The Way of Tea
Zen & the Art of Chanoyu

Photo of a woman performing the Japanese tea ceremony
Click for video of the Tang Dynasty (Chinese) Tea Ceremony
From China to Japan
The Introduction of Tea
Tea was introduced to Japan sometime during the early Heian period, probably by monks such as Saicho (767-822) and Kukai (774-835) returning from study in China. Tea drinking had become widespread in China by at least the seventh or eight century and was brought to Japan in the wave of cultural borrowing from the continent that spanned the late sixth through early ninth centuries. ... But tea drinking at court declined from the late ninth century, when the Japanese ceased sending missions to China and lost at least some of their enthusiasm for Chinese culture. Although tea continued to be consumed at Buddhist temples and also Shinto shrines, there is no indication that people outside these establishments adopted it as a beverage during the remainder of the Heian period.
Still from an anime of a person whipping the mattcha with a tea whisk
Tea was reintroduced to Japan from China in the late twelfth century (the early Kamakura period) by the monk Yosai (aka Eisai, 1141-1215), who in Kissa yojo ki analyzes and describes tea’s medicinal efficacy. The kind of tea that Yosai brought to Japan was unfermented, powdered green tea (called matcha in Japanese). During the Song period [960-1279] — mid-Heian times in Japan — the Chinese invented the tea whisk, which they used to dissolve powdered tea in hot water. Later, the Chinese abandoned the whisk and returned to their earlier practice of steeping or infusing tea (i.e. flavoring hot water by placing or dipping tea leaves into it). Most people today, including the Japanese in their everyday lives, drink infused tea, whether fermented (black tea), partially fermented (oolong tea), or unfermented (green tea). But the tea ceremony, chanoyu, which evolved in Japan in the late fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, has always used powdered green tea and the whisk. (SJT, 388)
Photo of Zen monks washing the monastery floors in the traditional mannerThe tea ceremony was born [in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century] when rules were adopted to govern the preparation, serving, and drinking of tea, rules that distinguished the “ceremony” of tea drinking from the casual, everyday consumption of the beverage. The inspiration for the tea ceremony’s rules were the monastic rules (J. shingi) that had been compiled in China to govern the daily lives of monks in Zen temples. Zen places great emphasis on mundane, quotidian acts such as scrubbing floors, cleaning latrines, or preparing tea as ways of pointing to or achieving enlightenment, and the procedures for carrying out these acts were described in detail in the shingi brought to Japan by Chinese Zen monks during the Kamakura period. ... Behavior among the participants in the tea ceremony as it evolved in the medieval age was based on the spirit of Buddhism and especially Zen. By the late sixteenth century, when the tea ceremony reached the height of its development, tea masters were wont to say that “tea and Zen have the same flavor” (cha-Zen ichimi). (SJT, 389)
The tea ceremony can be virtually regarded as a Zen sacrament. Spiritually, the idea is to receive and appreciate the tea and the atmosphere by just being in the present moment, letting go of past and future and of anything outside the tea house. A true tea-maker prepares the services with the simple, graceful movements of a past master, like a dancer or musician who has endlessly practiced and accomplished a piece, and can perform it in a way that looks effortless and yet perfect, without a single wasted motion. To one for whom cha becomes chado, the “way of tea” as a way of life, that is how all of life should be lived. (IJR, 155-6)
Karamono: Chinese style brazierAesthetic taste in the tea ceremony comes into play in both the construction of the tea room and the selection, handling, and display of utensils and other articles, such as scrolls and flowers, during tea gatherings. In the first form of the tea ceremony, which emerged in the Higashiyama cultural epoch of the late fifteenth century, the tea ceremony employed only “Chinese things” (karamono): objects of art and craft imported from China, including tea bowls and caddies, flower vases, incense burners, Song-style monochrome ink paintings (to be displayed in alcoves, and the portable stands known as daisu that were used to hold utensils. ... While the tea ceremony based on the aesthetics of karamono was maturing during the Higashiyama epoch, a new variation, wabicha, or chanoyu inspired by the wabi aesthetic, began to evolve. Japanese style tea bowlThe person regarded as the founder of was Murata Shuko (or Juko, d. 1502), who in his “Letter of the Heart” (Kokoro no fumi) wrote: “In pursuing this way of tea, great care should be taken to harmonize Japanese and Chinese tastes.” By Japanese taste, Shuko meant taste for “Japanese things” (wamono), that is, for tea utensils made by Japanese artisans, especially ceramicware, that, in contrast to technically perfect Chinese things, were often crude, rough, and misshapen. These qualities did not reflect the incompetence of Japanese artisans. Rather, they were deliberately sought to satisfy the wabi aesthetic that, during the sixteenth century, was elevated to the highest level of taste in the tea ceremony. (SJT, 390)
"Japanese Aesthetic Concepts"
Kanji for Wabi-SabiI have used the term “tranquillity” for the fourth element making up the spirit of the art of tea, but it may not be a good term for all that is implied in the Chinese character chi, or jaku in Japanese. Jaku is sabi, but sabi contains much more than “tranquillity.” Its Sanskrit equivalent, santa or santi, it is true, means “tranquillity,” “peace,” “serenity,” and jaku has been frequently used in Buddhist literature to denote “death” or “nirvana.” But as the term is used in the tea [ceremony], its implication is “poverty,” “simplification,” “aloneness,” and here sabi becomes synonymous with wabi. To appreciate poverty, to accept whatever is given, a tranquil, passive mind is needed, but in both sabi and wabi there is a suggestion of objectivity. Just to be tranquil or passive is not sabi nor is it wabi. There is always something objective that evokes in one a mood to be called wabi. And wabi is not merely a psychological reaction to a certain pattern of environment. There is an active principle of aestheticism in it; when this is lacking poverty becomes indigence, aloneness becomes ostracism or misanthropy or inhuman unsociability. Wabi or sabi, therefore, may be defined as an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty; when it is used as a constituent of the tea [ceremony], it is the creating or remodeling of an environment in such a way as to awaken the feeling of wabi or sabi. (Zen and Japanese Culture, 284)
Japanese tea bowl
Portrait of Sen no Rikyu
Someone once asked Rikyu to explain the hearth and the brazier, revealing the proper bearing of the spirit and the crucial points in performing tea in summer and winter. Rikyu replied: “In summer, impart a sense of deep coolness, in winter, a feeling of warmth; lay the charcoal so that it heats the water, prepare the tea so that it is pleasing — these are all the secrets.” Dissatisfied with the answer, the man remarked, “That is something everyone knows.” Then Rikyu said, “If so, try performing in accord with what I have stated. I will be your guest, and perhaps become your student.” (SJT, 397)
Wabicha was created mainly by members of the wealthy merchant class of the three cities of Kyoto, Nara, and Sakai in the central provinces. Merchant tea masters from Sakai, including Joo and Rikyu, played especially important roles during the sixteenth century in molding this form of the tea ceremony. Although wabicha was spiritually based on the rejection of materialism, a serious pursuit of it in fact required a great deal of money, primarily because of the enormous cost of the best tea articles. ... When Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) entered Kyoto in 1568 and began the military campaigning that unified Japan before the end of the century, he used the tea ceremony as one means to ritually legitimize his rule. ... By displaying his vast collection of “famous articles” and his Sakai tea masters, Nobunaga sought to confirm his right to rule in cultural (bun) as well as military (bu) terms. (SJT, 391-2)
Hideyoshi's Castle in Osaka
Toyotomi Hideyoshi
Hideyoshi's Golden Tea Room
When Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582, the job of unification was completed by his former lieutenant, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598). Displaying even greater enthusiasm for the tea ceremony than Nobunaga had, Hideyoshi took possession of both his predecessor’s meibutsu collection and his tea masters, and it was in the service of Hideyoshi that Rikyu rose to become Japan’s foremost arbiter of taste and man of culture. ... Later apotheosized as a god of the tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu had brought the way of tea to its highest development. ... Grandeur and show, including the erection of lofty castles and the mass display of tea articles, were the hallmarks of the epoch. ... Hideyoshi, the parvenu hegemon and consummate showman of the age, had a portable, gilded tea room constructed for his use, and he furnished it with gold-plated utensils.
Sen no Rikyu's famous tea room, Tai'an
But Hideyoshi also had a rustic tea room, fashioned like a hut in a mountain village (yamazato), in which he practiced the subtleties of wabicha with Rikyu. Hideyoshi’s two tea rooms, the rustic and the golden, symbolized the extremes of Momoyama taste, one epitomizing the highest spiritual and aesthetic value of the medieval age and the other heralding what scholars call the early modern age. It was an exciting time in Japanese history, and the tea ceremony and its masters, led by Sen no Rikyu, played central roles in the cultural — and also political — events that determined the direction that the country would take. (SJT, 392-3)
Reconstruction of Sen no Rikyu's Tai'an
The tea room evolved as a variant of the shoin-style room, which took shape during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and was itself derived from the libraries (shoin) used by monks in Zen temples. The shoin became the prototypical Japanese room, having tatami matting, shoji and fusuma sliding doors, an alcove, asymmetrical shelves, and a low built-in desk. Among the special features that set a tea room apart from the regular shoin is the “crawling-in entrance” (nijiriguchi) and the hearth, a recessed space in the floor designed to accommodate a kettle in winter. (SJT, 389)
Diagram explaining the layout of a typical tea room
Interior of Tai'an
Diagram showing the layout of Tai'an
Ikebana (flower arranging) paintingLet us then construct a small room in a bamboo grove or under trees, arrange streams and rocks and plant trees and bushes, while [inside the room] let us pile up charcoal, set a kettle, arrange flowers, and arrange in order the necessary tea utensils. And let all this 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 transformations 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; we then pour out a dipperful of water from the kettle, reminding us of the mountain stream, and thereby our mental dust is wiped off. (Zen Master Takuan [1573-1645] in Zen and Japanese Culture, 276-7)

Ikebana (flower arrangment)
Ikebana (flower arranging) paintingThe tea ceremony of the small room is above all a matter of performing practice and attaining realization in accord with the Buddhist path. To delight in the refined splendor of a dwelling or the taste of delicacies belongs to worldly life. There is shelter enough when the roof does not leak, food enough when it staves off hunger. This is the Buddhist teaching and the fundamental meaning of the tea ceremony. We draw water, gather firewood, boil the water, and make tea. We then offer it to the Buddha, serve it to others, and drink ourselves. We arrange flowers and burn incense. In all of this, we model ourselves after acts of the Buddha and the past masters. Beyond this, you must come to your own understanding. (Sen no Rikyu in SJT, 397)
A dish filled with mattcha
Cllick for tea ceremony in traditional tea room
[The spirit of the tea ceremony] consists of “harmony” (wa), “reverence” (kei), “purity” (sei), and “tranquillity” (jaku). These four elements are needed to bring the art to a successful end; they are all essential constituents of a brotherly and orderly life, which is no other than the life of the Zen monastery. (Zen and Japanese Culture, 273)

Kanji for "harmony" (wa)

Kanji for "reverence" (kei)
Kanji for "purity" (sei)
Kanji for "tranquillity" (jaku)
1880 woodblock print showing women preparing tea ceremony

Samurai Jack prepares tea ceremony