One day Mr. Asakawa and I were looking at a book on Japanese pottery and I asked a simple question:  What does the word Tenmoku mean?

As with all things in clay, the answer was wonderful.  Here are some of the messages we received back through clayart. 

Tenmoku Tianmu Shan Black Breaks Brown

From the Potter's Dictionary of Materials and Techniques by Hamer & Hamer

  "TENMOKU (Origin):  In China from the Han Dynasty through the Tang Dynasty (1st to10th Centuries) a development took place involving brown glazed wares.  During the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) the perfection of firing allowed a thicker glaze layer and a more mature glaze.  The result was the dark brown stoneware glaze.  The finest examples of this period are the Jian bowls.  These are rice and tea bowls rarely wider than 5 inches in diameter and varying from black to rust with many variations of the Smokey hare's fur variety. The glaze was either a clay and ash slip or a straight clay slip glaze, which was put on raw ware and once-fired in varying atmospheres.  The idea of the rich dark glaze with its infinite possibilities caught the imagination of many potters through the imperial court, and the idea spread.

To the north east of Jian in the Province of Fujian is a group of mountains called Tianmu Shan.  Japanese Zen Buddhist monks visiting the monastery there used the Jian tea bowls and late took them back to Japan where they were excitedly admired and became know as Tianmu or Tenmoku. These bowls and further developments in Japan were the source of contemplative delight until the development of raku in the 16th century.

  I believe Tenmoku is the Japanese pronunciation of the two Chinese characters Tian Mu.

Dennis in Warrenton, VA

Tenmoku Tianmu Shan Black Breaks Brown

  The term Tenmoku comes from the mountain by the same name in China.  It was a Japanese monk during the Kamakura period who went to study in China who brought back a small tea bowl which was glazed black.  The Monk did not know the name of the glaze.  When the Monk returned to Japan, he gave the name of mountain as the name of the glaze for lack of a better title.

Tenmoku Tianmu Shan Black Breaks Brown

  Now, has anybody else ever heard this story?  Did the Monk have a name?

  Tenmoku Tianmu Shan Black Breaks Brown

Dear Tenmoku Lovers;
The explanation I heard came from David Stannard (raised in China) a potter-friend, who said he thought the bowls were named from the two little lakes nestled at the foot of the mountain near the monastery. He visited the remains of this monastery ten years ago. The lakes were called "the Eyes of God", or Tenmoku. If you walked up the mountain and looked down on the lakes, a reasonable name. The bowls were made at the monastery for the use of the monks, and when they evangelized Japan, they brought the bowls with them. The bowls were later exported in great numbers form the port of Fuzhou to Japan.

  Anyway, another good story to add to the pile, Hank in Eugene

  Tenmoku Tianmu Shan Black Breaks Brown

The Monks name was Eihei Dogen Zenji (1200 - 1253), the founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan.    It is the school my teacher Dainin Katagiri Roshi taught. Not only did Dogen bring back the first Tenmoku tea bowl from Sung China to Japan, a monk that traveled with him to China brought back the Sung pottery and kiln technology and started the first climbing kiln in Seto Japan.  Because of my studies in Zen and having Dogen in my lineage, Sung, Seto and Mino work (and the related glazes) are very important to me.

  Lee Love Mashiko, Japan

  Tenmoku Tianmu Shan Black Breaks Brown

The name temmoku comes from Tien-mu-Shan, "mountain of the Eye of Heaven,” a mountain in Chechiang province, China.  It was from a monastery on this mountain that Dogen, a Japanese Zen priest, was said to have brought the first temmoku bowl to Japan in 1228.  See also "Hare's foot.


Dear Hank and all
I think your explanation may be a good one because of the two lakes you mentioned. But all the other explanations are also essentially true.  Could the monk have mistakenly understood the Tenmoku name to be the name of the mountain or were the named lakes used as a general reference to the area. But what does it matter the truth is in the essence of the story not the fine detail. In the mountains near here Sister Irene has started a hermitage. Hermitage is one of the original structures of monastic living. The religious have separate living accommodation; they only worship together in a shared chapel. I am making some pottery for her and I insisted they would have to be glazed in Tenmoku.  I shall print out your stories to give to her along with the bowls.

Regards from Paul Taylor

  Tenmoku Tianmu Shan Black Breaks Brown

Hey thanks for the reply. I have emailed Stannard to check, but I think he originally said that the Chinese characters for the two lakes meant 'eyes of heaven'. Don't have any skill with Chinese (French is challenging enough @ 62) but David grew up in Ling Po and is familiar with the language. He made a sort of pilgrimage to this monastery ten years ago to 'see for himself'. He also went to Jingdezhen and walked down into the petuntse seam about 1/4 mile underground. Sturdy fellow.
Regards, Hank

Tenmoku Tianmu Shan Black Breaks Brown

The following is from the Brother Thomas book "Gifts from the Fire":

  "This glaze is one of the many and one of the oldest of iron glazes in pottery.  It is usually a rich black, sometimes breaking to rust on the edges and high points.  It is Chinese in origin, dating as far back as the earliest years of the T'ang dynasty (618-906).  The word itself, i.e. Tenmoku, is Japanese but most probably derived from the Chinese word Tien-mu-Shan, "eye of the heavenly mountain," a location in Chechiang province of an ancient Chinese Buddhist monastery.
Rafael Enrique

Tenmoku Tianmu Shan Black Breaks Brown

 Images of Tenmoku Glaze:

Kyoto National Museum:  Cool site with neat stories:
The "Secret Colored" Celedon Ewer

Ron Roy:

Go to Shino!