24th
Apr
2014

Posted in Reference

Recently a number of blogs have featured the Japanese tea ceremony, also known as Chadō, meaning the Way of Tea. We have learnt that it has strong links with Zen Buddhism and that there are still people today who devote much time to the study of Chadō. There are a whole host of schools dedicated to the pursuit and many of them stem from three historical households: Omotesenke, Urasenke and Mushakōjisenke. These three are direct descendants of Sen no Rikyū, a sixteenth century tea master who is considered to have been the most influential figure of all time in the Way of Tea.

Rikyū was born in 1522 in the seaport of Sakai and began his study of the tea ceremony at a young age. His second tea master, a proponent of wabi-cha, was Takeno Jōō, who had in turn learnt of the wabi sabi aesthetic from Murata Shuko. Shuko, a former Zen monk, had begun the practice of wabi-cha in the preceding century, but it was Rikyū who did most to popularise it. As time went on he became entirely focussed on stripping the tea ceremony down to its essential core. Embracing simple Japanese-made tea bowls and implements over ornate Chinese ones, he began to hold ceremonies in small, rustic tea rooms.

His approach is summed up in this translation of his words: 'If you have one pot /And can make your tea in it /That will do quite well. /How much does he lack himself  /Who must have a lot of things?'  Rikyū handed down his philosophy to his disciples and to his own family. The three historical households mentioned in the first paragraph have been headed by successive generations of the Sen family down through the centuries; note that each ends in 'senke' which means Sen family.

In later life Rikyū became tea master first for Oda Nobunaga and then for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, both eminent political and military figures. As well as hosting the most important tea events of the time, he also became one of Hideyoshi's closest confidants. It was this additional role which ultimately brought about his downfall. Crucial differences of opinion resulted in Hideyoshi's order for Rikyū to commit ritual suicide. It is believed that Rikyū held one last tea ceremony on 21st April 1591 during which he gave away the various tea implements to his guests, before taking his own life. The wabi sabi style of Chadō has prevailed ever since, testament to Rikyū's lasting legacy.

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