Summer, 2001 Newsletter - "The Perfection of Cha-no-yu"
"Tea as a Philosophy of Life"
Part V: The Perfection of Cha-no-yu
Soan cha had been largely defined by the early sixteenth century. It was only a matter of further refining a
concept that had been firmly established as a primary art form. That the service of tea could be the medium for an
art form is a bit bewildering to the casual observer. Scholars have attempted to interpret the meaning of Cha-no-yu in
Western terms, and these attempts have invariably required a discussion of Zen philosophies. However, it is essential
to note that the practice of the tea ceremony is in no way a religious rite of Zen Buddhism. More specifically, the
spiritual aspects of the ceremony should not be confused with any formal or informal religious practice. In his essay
entitled The Early Europeans and Tea, Michael Cooper states that, "in [Cha-no-yu] Christian and non-Christian could
come together in a spirit of harmony without religious discord."1 The spiritual aspects of Cha-no-yu are so
universally appealing that its precepts could be appreciated by all but the incurably misanthropic.
A premise of Cha-no-yu is that an interchange between host and guest can ultimately be a transcendental
experience. More importantly, it can instill a spirit of tranquility and harmony among the participants regardless of
their social, political, or religious affiliation. This egalitarian posture of Cha-no-yu was responsible for its endurance
over a long period of social, political, and economic turmoil.
The tea masters who devoted their lives to the study of Cha-no-yu were obsessed with the most minute details of
the ceremony. The shape and size of the tea room, the placement of stones in the pathway and the shape and size of
the lanterns lighting the way were studied at length. The furnishings in the tea room, the objects on display, and the
very conversations between host and guest were arduously structured. The degree to which participants could perform
in the precisely defined manner, with apparent grace and natural ease, was a sign of their mastery of Cha-no-yu.
The most famous individual in the history of Cha-no-yu is undoubtedly Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). Considered
by some to be the father of Tea (i.e., the father of Cha-no-yu), Rikyu is certainly the most legendary figure in its
history. There are countless anecdotes about Rikyu and his unusual skills as a tea master. Many of these focus on
his ability to see the pure essence of beauty in simple things and to express the essence of Zen Buddhism in his tea
ceremony. Several stories reveal his unusual artistic insight and sense of proportion.
Illustrative of this insight is the famous Story of the Incense Burner. Rikyu had purchased an incense burner and
was inspecting it with his wife. After a while, she exclaimed that she thought the feet were too high. Rikyu said that
he was thinking the same thing. He then sent for the lapidary to have a tenth of an inch removed.2
Rikyu taught that the success of Cha-no-yu depended more on the attitude of the participants than on the external
aspects of the ceremony. Regardless of the skill of the individuals and the aesthetics of the surroundings, Rikyu
believed that a lack of sincerity or an attitude of superiority would muddle the experience. Conversely, a sincere
attitude could compensate for a lack of expertise or imperfect surroundings.
Rikyu kept no diary, Much of the available biographical information was written many years after his death.3
Therefore there is some debate about the authenticity of some of the stories accredited to Rikyu. For that matter, it is
his very death that may have accounted for Rikyu's legendary status.
Rikyu was official tea master to Hideyoshi, who was military dictator of Japan from 1585 to 1598. After some
years of an apparently supportive relationship, Hideyoshi forced Rikyu to commit Seppuku (ritualistic suicide). Some
speculate that Rikyu had become too popular and was a threat to Hideyoshi. Regardless of the reason for his forced
death, it assured Rikyu the status of quasi martyr among his followers. As such, any tale related to Rikyu was held in
more esteem than those attributed to other tea masters.
There are practitioners of Cha-no-yu in nearly every country today. Some of these practitioners profess an
affiliation with one of the official Schools of Tea in Japan. Others simply enjoy it as an exotic diversion, a curious
probe into Eastern culture.
Some speculate that Afternoon Tea is England's equivalent of Cha-no-yu. This is a faulty analogy in that it
undervalues the essential aesthetic components of Cha-no-yu. In the words of Zen Master Takuan:
The principle of Cha-no-yu is the spirit of harmonious blending of Heaven and Earth and provides the means for
establishing universal peace. People of the present time have turned it into a mere occasion for meeting friends,
talking of worldly affairs, and indulging in palatable food and drink; besides, they are proud of their elegantly
furnished tearooms, where, surrounded by rare objects of art, they would serve tea in a most accomplished manner,
and deride those who are not so skillful as themselves. This is, however, far from being the original intention of Cha-no-yu.4
This observation was made by a man who died just 54 years after the death of Rikyu!
A spirit of Cha-no-yu can exist in the tea services of the Western world. Anyone who prepares a proper cup of
tea with the proper frame of mind, who serves it in harmonious surroundings, and who enjoys it in the company of
good friends or even alone can, in theory, experience a simple form of Cha-no-yu.
1Varney, P. and Isao, K. Tea in Japan, Essays on the History of Cha-no-yu. Honolulu: U. of Hawaii Press, 1989. p.111. 2Sadler, A.L. Cha-no-yu. Rutland, VT and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1984. p.114. 3Plutschow, H. E. Historical Chanoyu. Tokyo: The Japan Times, Ltd.,1986. p.91. 4Suzuki, Daisetz T. The Essentials of Zen Buddhism. Edited with an introduction by Bernard Phillips. New York: E.P. Dalton &
Co., Inc., 1962. p.465.
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