Wabi-Sabi Weekend: Tea for the Masses

On Wabi-Sabi Weekends, I post excerpts from my book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House.

from simply imperfect: revisiting the wabi-sabi house/photo by Joe Coca

from simply imperfect: revisiting the wabi-sabi house/photo by Joe Coca

“A fire is made, water is boiled and tea is served; this is all that is needed here. No other worldly considerations are to intrude.” – Sen no Rikyu

Wabi-sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, brought from China to Japan by 12th-century traveling monk Esai, who also picked up a few tea seeds while he was there. Zen, with its principles of “vast emptiness and nothing holy,” stresses austerity, communion with nature, and reverence for everyday life and everyday mind as the path to enlightenment. Zen monks lived ascetic, often isolated, lives and sat for long periods of concentrated meditation. To help his fellow monks stay awake during these sessions, Esai taught them how to process tea leaves into a hot drink. Tea had arrived in Japan.

Once it left the monk’s hands, tea took on a life of its own. Around the 14th century, the ruling classes developed elaborate rituals that took place in large tea rooms built in a gaudy style known as shoin, with imported hanging scrolls and formally arranged tables for vases and incense burners. Tea practitioners proved their wealth and status through their collections of elegant tea utensils and lacquered serving ware during three-day weekends where up to 100 cups of tea—as well as food and sake—were served. All of the day’s revered Tea masters pushed the opulent style, to the delight of Chinese merchants and importers.

In the 15th century, influential Tea master and Zen monk Murata Shuko began placing humble, understated utensils made by local artisans next to his finest Chinese porcelain. Saying “It is good to tie a praised horse to a straw-thatched house,” he showed the consuming classes that marrying rough with brilliant made both more interesting, and the market for simple bamboo tea servers and hand-shaped tea bowls blossomed.

Shuko’s successor as Japan’s elite Tea master, Jo-o, took his master’s criticism for rarefied displays a step further by using everyday items such as the mentsu, a wooden pilgrim’s eating bowl, as a waste-water container, and a Shigaraki onioke, a stoneware bucket used in silk dyeing, as a water jar. Jo-o also brought inexpensive unadorned celadon and peasant wares from nearby Korea into the Tea room, making the once-uppercrust ceremony accessible to the middle classes.

Jo-o’s disciple, Sen no Rikyu, is widely credited with creating the quiet, simple ceremony that made it possible for everyone—not just the wealthy—to practice Tea. In the 16th century, at the end of several centuries of war and an age of extravagant consumerism, Rikyu’s Tea ceremony provided a simple, unpretentious oasis that society craved. He served tea in bowls made by anonymous Korean potters and indigenous Japanese craftsmen, and he commissioned pottery from the Raku family, in a style that endures to this day.

Rikyu made some of his own utensils out of unlacquered bamboo (as common as crabgrass in Japan, but nowadays a Rikyu original is worth as much as a Leonardo da Vinci painting), and he arranged flowers simply and naturally in bamboo vases and common fishermen’s baskets. His tiny Tea huts (one-and-a-half tatami mats, as opposed to the four-and-a-half- to eighteen-mat room norm), based on the traditional farmer’s hut of rough mud walls, a thatched roof, and organically shaped exposed wood, included a low entryway that forced guests to bow and experience humility as they entered. Rikyu held Tea gatherings by moonlight or dim sunlight, filtered through bamboo lattice screens.

For wealthy merchants and shoguns, this simple, unembellished atmosphere felt like the ultimate luxury—the epitome of high art. For peasants and commoners, it made the Art of Tea accessible. Through Rikyu’s simple ceremony—known as wabichado (chado means “the way of Tea”)—everyone, from warlord to peasant, could experience Tea. Wabisuki (“a taste for all things wabi”) took hold of Japan and seeded a revolt against the ruling classes’ gaud.

Rikyu’s “aesthetic of the people” made Tea available to even the everyday samurai, who had little in the way of material comforts. Preparing and serving the bitter green leaf became a means for ordinary people to escape for a moment and share a ritual. Tea ceremony became a venue for Japan’s finest poets and artists and an important piece of many Zen Buddhists’ practice. Wabichado endures in Japan to this day.

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