Sen no Rikyū: The Father of Japanese Tea Ceremony

Sen no Rikyū is a renowned historical figure in the world of chanoyu or the Japanese “Way of Tea.” Born in Sakai in present-day Osaka Prefecture in 1522, he is known for his profound influence on the Japanese tea ceremony, particularly the tradition of wabi-cha. Rikyū is credited with emphasizing key aspects of the ceremony such as rustic simplicity, directness of approach, and honesty of self, which persist to this day.

Rikyū’s legacy is evident in the continued practice and teaching of chanoyu through the three iemoto or “head houses” of the Japanese Way of Tea: Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushakōjisenke. These three schools are collectively known as san senke, and they are dedicated to passing on Rikyū’s teachings to future generations.

Early Life and Education

Rikyū’s father, Tanaka Yohei, was a warehouse owner who later adopted the family name Sen. His mother, Gesshin Myōchin, gave birth to Rikyū in 1522 and named him Yoshiro. As a young man, Rikyū studied tea under Kitamuki Dōchin, a townsman of Sakai, and then began studying under Takeno Jōō at the age of 19. Jōō is also associated with the development of the wabi aesthetic in tea ceremony.

Rikyū’s Buddhist name was Sōeki, given to him by the Rinzai Zen priest Dairin Sōtō of Nanshūji temple in Sakai. He married a woman named Hōshin Myōju when he was 21. Later in life, Rikyū underwent Zen training at Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto, but not much is known about his middle years.

Later Years

In 1579, at the age of 58, Sen no Rikyu became a tea master for Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan’s most powerful warlords, and following Nobunaga’s death in 1582, he became a tea master for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga’s successor. Sen no Rikyu’s relationship with Hideyoshi deepened, and he became the most influential figure in the world of chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony. In 1585, Emperor Ōgimachi bestowed upon him the Buddhist lay name and title “Rikyū Koji” (利休居士) because he needed extra credentials to help at a tea gathering that Hideyoshi was hosting at the Imperial Palace. Sen no Rikyu played a central role in many other major chanoyu events, including the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony held by Hideyoshi at the Kitano Tenman-gū in 1587.

Sen no Rikyu’s Tea Ceremony Innovations

It was during his later years that Sen no Rikyu began to use very tiny, rustic tea rooms referred to as sō-an (“grass hermitage”). He designed the two-tatami mat tea room named Tai-an, which can be seen today at Myōki-an temple in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto, and which is designated as a National Treasure. He also developed many implements for tea ceremony, including flower containers, tea scoops, and lid rests made of bamboo, and also used everyday objects for tea ceremony, often in novel ways. Sen no Rikyu collaborated with a tile-maker named Raku Chōjirō to originate Raku teabowls. He preferred simple, rustic items made in Japan, rather than the expensive Chinese-made items that were fashionable at the time.


Sen no Rikyu’s contributions to tea ceremony and his beliefs and teachings came to be known as sōan-cha (the grass-thatched hermitage style of chanoyu) or more generally, wabi-cha. This line of chanoyu that his descendants and followers carried on was recognized as the Senke-ryū (千家流, “school of the house of Sen”). Sen no Rikyu’s primary disciples were Nanbō Sōkei, a somewhat legendary Zen priest, and Yamanoue Sōji, a townsman of Sakai. Another disciple, Furuta Oribe, became a celebrated tea master after Sen no Rikyu’s death. Rikyū had a number of children, including a son known in history as Sen Dōan and a daughter known as Okame. Due to many complex circumstances, Sen Shōan, the son of his second wife by a previous marriage, became the person counted as the 2nd generation in the Sen-family’s tradition of chanoyu, rather than Rikyū’s legitimate heir, Dōan.

Rikyū’s Seven High-Status Disciples

Rikyū, the renowned tea master, had seven disciples who were not only high-ranking daimyō or generals but also his direct followers. These seven individuals are known as the Rikyū Shichitetsu or Seven Foremost Disciples. They are Maeda Toshinaga, Gamō Ujisato, Hosokawa Tadaoki, Furuta Oribe, Makimura Toshisada, Dom Justo Takayama, and Shimayama Munetsuna. This set of seven was first mentioned by Rikyū’s grandson, Sen no Sōtan. However, in a 1663 list provided by Sōtan’s son, who was the fourth-generation head of the Sen Sōsa lineage of tea masters, Seta Masatada replaced Maeda Toshinaga in the list of the Rikyū Shichitetsu.

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