Traces of the potter’s hand can be seen at the uncoated bottom of a kintsugi tea bowl. A few light blotches on its surface stain its dark, rustic-looking tortoise-shell glaze.
“The cup’s natural colors speak of the spaces where Zen Buddhists practiced,” says Reverend Inryū Bobbi Poncé-Barger, a priest for the All Beings Zen Sangha in Washington, D.C. “In those days, the monasteries were often out in the mountains, or near rivers, so the colors used were natural brown hues.”
Made in the early 16th century, the style of the Japanese ceramic drew on inspiration and traditions from China. Yet, like many of the arts and crafts created in medieval Japan, the tea bowl carries its own significance. The vessel is one of the many artifacts and artworks displayed in the exhibition, “Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan,” currently on view at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art of the National Museum of Asian Art. Showcasing rare works from China and Japan, the show illustrates the world and power of medieval Zen and how the tradition evolved and acquired different meanings globally. “Zen is a religion that is firmly rooted in the past, but deeply responsive to the present,” says the museum’s director Chase F. Robinson, in a statement. “How Zen monks expressed their religiosity and politics can teach us lessons about ourselves and our own time.”
Throughout the years, wares and art in Japan were infused with cultural perceptions of beauty. On one edge of the tea bowl, a Japanese lacquer known as urushi and decorated with a motif of gilded cherry blossoms was probably used to restore a chip in the vessel. On the opposite side, cracks were fixed using urushi dusted with powdered gold in a technique known as kintsugi. In addition to the functional, this repair method alludes to the Zen philosophy of embracing imperfections.
The gold repairs, says Rev. Inryū, serve as a reminder of the fragility of all things. “Anything that is of this world is going to eventually disassemble or break,” she says. “And this is one of the underlying things that we work with in Zen practice, the fact that nothing is permanent. But having said that, it makes one perhaps value one's own life and existence more, and work to preserve and take care of all life.”
“The fact that at some point the tea bowl was broken and mended using kintsugi tells you a lot about how valued it was over time,” says museum curator Frank Feltens. “People would not go through the trouble of elaborately repairing something if it doesn’t have any emotional or material value to them.”
The practice of drinking the type of tea popularly known today as “matcha” arrived in Japan with the Zen movement around the 12th century. The tea was served in Zen monasteries to help maintain concentration during meditation and to bolster the acolytes for their laborious work. According to Feltens, a tea bowl is an “object that has a life of its own,” and that continues to gain new meanings as it goes through the hands of different people. “Tea is an art of collecting,” he says. “Not just of practicing tea, but of collecting and imbuing them with cultural meaning.” Although the name of this teacup is unknown, Feltens says that most of the tea objects in medieval Japan received names by their owners. “The life of this bowl would be extended far beyond the owner’s lifetime. The decision to repair it reflects that the owner wanted this cup to live on.”
The term Zen originally comes from the word dhyana, meaning meditation in Sanskrit. A school of East Asian Buddhism, its roots are traced to India but it was formalized in China, where it is known as Chan. Around the 12th century, the tradition was transmitted to Japan, where practitioners learned the religious practices as well as philosophy, calligraphy and ink painting. Considered one of the world’s major religions, according to the Pew Research Center, about 488 million Buddhists practice the religion around the world, with half in China. In the U.S., the religion is practiced by about about one percent of the population. The show is the first in the museum’s five-year initiative, “The Arts of Devotion” to further an understanding of the world’s religions.
Accompanying the exhibition is the online interactive, Voices of Zen, featuring a host of contributors who offer perspective on three important Japanese works in the show. Participants include Washington, D.C. high school students, the award-winning koto musician Yumi Kurosawa, Reverend Inryū and curator Feltens. Their narratives reflect the notion of ever-changing Zen and its presence in our contemporary lives.
“I really try to encourage people to interact with the pieces, to explore the different layers of history and time that are embedded in the works,” Feltens says.
Other works invite the viewers to reflect and look beyond the objects’ beauty. One of them, which consists of a landscape painting by late 15th-century to early16th-century artist Josui Sōen, displays a composition that was built around an abstract accidental mark. “Just like with the tea bowl, it wasn’t made just to look at,” Feltens says.
To Feltens, the artifacts also invite communication across time and place, encouraging the viewer to engage with a creator who lived hundreds of years ago. “The painter is having a conversation with the viewer by combining the bare minimum suggestion of a landscape and leaving the reader to make it coherent.”
Reverend Inryū says that when looking at the scenery, one is immediately drawn to the different shades of gray used to create the image. “The movement and energy of the brush is something that brings you in,” she says. “It is quite inviting because it allows you to ask a lot of questions.”
A 15th-century piece titled Bo Juyi questions Zen Master Bird’s Nest by Zen monk Ikkyū Sōjun, is inscribed with kanji, or old calligraphy. “The fact that the symbols are somewhat outside of a lot of people's normal realm forces them to settle, to look more closely and give it time, which is one of the aspects of meditation and mindfulness meditation,” Reverend Inryū says. “So, you are connecting with the practitioner, who, as a Zen Buddhist, would have done a lot of seated meditation and would have been very disciplined in their use of time, space and materials.”
Feltens says that the gallery’s quiet atmosphere is essential, especially as we emerge from two challenging years. “It’s nice for us to offer an oasis from the stress of the pandemic and daily life,” he says.
“Silence is important, and one may think about it as not just people non-speaking, but the opportunity for people to hear,” Reverend Inryū says. “In Zen Buddhism, we keep our eyes open when we meditate. The idea is to be completely awakened to everything that's happening. By being quiet ourselves, a chance to really see the shadows of light changing as the day progresses in the room, or to be aware of the other people who are around you, emerges. We have to spend some time with ourselves and with the world to really know it.”
Although the exhibition focuses on medieval Japan, Feltens says that the show’s images are endowed with lessons for our own time. “I would like visitors to pause, and not just rush from one piece to the next, but rather pick a few works that speak to you and spend time with them. Try to engage as fully as possible with the works that draw you in, as there are interesting discoveries, about ourselves and the world, to be made.”
To Reverend Inryū, spending time with each piece at the exhibition could allow viewers to “practice” Buddhism. “It’s kind of cultivating that capacity to just be with whatever that is, the teacup, the beautiful landscape, to be with it.” Reverend Inryū says that in doing so, when visitors leave the show and go into the garden beside the museum, they might experience something there, such as a flower’s bloom or fragrance, with more awareness. To her, this kind of pause could make things “a little bit more peaceful” and the quality of our conversations “a little more sympathetic or kind.”
“If people could pick up a little bit of that from this exhibit, that would be a wonderful thing for the world.”
“Mind Over Matter: Zen in Medieval Japan” is on view at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art at the National Museum of Asian Art through July 24.