Tale of a tea bowl

IT was another rainy day in Tokyo. For me, a tourist, that meant postponing - again - a day trip to Mt. Fuji and its celebrated views. I was disappointed, but gathered my rain gear and went out to explore more of Tokyo instead. Soon I was ducking the rain on the Ginza, Tokyo's Madison Avenue, jostled by a sea of bristling umbrellas. Without quite knowing why, I suddenly found myself staring into a very posh gallery window, as elegant and chic as many I had already passed, but this time I was transfixed. Despite the waves of umbrellas breaking dangerously on either side, I stopped short to gaze at a tea bowl displayed by itself under a single track light.

Only about four inches high and the same diameter, this tiny tea bowl had a creamy white glaze with an intricately pitted surface - like baked meringue just starting to separate. The glaze showed traces of rusty brown here and there, perhaps from some impurities in the glazing compound, giving the impression that it had started to turn golden-brown in the oven. Yet these irregularities, like a birthmark on a beautiful face, seemed to enhance the bowl's exquisite features all the more by setting them off. I was drawn inside.

As I stood looking down on the object, occasionally shifting my stance to view it from a different perspective, the tea bowl assumed the changeable character of a landscape. From the side its profile resembled an old mountain: fissured by rivers long dry; experienced; rounded by time.

It was the skin of the bowl, though, that seen through slightly squinted, unfocused eyes, suggested unlimited changing scenes, one dissolving into the next: First it was the brittle surface of polar ice with spots of tundra peeking through. That image melted into an expanse of scorched desert dunes, then washed into a froth of ocean foam on soaked sand, then solidified as the cool, uneven surface of the moon. Then for a moment the glaze took on the soft sheen of an antelope hide, white and porous. Looking directly down into the pool of the bowl, I stared for an instant into the mouth of an ancient cave where humankind's earliest dramas were played out.

THESE images flowed one from another for several seconds in a sort of meditation, with no thought to the human endeavor that had created them. Finally I stepped back, seeing the clay teacup as itself once more, stark and humble under the track light. How did the artist infuse such life, so much of the world into a small, inanimate object?

Later, back in my hotel, I stopped in the bookstore to buy some postcards. A pocket guide called ``Japanese Ceramics,'' with its pretty cover design of a red, blue, and white Imari plate, caught my eye. Reading it in my room as the rain coursed down the windowpane, I found this passage under the heading ``Transient Beauty'':

``Ceramics are fired at a high temperature, and when they are fired they pass through the singular process of having destroyed in a moment the time they had hitherto experienced and the history they had received in that period. ... The transformation by heat which goes beyond artificial creative intent is heavy with the Far Eastern resignation that `nothing can be done,' and it is in this changing of the form ... that the philosophy of quiet taste and weathered simplicity may be born.''

And so it was. The tea bowl in the gallery had once been soft, nubile clay, transformed by ravaging fires to emerge hardened, experienced, with a more mature softness and a worldly beauty. A new integrity shown through the small scars and impurities rendered in the kiln, that of a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Achieved intentionally, but not achievable through intent alone - this was the secret that had melded spirit and object. Enriched by such a spirit, any object, no matter how small, could become grand.

How far removed from our modern Western notions that divorce function from beauty, allowing us to choose plastic over ceramics, fast-food over food that pleases the eye and the palate. In a culture of disposable objects, it is no wonder we have created special repositories for art and relegate spiritual life to houses of worship.

AS we segregate ourselves further and further from the spirit which infuses the object, it becomes easier to glory in the large, powerful world we shape through our own intent, completely ignoring influences beyond our control - a fluke of physics, a whim of nature, the caprice of a spirit larger than our own. Our reality is reduced to that which we create and control. All else - aesthetics, emotion, faith - belongs to a realm of dreams and dreamers, too unpredictable to be ``of use'' in a practical world.

All this went through my mind as I watched the gray waves tossing in Tokyo Bay through the window of my hotel room. And I took heart that on the rainy Ginza my own Western sensibility had been suddenly brought up short, called to notice that the power and beauty of the world can be contained in a teacup.

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