Tea Leaves

Daddy, fix it!

How often I hear these words from my four small boys! Something...somewhere...always needs fixing. Many things in our world need fixing. Our countries, neighborhoods, homes, bodies, and hearts all break.1

I will always carry around the pain and suffering of the people I worked with after the 2011 Great Japan Earthquake. One woman told me (I never did find out her name) how she lost her whole family in the tsunami, including all three of her children, ages 8, 10, and 13, as they came home from school. “I’m so sorry,” I mumbled weakly. Why did she lose her family while mine lived? It all seemed so arbitrary.

How do we respond to brokenness in this world? Fighting, bombing, the refugee crisis in Europe, mass shootings, terrorism...Day after day, we see and hear of new atrocities. After making my way from an underground subway halted by the earthquake in downtown Tokyo on March 11, 2011, I joined the masses standing in the street. Hundreds of screens and signs played the horific scene. Town after town was being wiped away before our eyes by a tsunami striking the northern coast of Japan.

Can a wounded and violent world truly be ‘fixed’? Is there such a thing as a path to healing and peace?

I believe Japanese art quietly whispers of a way forward.

Shotoku Taishi (574-622 AD)—the famous leader who first called Japan the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’—wrote, “Sickness is saved by sickness.”2 Another way of putting this says, ‘brokenness is saved by brokenness’ or ‘a wound is healed by a wound’. From ancient to modern Japan, we find the idea that the path to healing and redemption leads not around suffering, but right through the middle of it.

I think of redemptive brokenness shown in the art of kintsugi pottery, where veins of gold mend a broken bowl into something far more valuable than the original object. I think of nihonga painting, where the act of crushing minerals into powder brings out the shimmering and brilliance of the colors. I think of Japanese folk songs like Sakura Sakura (“Cherry Blossoms”), Kojo no Tsuki (“Moon Over the Ruined Castle”), and Toryanse (“The Crossing”), where inherent dissonance in the Japanese mode communicates a melancholic beauty that moves people to tears.3

Beauty in brokenness is an intrinsic characteristic of Japanese poetry, literature, flower arranging, sumie drawing, rock gardens, and others. We recognize this aesthetic throughout nature—in the wilting of a flower, the shimmering of a fragile dewdrop, the melting of a snowflake, and the fall of a cherry blossom.

However, it is in the art of tea, the art most associated with the aesthetic of Japan, that I find the fullest expression of brokenness, beauty, and healing.

Tea. Why tea?

When I first moved to Japan, I did not understand why there were so many kinds of tea: green tea, black tea, barley tea, oolong tea, jasmine tea, powdered matcha tea, roasted hojicha tea, herbal tea, milk tea, and so many others. The Japanese word for absurd, mucha, literally means, ‘without tea.’ It’s as if to say, “A day without tea? Don’t be absurd!” The word for the color brown is chairo—‘tea-colored.’ No other beverage gets this honor!

I grew up near Boston, Massachusetts, famous for the Boston Tea Party of 1773. An entire shipment of tea was destroyed in Boston Harbor to prevent the payment of British taxes. This symbolic act galvanized colonists into action, escalating into the American Revolution and eventually independence. Residents of my hometown of Lexington burned every leaf of tea in their cupboards on the Lexington Battle Green to show their support and fighting erupted there with British troops less than two years later. Tea culture in Boston never recovered, and coffee became the preferred drink of the United States.4

I did not learn about the mystery of tea until I moved to Japan. So simple, hot water and broken leaf, yet so profound! For the aroma and flavor of tea to come out, the leaf must be ‘broken’. The ‘broken leaf’ of tea reveals a mysterious relationship between brokenness and beauty.

In its origins, tea was a medicine. Even today, people drink tea (not coffee!) when not feeling well. In the late 1500s, Sen no Rikyu perfected the Japanese art of tea, developing the symbolism in the tea ceremony to emphasize brokenness in man and this world. He presented it as a way to heal in community through the gathering of a few in the small confines of a tea cottage.

I saw an exhibit of Rikyu’s tea utensils at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park. There was a hand-molded black Raku tea bowl, a bamboo flower vase to hold cut ‘broken’ flowers, and a large jug to hold water for the kettle.5 All the utensils were rough and unevenly shaped to reflect the tangible brokenness we find in nature.

Raku is characteristically formed by hand, not with a spinning wheel, giving pieces their characteristic rough and uneven shapes. They are then fired in straw, which leaves burn marks, and cooled quickly, which leads to cracking and unpredictable colors in the glaze.

The water jug had a huge vertical crack down the side, not from 400 years of age, but rather through a natural process of drying the clay. Only careful glazing prevented the jug from leaking water.

Rikyu’s message was clear. Brokenness itself is important. Broken utensils symbolize and acknowledge our weakness, and Rikyu proposed that this was the necessary step towards healing and peace.

Rikyu lived during the Sengoku Period, one of the most tumultuous times in Japanese history. Military leaders fought for power and wealth. Rikyu’s art was, in part, a response to the ‘boiling water’ of violence in the world around him. Eventually, he was cruelly subjected to the very violence he worked so hard to end. At the age of seventy, Rikyu was ordered by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) in his tea room of healing and peace.6

Rikyu reminds me of another man who lived during a time of civil unrest, Martin Luther King, Jr., because he died in Memphis, Tennessee, another city I call home. Martin Luther King, Jr. receives incredible respect in Japan. In the twentieth century, the United States was being torn apart by racial injustice. New technology in farming caused a sudden loss in jobs and a large influx of African Americans into cities throughout the deep South and along the Mississippi River. Racial segregation and discrimination destroyed many lives and communities.

Civil rights leaders sought nonviolent solutions but instead became the targets of tear gas, whips, clubs, attack dogs, high-pressure fire hoses, incarceration, and death threats. King himself was subjected to violence throughout his life, ultimately culminating in his murder.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot in the face by a high-powered rifle at long distance.7 The bullet ripped through his cheek, jaw, and several vertebrae before lodging in his shoulder. King’s message of nonviolence made him a target for violence.

The night before he died, King implored the nation to seek healing through the path of self-sacrifice. His famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech ends with these words:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”8

Dr. King uses the language of self-sacrifice to talk about “the glory...of the Lord.” This Lord is the same one who said, “My body is broken for you” and “My blood is poured out for you.” This is Jesus Christ, the Lord of the cross. The glory of the Lord exists through brokenness.

“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

The way of brokenness is the way of the cross. The scalding violence of the world is answered with the scalding violence of the cross. A broken world is healed by a broken Christ on a broken tree. The broken tea leaves that bring healing point to Jesus, who must be broken for the world to be filled with  the aroma and flavor of the gospel.

My wife and I named our second son Eastin Athelas, which means ‘healing in the East’. The name Athelas is taken from J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings:

When the Black Breath blows 
And death’s shadow grows 
And all lights pass, 
Come athelas! Come athelas! 
Life to the dying 
In the king’s hand lying!9

In the hands of the King, the brokenness of the athelas leaf leads to healing, not disintegration. In the hands of the King, brokenness leads to unforeseen hope and redemption.

The Book of Revelation tells of just such a leaf in heaven.

“On each side of the river stood the tree of life...and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.” (Revelation 22:2-3)

What kind of tree is this? Is it perhaps a tea tree? Is it possible that we can make tea from the leaves of the tree of life in heaven? What would it taste like? What kind of aroma, and flavor, and color comes from these broken leaves, forever reminding us of the great sacrifice of Jesus?

There is deep truth in the broken leaf of hot tea. I invite you to ponder and wonder about this as you enjoy your next cup!


1    The Japanese language is particularly attuned to the language of brokenness, including the aesthetics of mono no aware and wabi sabi, which have no English equivalent. The word ‘broken’ has a lot of equivalent Japanese words, but usually use the word kudakareta to talk about this concept.
2    Kitamori, Kazoh. Theology of the Pain of God. (?:?, ?) ?. Kitamori quotes Taishi Shotoku’s classic An Interpretation of the Yuimakyo, which elaborates on the story of a Buddhist priest who makes himself sick in order to help people see their own sickness and need to be healed.
3     The Japanese IN scale, foundational for most Japanese folk songs, is made from two fourths at the most dissonant interval possible, a half-step apart. 
4    In some ways, patriotism in America continues to be linked to coffee, not tea. The ‘Tea Party Movement’ was formed in the Republican Party as a patriotic political stance.
5    Each of these objects has a name. The tea bowl is called Amadera. The bamboo vase is Onjoji. The large cracked water jug is known as Shiba no Iori.
6    Some commentators suggest that the poem Rikyu wrote just before his death speaks of the path of self-sacrifice leading to healing and peace.
7    Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, where the National Civil Rights Museum now stands. My wife and I lived in Memphis before moving to Japan and had many opportunities to visit this site with friends from out of town. Interestingly, Martin Luther King, Jr. was scheduled to come to Memphis a week earlier but was prevented from doing so by an enormous snowstorm. Seventeen inches fell in one day in an area that can go years without seeing a single snowflake! The storm made national news, and even now, people remember and talk about it. More snow fell after the assassination, protecting the city from being torn apart by riots.
8    Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee, April 3, 1968
9    Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. Chapter 8: “The Houses of Healing”