Broken Teacups

Some years ago I spent six weeks in rural Japan, learning about the culture and getting stuck into the life of the community – or as stuck as one can get in just six weeks with little of the language and clearly looking like a foreigner. One of the things that fascinated me (and most other Westerners who visit this amazing country) is the attention given to detail in the all-important tea ceremonies. These ceremonies are practiced by the ‘traditional’ folk in the communities – perhaps older people, or people who are passionate about their roots and heritage. It goes something like this.

The participants kneel in a circle on the floor of a ‘tatami room’ – a traditional room with a bamboo floor, often with a sort of large pot below the floor in the middle of the room in which tea is brewed. There is at least one tatami room in most Japanese houses, in which no slippers are worn and no chairs are used; and some houses are fully decorated in this way, often with Fuji-themed artwork on the walls. The tea ceremony is conducted in silence, and begins with the host stirring the thick green tea and ladling some into a small bowl. The host, who is kneeling in the centre of the circle, then passes the bowl, cupped in both hands, to somebody in the circle. That person takes it in both hands with arms outstretched, and both giver and receiver of the bowl bow to one another. The receiver then bows to the person on their right, as if either offering that person the tea or apologising for drinking tea while that person has none – and that person bows back, indicating that the one with the tea should drink from it and enjoy it. The same happens with the person on their left.

The person with the tea once again bows to the host as an act of thanksgiving for the tea, and when the host has returned the bow as a gracious encouragement to drink from the bowl, the holder of the bowl raises it above his or her head and closely examines the bowl from all angles, carefully so as not to spill the tea. After doing so for some time the holder of the tea bows yet again to the host, to express pleasure at their taste in crockery, and the host bows back in thanks for the compliment. Finally, after all this, the person takes a sip of tea, and savours it for a few moments. Then, the holder of the tea bows again to the host in thanks for the tea (who returns the bow), and then to the person on his or her right (who returns the bow), and to the person on his or her left (who returns the bow), as if thanking them both for their patience. The person with the tea then with arms outstretched passes the bowl to the person on their left, who bows in thanks (and the bow is returned) – then bows to the host (ditto) – and the process is repeated. The bowl of tea is passed thus around the circle in a clockwise direction, very slowly and interspersed with many bows, until eventually the one who first drank the tea is once again in possession of the bowl and passes it back to the host, who tops it up with hot tea from the pot and begins the whole process a second time.

What struck me the most about all this when we learnt and practiced it in Japan was not so much the bowing – as by this point we were used to bowing to everyone, all around us, at all times of day, to express all things (thankfulness, respect, apology, offering something…) – but the examination of the bowl from which tea is drunk. Why do we need to examine the crockery? What is so important about the bowl from which tea is shared, that it needs to be looked at with such careful consideration, and that each person must bow to the host in appreciation of their taste in crockery…?!

This puzzled me a little during the ceremony, but I dismissed it as another quirky part of their culture, and didn’t seek an answer to it. It wasn’t until some time later that I found out about an old Japanese tradition in which crockery is preserved and honoured not despite but because of its faults and flaws and cracks. Traditionally among wealthy families, when a nice piece of crockery is broken it is not thrown away but the broken pieces are sealed back together with gold. The crack is clearly visible, not hidden – it is highlighted, attention is drawn to it by the gold, and it is considered a valuable part of the story and personality of that piece of crockery. This means that not all pieces of crockery will match; they all look different – and this is celebrated. The brokenness is celebrated, as a real and important part of the history of the object and a key part of what makes it beautiful.

When I learnt this I thought back to the tea ceremonies and the amount of time spent admiring the bowl from which the tea is drunk – more time is spent doing this than actually drinking tea in such ceremonies! Here in the UK we value our cups and saucers and plates for the way they can serve us – for what they contain, or what they do. In this tea ceremony we were learning to appreciate the object for its history, its own beauty, its personality – not just for the fact that it holds the tea for us to drink.

I’ve been thinking about that this week in terms of the way we see one another as people, and the way we think about the problems and struggles and brokenness within ourselves and within the people around us. Why do we hide our difficulties? Why are we often so keen to cover up our brokenness or try to pretend that we were never hurt? For fear of being judged for it? Because everyone else is doing so? Because we don’t want to be pitied? Similar thoughts have been expressed as a result of the recent #metoo movement – people began to talk openly and publicly, some potentially even for the first time, about abuse that they faced in the past; about deep pain and brokenness and shame; about hurt that is covered up, that people usually feel very uncomfortable discussing. It was so powerful, and really made people stop and think about the extent and impact of the suffering that has taken place in the lives of so many – and the impact of its silence, too. It started so many conversations between friends and family members and neighbours, which brought community closer together as people began to be vulnerable with one another and open up about hidden pain that had impacted and shaped them privately for years.

What would happen, I wonder, if we were to turn our attitude to brokenness on its head, and start to see our struggles and our past and present difficulties as something that accentuates our beauty and makes us who we are. If we start to notice the values that have built up in one another even as a result of suffering, and acknowledge those strengths. If we started to see our differences as assets, not problems. If we started recognising and consciously acknowledging the wonder of each other’s strengths, and the value of each other’s brokenness in making us all unique. If we started to admit to bring broken people, all of us in our diverse ways and from our diverse experiences, and stand together in appreciation of one another as unique and whole beings.

The Community Building work at the Barnwood Trust was born out of the words of people who had for so long been branded as ‘service users’, ‘grant recipients’, ‘disabled people’ crying out in one voice, “I want to be known for the contribution I can make to society – not for the label I’ve been given”. For years since, the Trust has been going through this huge thinking and learning process of what it might take to begin to undo the cultural understanding of ‘disability’, and how to help communities recognise and value the gifts and skills of all residents rather than knowing people for their perceived limitations, whatever those may be. Perhaps there is something we can learn from traditional Japanese customs. Perhaps there are ways that we can start to appreciate the ‘bowl’ of one another’s lives, including their obvious cracks and signs of brokenness, seeing not only their usefulness but acknowledging the intricate beauty of the complex stories and struggles that in part make up who we are. May we learn how to see one another as whole beings, willing to be vulnerable about our brokenness and to listen in wonder at one another’s learning in the varied journeys that we walk.

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I have just read your inspiring post on You're Welcome. It is so true that people's life experiences and vulnerabilities are often what draws us together as a community. Maybe the draw back to vintage tea parties is the slowness and simple beauty of the occasion when people make time to hear each others' news/stories? It is heart warming to chat about particular crockery handed down from your family. I love using items from my parents or grandparents.

Fiona Community... replied 2 weeks ago

So beautiful - thank you!

Katie Elliott replied 2 weeks ago

very moving reflection Kat. Thank you taking the time to share your thoughts.

Richard Holmes replied 3 weeks ago

How beautifully put Kat, thank you so much for sharing, yes, let's see our vulnerability as strength.

Maureen replied 3 weeks ago

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