The Tea Ceremony
A Brief History
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 Shûko (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 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 Rikyû. A man of merchant background from Sakai, Rikyû (known for much of his career as Sôeki) 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 take, Rikyû substituted the pricey utensils with simple, practical ones, and replaced the expensive and often gaudy teahouses of the nobility with the Sôan, or ‘grass hut’ style teahouse. The only way into the tearoom of a Sôan 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 Rikyû intended for the tea ceremony to be an activity free from social and political trappings, though in this he was to be disappointed. As Rikyû was making a name for himself, the warlord Oda Nobunaga was also gaining fame through his steady expansion and at length came to meet Rikyû. 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 Rikyû, 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.
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