One cannot muse on this hanging vase without first understanding Sen Rikyū’s legacy in the way of tea. While practices in Chanoyu (way of tea) have branched into various schools and philosophies since the time of Rikyū, his name looms large over the practice of tea. By recognizing his essential concept of “Wabi”, demonstrated so perfectly by this vase, one can begin to understand how Rikyū’s taste in quiet subtlety established his mythic place amongst the legacy of tea.
When asked his thoughts on preparing a tea garden, Rikyū quoted a poem by Jien (1151-1225), a Tendai sect monk of the Kamakura period. The poem reads, “The leaves of the oak have fallen without turning red, the loneliness of a path deep in the mountains leading to a temple.” An other world is suggested by the atmosphere of this poem, one that is sparing and deep, marked by solitude. One imagines walking for a long while through the winding path to Rikyū’s ideal mountain teahouse, approachable only after a journey that provokes contemplation.
Another anecdote, this one from Rikyū’s great grandson, Koshin Sosa, considers Rikyū’s preference for the works that would constitute the interior of such a teahouse upon entrance. Rikyū always hung a Korai (Korean) cylindrical flower container on the pillar of the tokonoma (alcove) in the four-and-a-half mat room. Of this item, Rikyū said, “If I have this cylindrical flower container, the Hachihiraki black Raku Tea Bowl, and a bokusaki (zen calligraphic work), I will not be lonely, even if I am living in the mountains.” Here again, Rikyū mentions the solitude of tea. Yet he takes care to differentiate its sense of seclusion from loneliness, instead suggesting the richness of the company of objects. Beauty, of objects, but also of place and atmosphere, not only pleases the eye but fills the spirit, the heart. This is the meaning of Riktyū’s “wabi”, key to understanding his philosophy of tea.
The lacquered bamboo hanging vase is an excellent example of a work that has the elegance of Wabi. It is made out of one section between two bamboo joints of Moso bamboo, (Phyllostachys Pubescens). After a certain section was carefully chosen, the section was cut, and went through many processes to prevent splitting, growing mold, leaking, and so forth. After a hanging thread made of a bladed split bamboo trunk was secured to the vases’ body, it was coated in a lacquer of the darkest espresso color.
To most viewers in the western world, it might appear as an unattractive, old black container with a hanging thread. However, for the viewers who understand the beauty of works created in and after abstract expressionism and minimalism, it is a grand object. It was not created by an artist but by a master craftsperson, who instilled minute calculations of balance into the slight tilt of the bottom, the subtlest curve at the mouth of the vase, and the perfect length of the bamboo thread to hang slightly tipping forward, anticipating the gesture of a few wildflowers bending as they do in the field. The calculation is not, however, something that this craftsman learned from a book. It was something he learned from first assisting his mentor, a master craftsperson, and then from his long experience in making. They had a saying “ steal with your eyes and learn with your body.” One's own creative vocabulary only comes after they conquer the craft thoroughly. Furthermore, the “creation” can be extremely subtle, because viewers, especially knowing connoisseurs, have been honing their eye with an equal appetite and energy to detect the craftsman’s every subtle manipulation of craft and form.