Perhaps one of the most fascinating arts that has come to be linked with the samurai is the cha no yu, or tea ceremony. Few activities in general are quite as thoroughly refined and thoughtful and yet evolved through such troubled times. Complicated and yet utterly simple, at once straightforward and deep, the tea ceremony in many ways could be a metaphor not only for the samurai ideal but also for the land of Japan itself.
Tea was made popular in Japan during the early Kamakura largely thanks to the efforts of the monk Eisai (1141-1215); fifty or so years later the Zen monk Dai-o (1236-1308) returned from a visit to China and brought with him knowledge of the tea ceremony as it was practiced in Chinese Zen monasteries. Successive monks refined the art until the priest Shuko (1422-1502) presented a demonstration to the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Yoshimasa, already a man of the arts, took to the tea ceremony almost immediately and at this point the cha no yu (the art of tea) began developing a secular following.
Initially, and unsurprisingly, the tea ceremony was an activity indulged by the nobility, as tea itself was primarily the elixir of the upper class at this time. This began to change with the advent of Sen no Rikyu. A man of merchant background from Sakai, Rikyu (known for much of his career as SÙeki) had been trained as a tea man in the elegant Ashikaga style; he would in time reject this school in favor of a very different approach. The nobility’s tea ceremony had been developed to cater to the sorts of individuals that partook of it, with elegant Chinese utensils and great pains taken to avoid offending any guests of higher status. In his own vision, Rikyu substituted the pricey utensils with simple, practical ones, and replaced the expensive and often gaudy teahouses of the nobility with the SÙan, or ‘grass hut’ style teahouse. The only way into the tearoom of a SÙan was through a small door, the nijiriguchi, which was only some two and a half feet square. Guests therefore entered by crawling, a deliberately humbling device intended to create a sense of equality once inside.1 Rikyu intended for the tea ceremony to be an activity free from social and political trappings, though in this he was to be disappointed. As Rikyu was making a name for himself, the warlord Oda Nobunaga was also gaining fame through his steady expansion and at length came to meet Rikyu. An enthusiastic amateur tea man, Nobunaga made every effort to surround himself with men versed in the cha no yu, which by 1575 included Sen no Rikyu, Imai Sokyu, and Tsuda Sogyu. The great warrior also went to great lengths to secure valuable tea items, which he doled out from time to time as rewards to his generals.
Nobunaga was killed in 1582 and in time Rikyu became a close companion of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the second of the ‘three unifiers’. Like Nobunaga, Hideyoshi was an aspiring tea aficionado, and valued Rikyu’s skills highly. Nonetheless, the two men did not always see eye to eye when it came to the cha no yu. Rikyu is said to have frowned on his master’s use of the tea ceremony as a forum to discuss matters of state, which he saw as disturbing if not altogether nullifying the harmony of the ceremony. Hideyoshi in fact took the ceremony and turned it into an important part of his statecraft. He organized grand tea gatherings, and sought out famous tea items, although in the actual practice of the ceremony, he more or less adhered to Rikyu’s precepts. In the end, and for reasons unknown, Rikyu was executed on Hideyoshi’s orders, though not before leaving a lasting mark on the art of tea, which by the Edo Period had spread through the classes.
It is interesting to note that almost a hundred years after Rikyu’s death, what he had described as the ‘art of tea’ became institutionalized and known as the ‘way of tea’ (chado). Rikyu’s precepts carried over in what can be described in the Zen maxim “First (tea) meeting, last (tea) meeting”, meaning that you must pay maximum attention to everything happening at this very moment: be here now.5
The tea ceremony normally took place in a tearoom, the chachitsu. The guests entered through the nijiriguchi, with samurai leaving their swords outside (another conscious equalizer developed by Rikyu) and the last to enter closing the door behind him. The tearoom was arranged so that those entering would first spy a scroll hanging in the tokonoma – or alcove. This scroll was normally of calligraphy, with its subject often that of a simple observation such as Honrai mu Ichibutsu (‘Originally there is nothing’).2 As this scroll is carefully chosen by the host to reflect a mood or the season, the guests customarily spend a moment appreciating it before seating themselves around a small hearth in the center of the room.
At this point the host enters, and the principal guest thanks him or her for their invitation and politely inquires about the scroll or some other object in the room should one be present. However, and throughout the time spent in the tearoom, conversations and articulations are brief, and it was considered impolite to speak of things not related to the ceremony. The principle guest then serves a light meal (kaiseki) that was intended to be pleasing to the eye as well as the taste. At this time, a modest serving of sake is also offered in shallow bowls, followed by a piece of fruit or some other light dessert. The guests then exit the tearoom while the host prepares it for the drinking of tea, replacing the scroll with a single flower in a vase. When the guests return, the host heats water in an iron kettle, then rinses and wipes the tea bowl and utensils. He places powdered green tea in a bowl with a bamboo dipper, then whips the tea with a whisk (also bamboo) until the surface is slightly frothy, then serves it to his guests.
Two kinds of tea will be served: koicha, which is the more formal of the two and possessed of a thicker consistency and bitter taste, and usucha – thinner and more ‘informal’. Koicha is served first, and all the guests drink a small quantity from the same bowl. Later in the ceremony, usucha is served in individual bowls. The tea bowls themselves can vary in design according to the host and the season. ‘Winter’ tea bowls are deeper, to help contain heat, while ‘summer’ bowls are shallower and broader to release the heat and give the impression of coolness.
Throughout the ceremony, the hosts and guests both aspire towards a sense of tranquility. The priest Takuan wrote of preparing for a tea ceremony and said, “and let this all be carried out in accordance with the idea that in this room we can enjoy the streams and rocks as we do the rivers and mountains in Nature, and appreciate the various moods and sentiments suggested by the snow, the moon, and the trees and flowers, as they go through the transformation of seasons, appearing and disappearing, blooming and withering. As visitors are greeted here with due reverence, we listen quietly to the boiling water in the kettle, which sounds like a breeze passing through the pine needles, and become oblivious of all worldly woes and worries”.3
Sen no Rikyu himself left this piece of advice as the final of his Hundred Rules for cha no yu: “Though you may cleave to these rules and sometimes break them, and though you don’t take them seriously, don’t quite forget them.”4
1. The typical Ashikaga-style teahouse included a separate door for the most exalted guest to enter through.
2. A famous phrase from the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch.
3. Zen and Japanese Culture pg. 276-277
4. Mirror, Sword and Jewel pg. 114
5. Koren, Wabi Sabi pg 36
Elison, George and Bardwell L. Smith (ed.) Warlords, Artists, and Commoners Hawaii 1981
Okakura Kakuzo The Book of Tea Dover 1964
Singer, Kurt Mirror, Sword and Jewel Kodansha 1981
Suzuki, D. T Zen and Japanese Culture Princeton 1970
Koren, Leonard, Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosphers 1994