When I first began studying the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony I was interested in its aesthetics. There were subtle delights in abundance from resilient tatami mats underfoot; the soothing sound of water heating in the iron kettle; and the scent of cedar bark incense.
I quickly learned that humility was involved as well. The seemingly effortless movements required much practice to master. We were taught to pay attention to the season, the particular circumstances of the day, and what was happening in the tea garden. There is, for instance, a particular beauty to a day with a hint of snow in the air when the leaves have fallen and a few linger on the moss.
I came across several stories recorded in chanoyu lore where tea masters combined ingenuity with an extreme sensitivity to nature to produce transcendent experiences for their guests. Three of my favorites involve Sen no Rikyu, probably the most famous of tea masters. Rikyu was known for his exquisite taste and sense for the fitness of things. He simplified the tea ceremony while at the same time introducing many innovations. His manner of making tea was said to be totally natural and unaffected so that one could not pick out any one part as being the most beautiful.
In one of the most famous tea stories, Rikyu’s patron, the regent Hideyoshi, had heard about the morning glories that Rikyu planted in his garden that year and wanted to see them. When Hideyoshi arrived in the morning, there was not a single morning glory to be seen anywhere. However, when the guests entered the tea room, a single perfect morning glory was displayed in the tokonoma alcove. Hideyoshi and the other guests found this refreshing. I was taught never to use morning glories during tea practice for this reason.
In another example, Hideyoshi supposedly had a large golden basin filled with water and a single flowering red plum branch placed beside it. How would Rikyu create a suitable flower arrangement using just these two elements? Rikyu approached the tokonoma and lifted up the branch. He then gently stripped the buds and flowers so that they fell into the basin and floated on the water. After that, Rikyu quietly returned to his seat carrying the bare branch. Hideyoshi admired this elegant resolution.
At a dawn tea attended by Rikyu, as the guests took their seats there was no light at all in the tea room, only the sound of the tea kettle boiling. A profound peace prevailed. Just as they were all wondering about the host’s intentions, Rikyu noticed a glow on the shoji behind him and slid open the panel. The moon framed in the opening sent its light to the tokonoma. Just legible there was a scroll with the following poem: When I lift my eyes / To the quarter of the sky / Where the cuckoo cried / There is nothing to be seen / Except the early morning moon (From The Japanese Tea Ceremony by A. L. Sadler, p. 143).
I was lucky to attend a tea practice with something of this magical quality. My sensei had conceived the idea of a fall moon-viewing practice. Each student was given a lit candle in a small glass holder, and we were instructed to walk slowly up the wooded hill behind her house, leaving space between us along the path. I waited so I could see my fellow students winding their way up through the trees at dusk. As I reached the top, the moon was covered by clouds and then briefly appeared as a misty presence. Nature was very close all around us. We conducted the tea ceremony on a felt mat where all the utensils had been arranged in advance. Looking back, it was like walking into a Japanese print. I am sure we will all never forget the beauty and poignancy of that experience.
Although a tea master’s touch is always appreciated at a tea gathering, I have learned that special effects are not needed. The essence of chanoyu is present no matter how simple and quiet the tea practice is. Each is a “one time, one meeting” opportunity and all the wonders of nature and human ingenuity apply.
For more stories from Chanoyu lore, you may wish to read Stories from a Tearoom Window by Shigenori Chikamatsu.
This article originally appeared in the March, April 2010 issue of Sukiya Living, Journal of Japanese Gardening.