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  • Johannes Scott

RAKU – and the object of desire

Johannes Scott – May 2021

The raku tea bowl was founded as subliminal object for the Zen tea cult by the 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyū.

As if shaped by molten rock and licked by flame, it is this primordial trace of RAKU that serves as both remainder and reminder of our desire for the psychical Real.

Psychoanalytic relevance comes into play in the meditative ritual of the raku practice and its signifying chain of interpretations, from feudal to contemporary communities, providing participants such as the Zen tea cult or Californian pyromaniacs with psychical well-being.

My brief genealogical exploration of raku is framed by Lacanian psychoanalysis and with reference to the potter Bernard Leach, who first brought raku from Japan to the West, and director Kei Kumai’s 1989 film Death of a Tea Master, a biographical drama based on the life of Sen no Rikyū and awarded the Silver Lion at the 43rd Venice International Film Festival.

Section one looks at the signifier RAKU with reference to the Korean potter who brought the technology to feudal Japan. Section two explores the Zen tea master’s appropriation of raku for the fantasy setting of the cult. The section on desire shows the working of fantasy in meditation and ritual. Section four recalls Leach’s inauguration to the raku ceremony and the last section explores symbolic lack as cause for desire, with reference to the film stars of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.


In the linage of Zen tea masters, Rikyū is considered by Japanese historians the most significant because he reformed the ancient tea culture into a form of art. Rikyū aestheticized the tea cult during his appointment as tea master to the court of samurai emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

As a result of invasions into Korea by Hideyoshi, many Korean potters were assimilated into Japanese culture, bringing with them sought-after ceramic technology to imperial Japan. One such a Korean potter was Tanaka Chōjirō, who introduced a rapid, low-temperature firing technique used for producing ridge tiles. In 1584, Hideyoshi awarded Chōjirō a gold seal inscribed with the insignia 楽, translated as RAKU and meaning felicity.

Rikyū recognised both the production and aesthetic potential raku has for his reinvented tea ceremony, and in collaboration with Chōjirō, produced individual tea bowls by hand. Using the simple pinching technique of rotating a ball of clay in the hand palm, penetrating the thumb down the middle to create a void and shaping the bowl with index and middle fingers from the outside, an original tea bowl can be shaped within minutes, and fired within the hour. This enables the tea master to produce, with ease, individual Zen tea bowls on site, within the time limit of the ceremony.

In the film Death of a Tea Master, Rikyū, seated inside the congregated tearoom, fires an individual tea bowl inside a small, portable fire chamber. He removes it from the raku fire box, and once partly cooled down, serves it with tea to emperor Hideyoshi.

Rikyū transformed the ancient Zen tea ceremony into an aestheticized symbolic ritual by creating a unique fantasy setting.

He redesigned the teahouse by reducing the room size to a standard format and introducing a small door for secluded entrance. The interior walls received recessed alcoves for displaying appropriate art to the alternating season or guest list.

Kakemono hanging scrolls with Zen calligraphy, flower arrangements, swords, lacquer objects and tea implements were meticulously choreographed by the tea master to meet the symbolic demand of every occasion.

Surrounding the teahouse, Rikyū designed the zen garden; a stylised, miniature version of nature with pruned trees, water features, and sand raked to represent water ripples. The codified environment represents a structured, re-ordering or mastering of nature.

The raku tea bowl became the central utensil and replaced the ceremonial Tenmoku tea bowl that had until then been imported from China. The raku bowl, insulated by its thick and porous wall became the perfect zen tea bowl because it could be held comfortably and extensively during a meditation session. The Chinese tenmoku bowls were wheel thrown, thin and vitreous, meaning these were heat conducting and could therefore not be held ceremoniously without burning the hands.

Rikyū taught his disciples how to gracefully hold the tea bowl, in the cup of hands, to become part of the zen body poise. His new etiquette extended to elegant walking, contained body composure, and requiring participants to rinse mouth and wash hands on entering the ceremony. He sophisticated the circumstances of the gathering, demanding a refinement of dressing robes, and serenity of mind in conducting conversation.

Through his disciples, Rikyū established a new heritage of tea masters. Most notably his pupil Furuta Shigenari, who, in 1591, became the foremost tea master in Japan.

Tea masters were highly educated, accomplished in architecture, gardening, interior decorating, painting and lacquer, textile fabrics, calligraphy, flower arrangement, pottery and so forth. They were masters of all sorts, entertaining the elite such as master swordsmen, shoguns, and Buddhist priests. Moreover, Rikyū’s new order became the most prestigious finishing school for emperor Hideyoshi’s elite officers.

In the film Death of a Tea Master, Rikyū is seen coaching Hideyoshi, in preparation for military manoeuvres against China, to master his desires by concentrating on the beauty of single flower within a floral arrangement.

Within the fantasy setting Rikyū created, every object is now dislodged from its ordinary context and sublimated into theatrical worthiness with new associations; the sublimated setting signifies effective ritual.

In the imaginary order of the fantasmatic scenario, the object of desire comes into play.

Desire, explains the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, is the primal destructive force and through fantasmatic ritual, it can be negated, excluded, or deferred. In religion, sublimation comes in the form of obsessional exclusion from symbolic reality.

In other words, the meditative ritual suppresses or keeps our primal desire at bay and, through the fantasy setting, exchanges it for symbolic order.

At the core of our primal desire is that which escape symbolisation, which Lacan describes as primordial nature – the Real. It is the inadequacy of our symbolic reality to fully comprehend and capture the Real that lures us to transgress Symbolic Law.

The Real always comes as contingent intrusion into the smooth operations of symbolic order. In other words, it is the fluke of nature that disrupts our peaceful state of affairs. The intrusion is constantly pending because our peace is always out of joint – our symbolic reality lacks adequate contingent plans.

In Zen Buddhism, desire for sensual pleasure is seen as disruptive to symbolic order and primary cause of suffering. Unlike Hindu convention, where sensual desire is fully incorporated and symbolised, Zen Buddhists cultivate equanimity as counter against the chaotic intrusion of desire.

The meditative Zen tea ceremony cultivates equanimity. For example, the fantasy environment of the garden with its raked sand represents a negation of turbulent waves. The concord of etiquette in body poise guards against sensual gesture. And the raku tea bowl with its surface trace of burning fire is tempered in the equanimity of elegant hands.

In the fantasy setting, Zen refinement distorts every trace of rustic nature for the formation of clinical structure, “the fantasy is thus both that which enables the subject to sustain his desire, and that by which the subject sustains himself at the level of his vanishing desire” (Dylan 1996: 60).

The Lacanian psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek describes Zen nirvana (as in equanimity) as a form of universal indifference – a learning of how to withdraw from too much empathy, which is why it can so easily turn into the very opposite of universal compassion, such as ruthless militarism. He explains that the more universal our explicit ethics is, the more brutal the underlying exclusion (2008: 54).

In Steven Spielberg’s film Empire of the Sun (1987), set in WWII during Japan’s occupation of China, we see Japanese pilots performing the Zen tea ceremony, in preparation for their brutal kamikaze missions against US naval forces on the Pacific.

In Death of a Tea Master, we see the same tragic grandeur for unconditional demand in the face of a lacking symbolic order.

The tragic event of 1587 is described as a ten-day tea-drinking orgy held by Hideyoshi at his Jurakudai palace in Kyoto and overseen by tea master Rikyū. After Rikyū fails in his ethical attempt to persuade emperor Hideyoshi against brutal military manoeuvres on China, he falls into disfavour and is ordered to commit suicide by Hideyoshi. Recognising his loss of future symbolic inclusion as tea master in the Zen social order, Rikyū agrees to the final symbolic honour granted to him – to die by his own sword.

In the film, Rikyū calls a final ceremony with his closest Zen tea cult members, during which a series of his tea utensils are carefully examined and approved. Once his guests had admired these, Rikyū gifts the utensils to his departing guests, keeping only the raku tea bowl. Alone, in his death robe, and before smashing the raku bowl into pieces, he addresses the sublime bowl in his hands: “Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by anyone.”


Four centuries later, Bernard Leach, with no knowledge or interest in ceramics, visited Japan as an ex-art student from London. Being an expatriate and connected with the British consulate, he received invitations to upmarket social gatherings. By chance, one of these invitations brought him to what he described as a raku party – remnant of the zen tea ceremony. The raku experience was his inauguration to a career of pottery, and ten years later, after his apprenticeship to a Japanese master potter, brought raku to England.

Decades later, after becoming a well-known British potter, he recalls the inaugural event in his publication, A Potter’s Book (1976:29-30). Below is my paraphrase of Leach’s raku experience:

My discovery of pottery was solely by chance. In 1911, two years after my return to Japan to follow my late father’s wishes of becoming a banker, I attended a kind of garden-party at an artist’s house in Tokyo. The party was attended by about twenty-five educated Japanese men, all painters, writers, and such.

The guests were all scattered in one large room, lounging on the floor with paint brushes and saucers of colours spread out amongst them. Once I joined them on the floor, the host brought in a large tray of cup-sized, raw pottery pots. These small pots were distributed amongst us and we were invited to decorate them as these would be fired within the hour.

Outside, a few feet beyond the veranda, we could see a man stoking a fire with charcoal inside a small, portable kiln. I struggled with the unusually long, Japanese brushes and unfamiliar paint substance while others seemed to master the brushes with ease, painting decorative, running scripts similar to what I have seen in Japanese art books.

My two painted pots were collected from me, and together with about a dozen others, dipped one by one in a tub of white creamy glaze. These were then taken on the tray to the portable kiln and set to dry on top of the warm kiln. After few minutes, the dry pots were gently picked up one by one with long-handled tongs and placed inside the inner box of the kiln, which had already reached a dull red heat.

Fire clay covers were placed on top of the kiln for insulation, and the fire-starter man started fanning the fuel. Sparks flew with the increasing thermal heat. About half an hour later we peeped through the spy hole of the kiln and observed the muffle and kiln furniture turn bright red. The silhouette lines of our pots were clearly visible, and I could see the molten lava-like surface of the shimmering glaze turn soft like sticky toffee and glossy like molten glass.

Suddenly, we were pushed back from the spyhole and the host declared the kiln reached temperature. Abruptly, he removed the fire clay covers and exposed the red-hot kiln interior. With the same long-handled tongs, he removed our glowing pots one by one from the kiln and placed them on tiles to cool. The rising thermal heat made it difficult for us to get close-up to the pots without burning our eyebrows.

As the red glow slowly receded, the colours and decoration of our individual pots transpired. Within seconds of the glow gone, an escalating range of sharp ticks and tings rang out from the shrinking glaze. As the pots cooled, the intensity of the ticks and tings receded. A short while later, and we gingerly handled our pots, gauging and gazing to identify reflection of self-hood in the fired raku.


After WWII and by the sixties, Zen, and raku, respectively, crossed the Pacific to become activities of recreation on the US West Coast. Zen meditation became a popular relaxing technique for businessmen and Leach’s variation of raku a countryside, week-end escape from the city for pottery enthusiasts.

Just like for Bernard Leach, Raku is the gateway for novices into recreational pottery classes due to its ritual-friendly, rapid, and basic ease of application.

Artnet News reporter Katie White (February 2020) writes that pottery is currently the new yoga in Los Angeles. She recalls how a large male contingent of World War II and Korean War vets became crazed about ‘fire and pyromania’, creating a post-war American ‘Bro-ramics’ surge after its 19th century female-dominated inaugurating, when painting pottery was a popular hobby amongst women.

White reports that the latest converts amongst bro-enthusiasts are “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” stars Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. She quotes a source saying that Pitt has started his own studio at home, and that Leo brings sandwiches from Fat Sal’s and the two of them spend their boys’ night creating with clay until the early morning hours.

A quick google search for Beverley Hills where Fat Sal’s Deli is located, shows the Los Angeles suburb is as besieged by studios for pottery classes as for yoga classes. Quoting another source, White comments that the ethos of a ‘practice’ and concentration of bodily awareness are aligning elements, “It’s like yoga, if you got a thing at the end. If you were doing yoga and then some object was produced at the end of it.”


At the core of our psychical life experience is the causal relationship between lack and desire, explains the psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. He demonstrates lack as logical division in both the infant-child and socio-cultural structure.

For the infant-child, Lacan points to two kinds of division namely, separation and alienation from its primal, prelingual bearer (metaphorically speaking, the weaning complex of the mother’s breast – the Real, to which there is no logical return). Alienation registers on a scale between autistic and psychotic positions and separation on a scale between psychotic and neurotic positions. Both these divisions register as lack and psychical cause for desire.

Moreover, Lacan demonstrates with his Oedipal example how the intervention or non-intervention of the Imaginary father, as linguistic substitute for the primal Real, can cause scales of desire that ultimately register the child’s symbolic formation as individual subject of language. In other words, a lasting, linguistic gravitational pull of desire between loss of the Real and the lacking Symbolic – between loss and lack.

As for our social reality, culture compensate loss by sublimating residue and trace of the Real within different symbolic structures of fantasy, such as the linguistic fields of religion, science, and the arts. By cleaving to these respective symbolic structures, sublime fantasy regulates desire for us to self-cultivate a fantasmatic sense of completeness and well-being.

For Lacanian psychoanalysis (Evans 1996:95) ‘lack of being’ is the ‘heart of the analytic experience’ and the very field in which the neurotic’s passion, such as raku for the pyromaniac, is deployed for the cultivation of self.


Evans, Dylan. 1996. Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

Kakuzō, Okakura. 1906. The Book of Tea. London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Lacan, J. Seminar VII: The ethics of psychoanalysis 1959-1960 (J-A. Miller, Ed. and D. Porter, Trans.) (1992). New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Lacan, J. Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis 1964 (J-A. Miller, Ed. and Sheridan, Alan, Trans.) (1977). New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Leach, Bernard. 1976. A Potter’s Book. London: Faber and Faber London.

White, Katie. 2020. Celebrities From Brad Pitt to Seth Rogen Are Massively Into Pottery. Here’s a Primer on Bro-ramics (and Its Colorful, Fraught History). [www: Artnet News]

Zizek, Slavoj. 2008. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador.


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