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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

36 Cups of Tea Ceremony

Here I explain my ongoing potlatch (Note 1), and the thought process behind giving away 36 wood-fired tea-bowls.


First, why have I chosen 36 as a number?

The mathematics and numerology of 36 are beautiful. 36 is a perfect square, 6 x 6 = 36. It's also a triangular number, meaning a flat dense triangle of nestled balls may be assembled. Other triangular numbers are 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28.,

36 is also semi-perfect. A semi-perfect number may be expressed as the sum of all it's proper divisors. For instance, 6 is also semi-perfect, because the divisors of 6, or 1, 2, and 3 may be added together to get 6.

Perfect squares in Vedic India, helped with poetic meter and structure of verses. Tantra, a branch of Buddhism, utilizes perfect squares for memorization and meditation.

So I'm giving away pots, but surely not because of mathematics! How do I give this act some structure? How do I make a work, out of the giving of the work? This is the essence of tantra and leads to the heart of metaphor.

As wood-firings go this was a 'good' firing, meaning the fire produced a balance of glazes and colors, a healthy amount of ash deposition, and good reduction of the clay body Thirty-six interesting bowls. Some four or five others became seconds, or will be broken into shards. When you fire with wood you accept a high loss rate. It's expensive. Prices in this country for pottery simply don't support the true costs of making wood-fired pots.

I decided then to use the bowls as a way to give structure to my tantric and numerological researches, and as a structure for memory.

Now I size every firing down to a perfect square. From a another recent firing of 99 Cups I selected the 81 that are best.

9 x 9 = 81. It's easy, to remember. Nine rows of nine.

Once I began to order my work in this way I began noticing a new process of gifting.

Friends and family responded to certain cups and said, "I want that one!" It's hard to deal with that in any other way than giving it away. So, out of the 36, some of these vessels have already been gifted. One is very flawed, and has a damaged foot. But my daughter likes it and uses it. You'll have a chance to see that one too.

Back to the giveaway. The potlach. Why?

No potter charges fairly for their work in this modern day. Not in this country. If I priced my work according to the toil and money that goes into it, no one would buy anything. While there are some potters who make a living, only a very few make a good living. Most are way underpaid.

So if you don't do a thing for money, then you must be doing it for love, and if you do it for love it has to be free.

I certainly didn't want my recipients comparing one bowl with another. I devised a way for someone to chose a bowl online. Interested parties either chose the bowl available that day or not at all. Unchosen bowls were given to those who contacted me later, asking "Are any left". I let them choose a number. The number they chose became the bowl they received.

Each of the bowls has a small couplet or rhyme associated with it, and a name. For instance Tea-bowl for Natsuko, #1 of 36, is entitled 'View of Mt. Fuji', the rhyme is as follows:

     "Fuji's ire for Natsuko drawn, 
       A tea-bowl fire dripped upon."

Later I combined each of the rhymes for each of the 36 bowls into a poem. Here are the first two stanzas, representing couplets for bowls one through four:

    "Fuji's ire for Natsuko drawn, 
     This tea-bowl the fire has dripped upon.
     What's got fire, land, and sea?
     With soul, not ire, it stands for me.

     Watered Shino, tinged and rosy,
     To daughter Maya, a gift with poesy.
     Why so pleasant drinking tea -
     A great life lesson, simplicity."

I thought - I'll use the tea ceremony as a device. I'll deliver each tea-bowl in person. I'll journey, slowly across America, across the world, to finish the project. I'll be led into strange cities, unfamiliar countries. To date I'm approximately half-way through my deliveries. It's expensive crossing the country with a lot of fragile pots. And so the 36 tea-bowls have led me on a journey.

This version of chanoyu is not the same as the Japanese traditional wabi-cha ritual. But it's the same in spirit. The 16th Century tea master Sen no Rikyū said:

        "Chanoyu is nothing but
         Boiling water,
         And making tea [for friends].
         This is the only rule
         You should know."

There's a rather stern portrait of Sen no Rikyū, founder of the Japanese tea ceremony. It's useful to think of Rikyū not as the creator of an arcane ritual, performed by very few Japanese in this modern world, but rather as the father of modern Japanese culture, the creator of the Japanese aesthetic.

That which is Japanese could not have been the same without this man. He uncluttered Japan, rid it of foreign baggage accumulated over the centuries. And he accomplished that by making cups of tea for friends. He is, without a doubt is one of the greatest performance artists. Stories about him are legion.

My tea ceremonies are unceremonious. I ask my friend-recipient to chose a place. I encourage the out of doors, somewhere near where they live. Ideally it's the kind of place they wish they would go more often but don't. I bring tea in a flask. Sometimes I also bring Chaga, which is a drink made from a polypore fungus and is very good for the health, and thus is like tea in character.

At other times I serve the tea indoors.

We pour out the tea or Chaga, and we drink it. We talk. Here's a picture taken of Tashira Lebrun, who received Tea-bowl #27 one cloudy day in March 2013, at the edge of the Canadian Falls, in Niagara NY.

After our tea, I clean the bowl and give it to my co-participant. The new bowl belongs to that person. I dedicate it with a piece of writing about our encounter.

The only reason to make art is to reinforce a framework of real relationships.

The History of Art is the history of social movements, not collections of stuff.

Pottery is useless unless used. This is the reason that most 'art pottery' today is not art, nor can ever be.

The depersonalization caused by the internet may be repaired by using the new mediums in a different way.

The web's primary function is to establish and deepen relationships. 

Exhibitions of art must be recognized as an exhibitions of symbols, a tantric matrix of human relationships. not as the display of objects outside of human context. Selling art to the highest bidder destroys this.

Giving is the essence of creation.

Objects gain life through ritual expression of a relationship.


1) The potlatch,a Native-American ceremony of gift giving, is illegal in the United States.

Links to the 36 Teabowls:

  123,  4,  5,  6


What shall I do with this more recent firing of 81 bowls?

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