book of Tea explains that the unsymmetrical breaks the monotony in every aspect of tea room decor. For example, objects should not be placed in the exact centre of the tokonoma to avoid dividing the table into symmetrical halves, and even the tokonoma’s pillar should be of a different kind of wood than other pillars. According to Okakura, “the fear of repetition is a constant presence” for a Japanese Tea Master. 

“The various objects … should be so selected that no colour or design shall be repeated. If you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable. If you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular. A cup with a black glaze should not be associated with a tea caddy of black lacquer.”

Okakura, The Book of Tea

With all of these aspects to consider, a Tea Master must be incredibly careful to avoid repetition, not only in theme, but in form, shape of tea utensil, colour, and style.

“Since Zennism has become the prevailing mode of thought, the art of the Orient has purposefully avoided the symmetrical as expressing not only completion, but repetition. Uniformity of design was considered fatal to the freshness of the imagination.”

Okakura, The Book of Tea

But how does this relate to the cups? For starters, they are asymmetrical and uneven.

A set like this, with five very different asymmetrical cups, speaks to these tea ceremony traditions. It could allow for a different and specific experience for each guest, allowing a Tea-Master (outside of a traditional ceremony with tea bowl setting) to carefully select each cup with consideration of the individual.

the cup that reminds me of a bamboo forest

I could not initially understand these as a set. I thought perhaps my client had mixed and matched cups that they thought I’d like. So my first questions of why five cups, and why aren’t they similar, find their answer in Zen design. Repetition is the death of the imagination.

Wabi 侘

This love of the unsymmetrical is an example of a Japanese concept called wabi 侘. Often this is combined with Sabi 寂 to describe the combined aesthetic style as wabi-sabi 侘寂. However, there are some distinctions between wabi and sabi that can be understood through these cups. But what does wabi or sabi even mean?

wabi :

verb: wabiru to be disappointed, to despair, to become weak, to be troubled, to be lonely or despondent, to live in adversity or seclusion

noun: wabithe beauty of the imperfect, the beauty of the unsymmetrical, the beauty of irregularity, the beauty of the simplified, the beauty of that which has been damaged and restored

Maiko Behr, Sept 20, 2020 lecture on Masterworks of Japanese Tea Culture

When we look at these cups, we can see this idea of wabi.

the folded clay seam side of each of the Zen tea cups

There is irregularity, asymmetry, the folded over clay seam is showing, there are different shapes, glazes, and textures, and much for the imagination to feast upon. The cups graduate from triangular bottoms to rounded tops. The seams are not all in the same place – not all of the cups lay flat on the seam side.

The tea-room proper, with its four and a half tatami mats, was designed for up to five guests. An imperfect, uneven number, and exactly the number of cups that the Zen set provides. And that makes sense. An even number would have too much symmetry. It could be divided neatly up the middle.

Wabi in the tea room’s design

Wabi is evident in the traditional tea room, a small hut for the humble enjoyment of tea, which both emperors and commoners alike must stoop to enter. It is the natural textures, the reflection of nature and the living in design. It is this reflection of nature, the evidence of the process through the folded clay, the mottled glaze, the differing colours, and the natural textures that make each piece in the Zen tea set so unique. These are all characteristic of wabi.

Sabi 寂

While there is overlap between wabi and sabi, it has its own distinct characteristics from wabi, that have more to do with age and transcience.

Sabi 寂

verb – sabiru: to become old, to become faded, rusted or run down, to be abandoned, to be lonely

noun – sabi: beauty from aging, beauty of transformation, beauty of things worn by time, impermanence, transcience

Maiko Behr, Sept 20, 2020 lecture on Masterworks of Japanese Tea Culture

Inherent in sabi is the idea that no two tea experiences are ever identical. A moment is here, and then it isn’t; such is the impermanence of sabi. Tea masters try to force attention to transient moments of discovery of the wabi – unexpected beauty and natural irregularities. It’s the beauty of impermanence, the moment of discovery and unexpected surprises that pop up throughout the tea ceremony. The discovery of the brilliant blue interior of the beach cup, of the rich green leaf hidden inside the cup. The brilliant green of tea inside the cup with the blue glaze. These cups also have a strong nod to their process of creation, and irregularities of texture. The patina that develops within over time speaks to all of the tea experiences each cup has been through.

There is also a sense of incompleteness. Their rounded ridged rims are not smoothed by the potter’s hand.

the edge, unsmoothed – rounded but left uneven as a nod to the process

Their prominent folded over clay seams run vertically up their lengths. The earthy brown cup also seems unfinished in the wide brush stroke that laterally crosses it. Why didn’t they finish painting it white? There’s beauty in the process, in the unfinished stroke itself. It speaks better to the texture of the earth on the forest floor, just as the sandy cup, being unglazed feels like beach to the fingertips. The cracked texture beneath the blue varnish on the sandy cup also looks much more beautiful than a glossy perfect glaze. Nature in itself is constantly changing.

These cups are perfectly imperfect. They are beautifully Zen.

Find a free version of The Book of Tea at:

Japanese Tea


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