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:

Fasting Tea Theory

Intermittent Fasting and The Book of Tea

or the value of a vacuum in the face of cheap abundance

Today is the 30th day in a row of my intermittent fasting lifestyle change. Most days I fast 18-22 hours with a 3-6 hour eating window. It’s up to how I feel that day. On weekends it’s a little harder to do with a kitchen full of food at my beck and call, so I fast around 15 or so hours. I’ve lost around 12 pounds in the past month. I’ve noticed increased energy, focus, brainpower, and a greater appreciation for the food on my plate. And every day, I burn a few calories more and inch a little closer to my ideal body weight!

I could still clean up my diet by eating some healthier stuff more consistently during my eating window. While I won’t touch a drive thru, I haven’t been restricting myself at home, and have had snacks of chips and carb heavy dinners fairly frequently, which are less than ideal foods for my body. Oh well, I am perfectly imperfect. I am totally willing to admit that my life is a work in progress.

I’m happy that I’m progressing and that I made it this far. It takes 30 days to make a habit, so it’s day 30 and I’m keeping it up! 

I wanted to mark this habit anniversary by reflecting on a philosophical aspect of intermittent fasting. I recently read Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, and it struck me that there is a Taoist quality to this practice.

In The Book of Tea, Okakura discusses Laotse’s favourite metaphor, the vacuum. The vacuum, or emptiness of space, has a great deal of utility in this context. 

In Laotse’s imagination,

“The reality of a room…was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and the walls themselves. The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made. Vacuum is all potent because all containing. In vacuum alone motion becomes possible.”

(III – Daoism and Zennism, Book of Tea, Okakura).

Wow. Perhaps this allows us to better understand the origins of Marie Kondo’s art of tidying up. For what use is a room if it’s filled up? If it can’t really be used, what good is it?

To me, the image of the water pitcher spoke strongly to the realities of intermittent fasting. A stomach or a digestive system is not too unlike that water pitcher. The stomach needs space to take in and process nutrients. This is not only about avoiding overstuffing oneself to leave the body space to do its work, but also the reality of the stomach needing some space and time to reset itself between digestion. In an overstuffed world, it craves the vacuum where it can work to its true potential. The empty space, Laotse’s vacuum, gives the stomach its much needed rest.

In my case, experiencing the vacuum of intermittent fasting has allowed me to enjoy some of the things that I couldn’t previously. The occasional wheat laden treat. Emphasis on occasional. If it’s too often, my stomach has no rest and my whole body gets angry at me.

How often do we leave empty space in our bodies, in our lives? I know I wasn’t brought up this way. Lack is bad. Others have nothing. Being grateful means eating it all. Finish everything on your plate. All you can eat is the best value for money. 

But I wonder how much of this empty/full rhetoric had more to do with feeling empty inside, and less to do with the body truly lacking what it needed?

Keep the body full of fuel, so you don’t have to experience fear of the vacuum. Lack and starvation, not having enough, has been one of my biggest fears. Based on watching how others behave, I suspect it’s a subconscious underlying fear of many. From a food perspective, I suppose it speaks to a deeper spiritual starvation that paradoxically comes from being overstuffed. Stuffed with abundance.

Abundance is somewhat different in the Western ideation. We think of it somewhat as having it all, but to the Japanese imagination, one masterpiece is greater than a room full of trinkets.

“A collector … forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period… We classify too much and enjoy too little.”

(V – Art Appreciation, The Book of Tea)

This is incredibly apt when it comes to food. I have personally been guilty of being enslaved to the collector mindset. My kitchen and my belly both overstuffed with a strange assortment of foods, with no space left for a single culinary masterpiece. I think this is the essence of what fine dining is about, and why many of us don’t appreciate it. The fear of the vacuum, of the empty, of lack. “There’s not enough food on the plate!” might be the complaint about a nutritionally balanced meal that is exactly the amount merited for human consumption. We are so accustomed to overstuffing ourselves with abundance, we would rather have large portions, and cheaply made food, but what value is there when we trade our health for a cheap facsimile of true abundance?

Tea is like this. 

I believe that there are only three types of teas. Great teas, good teas, and bad teas. Yet, I will not give any of these categories a specific characteristic, and leave them up to the individual’s taste. 

We know when we try something that’s truly great. The feelings that conveys need no explanation. 

I say good because if there is enjoyment, it’s good. If there isn’t then it’s bad. 

I think there are few things in tea that anyone is really neutral towards. Generally neutrality is a moniker for politeness. “It’s alright…” really means, “it’s tolerable, but I would have preferred something different.” So from that individual’s preference, it’s bad. This is what I mean by there is only the existence of bad, good, and great.

A great tea may also cost a great deal, or it may not. Let’s say it does. Let’s say you drink tea every day, but you only drink cheap teas that are “just alright”. This way your cup overflows with an abundance of tea bags, daily. You tolerate them, but obscure their aroma with cream, their bitterness with sugar. Every day you have an average or sub-par tea experience. Fine. But you are paying for that experience financially and in health. Your subpar tea may not have the benefits of a good cup, particularly if it’s laced with white death (sugar).

If money prevented you from buying enjoyable tea, what if you saved aside that money and stopped purchasing bad experiences? What if, less frequently, you purchased a good tea, or even a great tea instead?

You would taste a masterpiece, and experience what tea truly can be.

I use tea as an example because, well, this is Tea Crazed, and because this whole diatribe was sparked by The Book of Tea. But really, this applies to all aspects of life. 

Quality over quantity.

Intermittent fasting has taught me the wisdom of this maxim in a world where we’re taught to consume unceasingly.

It applies to everything.

But let’s keep it to food for the moment.

What if you could have the best potato chips, an amazing crunch, explosion of flavour, just perfection, but they were more expensive, so you couldn’t pick up chips every grocery trip. What would be the result?

Probably a boon to your health from consuming less. Probably a boon to the environment from creating less disposable waste.

I’ve come to realize that our Western culture has this curious ingrained notion that our bodies should be treated like garbage dumps where we unload cheap abundance. We consume too much, physically and materially.

When your body’s systems are not overflowing with excess, but can enjoy a sensation of emptiness, they can self-sustain and self-regulate. With the presence of a vacuum you can learn to truly enjoy the masterpieces of the culinary world. 

There’s also something in Laotse’s ideals about growth. “In vacuum alone, motion becomes possible.” To me, this speaks to the value of meditation and stepping back in order to move forward, but also to physical improvement of the body. Through vacuum, whether as a regular practice or occasional reset, we allow the body to repair itself to move forward.

I mean this all, rather tongue in cheek, as food for thought.

We’ll finish with a beautiful sentiment which has less to do with fasting and more to do with life: 

“One who can make himself a vacuum into which others can freely enter would become master of all situations.”

Truly, that is a role of the tea master.