"Tea as a Philosophy of Life"
Part III: Tea becomes a Way
The thirteenth century proved to be a period of
significant political and social change in East Asia. The Mongols, under the leadership of Genghis Khan,
amassed one of the most powerful military forces of all time. Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan,
invaded Hang Zhou in 1276.By 1279 Southern Sung China was conquered and China was united under the Mongol
domination of Kublai Khan. This, the Yuan (or Mongol) dynasty, was the first domination of China by outside
The Yuan dynasty was brief, lasting for only 87 years. But the impact on Chinese culture
was extensive. The artistic and spiritual productivity of Sung dynasty China declined during this period.
Aesthetic tea ceremonies faded into oblivion. This was certainly not so in Japan, where the tradition would
be characteristically transformed and refined over several centuries into a thoroughly Japanese tradition.
As luck would have it, Japan was successful in repelling Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281.
The success of the latter repulsion was largely due to timely typhoons, referred to as kamikaze (divine winds),
which destroyed the enormous armada that the Mongols had assembled for the invasion. This fortuitous natural
phenomenon was instrumental in allowing Japan to develop a civilization which was pure of unsolicited external
Western cultures first learned of tea from China several centuries later. By this time
there would be little association of tea with Buddhist traditions. The whipped, powdered form of tea, matcha,
would long since have been replaced by the current form of steeped leaves. Subsequent observations of Cha-no-yu
in Japan would often be dismissed as a strange custom with little relevance. Further study of the subject proves
this view to be quite naive.
As mentioned in Part II of this series, the tea gatherings of the samurai were often
characterized by excesses of luxury and debauchery. These functions were often held in grand pavilions, such
as the famous Golden Pavilion of Kyoto, built in 1397 by Shogun Yoshimitsu. The Shoguns were especially fond
of collecting rare Chinese tea utensils and other objects of art. The display of these treasures was a central
focus of the tea gatherings.
Yoshimitsu's grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, became eighth Shogun in 1443 at the age of seven.
With the title came the vast art collection of the Shogunate. Yoshimasa never could get excited about being a
military leader, preferring to spend his time composing poetry, studying art, hosting tea gatherings, and
leading the good life. Buddhist priest No-ami (1397-1471), was one of Yoshimasa's mentors in all matters
related to the arts. He was also charged with overseeing the Shogun's art collection. No-ami was widely
recognized as a Master of the most popular art forms of the time, including renga (linked-verse),
ink-drawing, and classical flower arrangement.
No-ami was a major influence in launching a new direction for the tea gatherings.1
Rather than being a grand display, this new form was a true tea ceremony with an artistic style typical
of other contemporary art forms. The ceremony was dissociated from the Buddhist sacramental tea, yet oriented
toward an aesthetic experience.
The external form of No-ami's ceremony was similar in many respects to the final form of
Cha-no-yu. In this form tea is prepared in the same room in which it is served; even the most subtle movements are
precisely choreographed. The elaborate displays of wealth in grand pavilions gradually gave way to this more formal
and aesthetic ceremony even among the aristocracy.
No-ami is listed at the top of A. L. Sadler's Genealogy of the Tea Masters2, yet there
were others before No-ami who had also worked on the codification of Cha-no-yu. No-ami's close association
with the Shogun undoubtedly did much to secure his place in history.
As an independent art form, tea quickly achieved the stature of a Way. (The Japanese word
for way is do, which is derived from the Chinese word tao.) A Way may be thought of as an art form with
an accompanying code of ideals which are intended to guide one's daily life. Therefore Cha-do, the Way of Tea, is a
philosophy of life for which Cha-no-yu is the associated art form. The concept is closely linked with Zen, and has all of the
Cha-do was born at a time in Japan when codes were the rage. Probably the code most widely
referenced (though not necessarily understood) is the Code of the Samurai. Cha-do has remained much more
obscure, possibly due to its lack of sensational appeal.
It is often implied that Cha-do is a form of religion, and that Cha-no-yu is a religious rite.
One might better regard Cha-do as a nonsectarian distillation of the ancient Eastern philosophies. Perhaps one
of the most eloquent assertions of this premise was made by Okakura Kakuzo (1862-1913) in The Book of Tea:
"In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the
piquancy of Laotse, and the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself."3
1Varney, H. Paul Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1984. p. 111. 2Sadler, A.L. Cha-no-yu. Rutland, VT and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1984. p. 237. 3Okakura Kakuzo The Book of Tea. Rutland, VT and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1989. p. 6.
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