“The Book of Tea” (1906), written by Okakura Kakuzō, is a profound exploration that intertwines the practice of chadō (teaism) with the rich tapestry of Japanese art, culture, and the pursuit of a simple life. Through this essay, Okakura challenges and dispels Western stereotypes and oversimplifications of the East, offering a nuanced and authentic perspective on the beauty and significance of tea in Japanese society.
Chapter 1. The Cup of Humanity
Tea originated as a medicinal drink and later gained popularity as a beverage. In eighth-century China, it became a subject of poetry and a refined pastime. In the fifteenth century, Japan elevated it to a religious and aesthetic practice known as Teaism. Teaism is a devotion to the beautiful aspects of life amidst its ordinary and mundane realities. It promotes purity, harmony, mutual charity, and a romantic view of social order. It celebrates the Imperfect as it strives to achieve something meaningful in the seemingly impossible journey of life.
The Philosophy of Tea extends beyond mere aesthetics; it encompasses ethics and religion, embodying our entire perspective on humanity and nature. It promotes cleanliness as a form of hygiene and advocates simplicity over complexity and extravagance as an economic principle. It is akin to moral geometry, defining our sense of proportion in the universe. Teaism exemplifies the true spirit of Eastern democracy, as it makes all who embrace it taste aristocrats.
Japan’s long isolation from the outside world, which fostered introspection, greatly contributed to the development of Teaism. Its influence can be seen in our homes, customs, clothing, cuisine, art, and literature. No scholar of Japanese culture can ignore its pervasive presence. It has permeated the refined atmosphere of noble chambers and found its way into the humblest dwellings. Even our peasants have learned the art of flower arrangement, and the most ordinary laborer pays homage to the natural elements. In our everyday conversations, we refer to someone “with no tea” in them when they lack an appreciation for the subtle and amusing aspects of life’s drama. On the other hand, we criticize the unbridled aesthete who indulges in liberated emotions, disregarding the realities of the world, as someone “with too much tea” in them.
To an outsider, it may seem like much ado about nothing. They might dismiss it as a tempest in a teacup. However, when we consider the limited capacity for human enjoyment, how quickly it can be overwhelmed by tears, and how easily our unquenchable thirst for infinity drains it to the last drop, we can understand why we attach such significance to the teacup. In comparison, mankind has engaged in far worse pursuits. In our worship of Bacchus, we have made excessive sacrifices, and even glorified the violent image of Mars. So why not dedicate ourselves to the queen of the Camellias and revel in the warm stream of sympathy that flows from her altar? In the liquid amber contained within the ivory porcelain, the enlightened can touch the sweet reserve of Confucius, the delightful zest of Laotse, and the heavenly aroma of Sakyamuni himself.
Those who fail to recognize the grandeur of little things within themselves are prone to overlook the greatness of small things in others. The typical Westerner, in their self-satisfied demeanor, views the tea ceremony as just another example of the countless oddities that make the East appear quaint and childish to them. They used to consider Japan barbaric when it embraced the gentle arts of peace, but now label it civilized as it engages in mass slaughter on Manchurian battlefields. The Code of the Samurai, which extols the art of death and inspires our soldiers to rejoice in self-sacrifice, has received much attention lately. Yet, very little notice has been given to Teaism, which embodies so much of our Art of Life. If civilization is to be measured by the gruesome glory of war, we would rather remain barbarians. We eagerly await the day when our art and ideals are duly respected.
When will the West truly understand, or at least make an effort to understand, the East? We Asians often find ourselves astounded by the peculiar tapestry of facts and fictions woven around us. We are depicted as subsisting on the fragrance of lotuses or even on mice and cockroaches. We are either portrayed as impotent fanatics or as utterly debauched. Indian spirituality is mocked as ignorance, Chinese sobriety as stupidity, and Japanese patriotism as a consequence of fatalism. Some claim that our insensitivity to pain and wounds stems from the callousness of our nervous system!
Why not find amusement at our expense? Asia returns the favor. It would be even more entertaining if you knew all that we have imagined and written about you. It’s a tapestry of enchanting perspectives, filled with both awe-inspired admiration and silent resentment towards the unfamiliar and undefined. You have been adorned with virtues too refined to be envied, and accused of crimes too vivid to be condemned. In the past, our wise men, the ones who claimed to know, informed us that you hid bushy tails beneath your garments and feasted on fricassee made from newborn babes! No, we had even worse notions about you: we believed you were the most impractical people on Earth, preaching what you never practiced.
Fortunately, these misconceptions are rapidly fading away among us. Commerce has compelled the tongues of Europe upon many Eastern ports. Asian youth are flocking to Western universities to acquire a modern education. While our understanding of your culture may not be profound, we are at least willing to learn. Some of my fellow countrymen have adopted an excessive amount of your customs and etiquette, foolishly thinking that the acquisition of stiff collars and tall silk hats signifies the attainment of your civilization. Though these affectations are both pitiful and regrettable, they demonstrate our eagerness to approach the West on bended knees. Unfortunately, the Western attitude does not lend itself favorably to understanding the East. Christian missionaries arrive to impart, not to receive. Your knowledge is based on scant translations of our vast literature, if not on the unreliable anecdotes of passing travelers. Rarely does the noble pen of a Lafcadio Hearn or the author of “The Web of Indian Life” illuminate the Oriental darkness with the torch of our own sentiments.
Perhaps I reveal my own ignorance of the Tea Cult by speaking so frankly. Its very essence of politeness dictates that one should say what is expected, and nothing more. But I refuse to be a polite tea enthusiast. The damage caused by the mutual misunderstandings between the New World and the Old has been extensive. Therefore, one need not apologize for contributing his share towards fostering a better understanding. The start of the twentieth century could have been spared the sight of bloody warfare if Russia had deigned to understand Japan better. The contemptuous disregard of Eastern issues bears dire consequences for humanity! European imperialism, quick to raise the absurd cry of the Yellow Peril, fails to realize that Asia too may awaken to the harsh reality of the White Disaster. You may laugh at us for having “too much tea,” but can we not suspect that you in the West have “no tea” in your constitution?
Let us put an end to the continents trading barbs and instead become wiser, if not sadder, through the mutual exchange of knowledge across hemispheres. We have evolved along different paths, but there is no reason why we cannot complement one another. You have gained expansion at the expense of restlessness, while we have cultivated a harmony that is vulnerable to aggression. Can you believe it? In certain aspects, the East is actually better off than the West!
Curiously enough, humanity has found common ground in the tea-cup. It is the only Asiatic ritual that garners universal admiration. The white man may have ridiculed our religion and morals, but they have embraced the brown beverage without hesitation. Afternoon tea has now become a significant social affair in Western society. In the delicate clinking of trays and saucers, in the gentle rustle of feminine hospitality, in the shared discourse about cream and sugar, we recognize that the Worship of Tea is unequivocally established. The philosophical acceptance of the guest toward the uncertain brew proclaims that, in this singular instance, the Oriental spirit reigns supreme.
The earliest mention of tea in European writings is said to be found in the account of an Arabian traveler who noted that, after the year 879, the main sources of revenue in Canton were the taxes on salt and tea. Marco Polo recorded the dismissal of a Chinese finance minister in 1285 for his arbitrary increase in tea taxes. It was during the age of great discoveries that the European populace began to learn more about the Far East. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Dutch brought news of a delightful drink made in the East from the leaves of a bush. Travelers such as Giovanni Batista Ramusio (1559), L. Almeida (1576), Maffeno (1588), and Tareira (1610) also mentioned tea. In 1610, ships of the Dutch East India Company brought the first tea to Europe. It became known in France in 1636 and reached Russia in 1638. England embraced it in 1650, referring to it as “That excellent and by all physicians approved China drink, called by the Chineans Tcha, and by other nations Tay, alias Tee.”
Like all valuable things in the world, the introduction of Tea faced opposition. Dissidents like Henry Saville (1678) condemned tea-drinking as a distasteful custom. Jonas Hanway (Essay on Tea, 1756) claimed that men appeared less distinguished and women lost their beauty due to tea consumption. The initial high cost (around fifteen or sixteen shillings per pound) prevented widespread use and made it a luxury for special occasions and noble gatherings. However, despite these setbacks, tea-drinking spread astonishingly fast. The coffee houses of London in the early 18th century became, in fact, tea houses, frequented by intellectuals like Addison and Steele, who engaged in lively conversation over their cups of tea. The beverage soon became a necessity of life and subject to taxation. It is worth noting its significant role in modern history. Colonial America endured oppression until the burden of heavy tea duties became unbearable. The throwing of tea chests into Boston Harbor marked a turning point in the quest for American independence.
There is a subtle allure in the taste of tea that makes it irresistible and capable of inspiring idealization. Western humorists wasted no time in infusing its aroma with the fragrance of their wit. Unlike wine’s arrogance, coffee’s self-awareness, or cocoa’s innocent charm, tea possesses its own distinct character. As early as 1711, the Spectator remarked, “I would therefore recommend these speculations in particular to well-regulated families who set aside an hour every morning for tea, bread, and butter, and I would earnestly advise them to include this paper as an integral part of their tea-time rituals.” Samuel Johnson painted his own portrait as “an unrepentant and shameless tea drinker, who for twenty years diluted his meals solely with the infusion of this captivating plant, who was entertained by tea in the evenings, comforted by tea in the late hours of the night, and greeted the morning with tea.”
Charles Lamb, an avowed devotee, captured the essence of Teaism when he proclaimed that the greatest pleasure he knew was to perform a good deed in secret and have it accidentally discovered. For Teaism is the art of concealing beauty so that it may be uncovered, of hinting at what cannot be revealed outright. It is the noble secret of being able to laugh at oneself, calmly yet profoundly, embodying humor itself—the smile of philosophy. All genuine humorists can, in this sense, be called tea-philosophers, including Thackeray and, naturally, Shakespeare. The poets of the Decadence (for when has the world not been in decadence?) have also, to some extent, paved the way for Teaism with their protests against materialism. Perhaps in our contemplation of imperfection, the East and the West can find solace and common ground in the present day.
According to Taoist legends, at the dawn of creation, Spirit and Matter engaged in a fierce battle. Eventually, the Yellow Emperor, the celestial ruler, emerged victorious over Shuhyung, the embodiment of darkness and earth. In his dying moments, the Titan struck his head against the celestial vault, shattering the blue dome of jade into countless fragments. Stars lost their places, and the moon wandered aimlessly through the vast chasms of the night. Faced with despair, the Yellow Emperor embarked on a quest to find someone who could mend the heavens. His search was not in vain. From the depths of the Eastern sea emerged Niuka, a divine queen adorned with a horned crown and a dragon’s tail, radiant in her armor of fire. Using her magic cauldron, she forged a rainbow of five colors and restored the Chinese sky. However, it is said that Niuka forgot to seal two tiny crevices in the celestial firmament, thus giving birth to the duality of love—two souls forever drifting through space, never at rest until they unite to complete the universe. Each individual must reconstruct their own sky of hope and serenity.
In the present era, the celestial heaven of humanity has been shattered in the colossal struggle for wealth and power. The world is engulfed in the darkness of self-centeredness and vulgarity. Knowledge is acquired with a guilty conscience, and acts of kindness are often driven by utilitarian motives. The East and the West, like two dragons entangled in a sea of turmoil, strive in vain to reclaim the precious gem of life. We are in need of a new Niuka to mend this grand devastation—an awaited great Avatar. In the meantime, let us take a sip of tea. The afternoon sun casts a radiant glow on the bamboo, fountains exude joyous bubbles, and the rustling of the pines resonates within our teapot. Let us indulge in dreams of transience and embrace the delightful folly of existence.
Chapter 2. The Schools of Tea
Tea, like a work of art, requires a skilled hand to bring forth its most noble qualities. Just as we have good and bad paintings (unfortunately more often the latter), we also have good and bad tea. There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for creating the perfect tea, just as there are no fixed rules for producing a masterpiece by Titian or Sesson. Each preparation of tea leaves possesses its own uniqueness, its special interaction with water and heat, its distinctive way of narrating a story. True beauty must always reside within it. How much suffering do we endure due to society’s constant failure to recognize this simple and fundamental law of art and life? Lichilai, a poet from the Song Dynasty, lamented that there were three truly lamentable things in the world: the corruption of fine young minds through flawed education, the debasement of fine art through vulgar admiration, and the utter wastage of exquisite tea through inept handling.
Like art, tea has its periods and schools. Its evolution can be roughly divided into three main stages: Boiled Tea, Whipped Tea, and Steeped Tea. We, as modern individuals, belong to the latter school. These various methods of appreciating tea reflect the spirit of the eras in which they flourished. For life is an expression, and our unconscious actions continuously betray our innermost thoughts. Confucius once said, “Man does not conceal himself.” Perhaps we reveal ourselves too much in trivial matters because we have so little of the great to conceal. The minute incidents of our daily routines serve as a commentary on our cultural ideals, just as the highest achievements in philosophy or poetry. Just as the preference for different vintages distinguishes the idiosyncrasies of various periods and nationalities in Europe, the ideals of tea characterize the diverse moods of Oriental culture. The Cake Tea, boiled; the Powdered Tea, whipped; and the Leaf Tea, steeped, symbolize the distinct emotional impulses of China’s Tang, Song, and Ming dynasties. If we were inclined to borrow the oft-misused terminology of art classification, we might classify them as the Classic, Romantic, and Naturalistic schools of tea.
The tea plant, native to southern China, has been known to Chinese botanists and physicians since ancient times. It is mentioned in classical texts by various names such as Tou, Tseh, Chung, Kha, and Ming. It was highly prized for its ability to alleviate fatigue, uplift the spirit, strengthen the will, and improve eyesight. It was not only consumed internally but also applied externally in the form of a paste to relieve rheumatic pains. Taoists regarded it as a vital ingredient in the elixir of immortality, and Buddhists used it extensively to combat drowsiness during their long hours of meditation.
During the fourth and fifth centuries, tea gained popularity as a beloved beverage among the people of the Yangtze River valley. It was during this time that the modern Chinese character “Cha” was coined, likely derived from the classical term “Tou.” Poets from the southern dynasties expressed their passionate admiration for the “froth of the liquid jade.” Emperors would reward their esteemed ministers with rare tea preparations as a gesture of recognition for their exceptional services. However, the method of tea consumption during this period was extremely rudimentary. The leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, formed into cakes, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and sometimes even onions! This practice still persists among the Tibetans and various Mongolian tribes, who create a curious syrup from these ingredients. The use of lemon slices by the Russians, who learned about tea from Chinese caravans, indicates the continuation of this ancient method.
It took the brilliance of the Tang dynasty to elevate tea from its crude state and bring about its ultimate refinement. Luwuh, a prominent figure in the mid-eighth century, emerged as a pioneer of tea. He lived in an era when Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism sought to merge their ideologies. The prevalent pantheistic symbolism urged individuals to perceive the universal within the particular. As a poet, Luwuh recognized in the art of tea the same harmony and order that permeated all aspects of existence. In his renowned work, “Chaking” (The Holy Scripture of Tea), he laid out the Tea Code, establishing himself as the revered patron saint of Chinese tea merchants.
The “Chaking” comprises three volumes and ten chapters. In the first chapter, Luwuh explores the nature of the tea plant, while the second chapter delves into the tools used for harvesting the leaves. The third chapter focuses on the selection of tea leaves. According to Luwuh, the finest tea leaves should possess “creases like the leather boots of Tartar horsemen, curls like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfolding like mist rising from a ravine, gleaming like a lake touched by a gentle breeze, and being wet and soft like freshly rain-swept earth.”
The fourth chapter of Luwuh’s “Chaking” focuses on detailing and describing the twenty-four components of the tea equipage, starting with the tripod brazier and concluding with the bamboo cabinet that houses all these utensils. It is noteworthy to observe Luwuh’s inclination towards Taoist symbolism in this context. Additionally, it is interesting to see the influence of tea on Chinese ceramics. The renowned Celestial porcelain, known for its origins in the pursuit of replicating the exquisite hue of jade, resulted in the blue glaze of the south and the white glaze of the north during the Tang dynasty. Luwuh believed that blue was the ideal color for tea cups as it enhanced the greenness of the beverage, while white made it appear pinkish and unappetizing. This preference was due to his use of cake-tea. Subsequently, during the Sung dynasty, when tea masters embraced powdered tea, they favored heavy bowls in shades of blue-black and dark brown. In the Ming dynasty, renowned for steeped tea, they took delight in using lightweight white porcelain wares.
In the fifth chapter, Luwuh elucidates the process of making tea. He eliminates all ingredients except salt. He also delves into the much-discussed topic of water selection and the appropriate boiling point. According to him, mountain spring water is the best, followed by river water and spring water in terms of quality. Boiling is categorized into three stages: the first boil occurs when small bubbles resembling fish eyes swim on the surface; the second boil is characterized by crystal beads of bubbles cascading in a fountain-like manner; and the third boil is marked by turbulent billows in the kettle. Cake-tea is roasted over fire until it becomes as soft as a baby’s arm, then it is shredded into powder between fine pieces of paper. Salt is added during the first boil, and the tea is added during the second. At the third boil, a dipperful of cold water is poured into the kettle to settle the tea and revive the “youth of the water.” The beverage is then poured into cups and consumed. Oh, what nectar! The delicate tea leaves hang like filmy clouds in a tranquil sky or float like water lilies on emerald streams. It is this remarkable beverage that inspired Lotung, a Tang poet, to write: “The first cup moistens my lips and throat, the second cup dispels my solitude, the third cup searches my barren entrails, only to find therein some five thousand volumes of peculiar ideographs. The fourth cup raises a slight perspiration— all the wrongs of life evaporate through my pores. With the fifth cup, I am purified; the sixth cup beckons me to the realms of immortals. As for the seventh cup—ah, I can drink no more! I merely feel the cool breeze caressing my sleeves. Where is Horaisan? Let me ride on this sweet breeze and be carried away there.”
The remaining chapters of the “Chaking” address topics such as the vulgarity associated with ordinary tea-drinking practices, a historical summary of notable tea enthusiasts, the renowned tea plantations of China, possible variations of the tea service, and illustrations of tea utensils. Unfortunately, the last chapter has been lost.
The publication of the “Chaking” must have caused quite a stir during its time. Luwuh, having gained the favor of Emperor Taisung (763-779), became widely renowned, attracting numerous followers. Some discerning individuals were even said to distinguish between Luwuh’s tea and that made by his disciples. One mandarin, unfortunately, became infamous for his inability to appreciate the tea brewed by this great master.
In the Sung dynasty, a new trend emerged with the popularity of whipped tea, giving rise to the second school of Tea. The leaves were finely ground into powder using a small stone mill, and the preparation was whisked in hot water with a delicate bamboo whisk. This novel process brought about changes in both the tea equipment used by Luwuh and the selection of leaves, forever eliminating the use of salt. The Sung people’s enthusiasm for tea knew no bounds. Connoisseurs competed to discover new varieties, and competitions were regularly held to determine their superiority. Emperor Kiasung (1101-1124), an artistically inclined ruler rather than a conventional monarch, lavished his wealth on acquiring rare tea species. He even wrote a treatise on twenty types of tea, highly valuing “white tea” as the rarest and finest quality.
The tea ideals of the Sungs differed from those of the Tangs, just as their concept of life differed. They sought to actualize what their predecessors attempted to symbolize. In the Neo-Confucian perspective, the cosmic law was not merely reflected in the phenomenal world; the phenomenal world itself embodied the cosmic law. Eons were considered mere moments, and Nirvana was always within reach. The Taoist notion that immortality lay in eternal change permeated all facets of their thinking. It was the process, not the outcome, that fascinated them. Completion, rather than the end result, held true significance. Thus, humans found themselves face to face with nature, and a new meaning unfolded in the art of living. Tea ceased to be merely a poetic pastime; it became a means of self-realization. Wangyucheng praised tea for “flooding his soul like a direct appeal” and likened its delicate bitterness to the lingering aftertaste of wise counsel. Sotumpa extolled the strength of immaculate purity in tea, which resisted corruption like a truly virtuous person. Among the Buddhists, particularly the southern Zen sect that incorporated many Taoist principles, an elaborate tea ritual was formulated. Monks gathered before the Bodhi Dharma image and drank tea from a single bowl, observing the profound formality of a holy sacrament. This Zen ritual eventually evolved into the Tea Ceremony of Japan in the fifteenth century.
Unfortunately, the sudden eruption of the Mongol tribes in the thirteenth century brought devastation and conquest to China, placing the country under the barbaric rule of the Yuan Emperors. As a result, the cultural achievements of the Song dynasty were annihilated. The Ming dynasty, which attempted to reclaim national identity in the mid-fifteenth century, faced internal troubles and China once again succumbed to the foreign rule of the Manchus in the seventeenth century. Manners and customs underwent drastic changes, eradicating all traces of the past. The practice of powdered tea was completely forgotten. A Ming commentator struggled to recall the shape of the tea whisk mentioned in one of the Song classics. Tea was now consumed by steeping the leaves in hot water in a bowl or cup. The reason why the Western world is unfamiliar with the older method of tea drinking is that Europe only became acquainted with it towards the end of the Ming dynasty.
For the contemporary Chinese, tea has become a delightful beverage but no longer holds an ideal status. The long history of suffering in their country has robbed them of the enthusiasm for seeking the deeper meaning of life. They have become modern, which essentially means old and disillusioned. The sublime faith in illusions, which sustains the eternal youth and vitality of poets and ancients, has eluded them. They have become eclectics who politely acknowledge the traditions of the universe. They play with nature but do not aspire to conquer or worship it. Their leaf tea often possesses a wonderful floral aroma, but the romantic essence of Tang and Song ceremonial traditions is absent from their cups.
Japan, closely following in the footsteps of Chinese civilization, has experienced tea in all its stages. As early as 729, there are records of Emperor Shomu offering tea to one hundred monks at his palace in Nara. It is likely that the leaves were imported by Japanese ambassadors to the Tang Court and prepared in the fashion of the time. In 801, the monk Saicho brought back some tea seeds and planted them in Yeisan. Throughout the following centuries, many tea gardens were established, and the aristocracy and priesthood took great delight in the beverage. In 1191, the Sung tea arrived in Japan with the return of Yeisai-zenji, who had traveled there to study the southern Zen school. The new seeds he brought back were successfully cultivated in three locations, one of which, the Uji district near Kyoto, is still renowned for producing the world’s finest tea. The southern Zen school spread rapidly, bringing with it the tea ritual and the tea ideals of the Sung dynasty. By the fifteenth century, under the patronage of Shogun Ashikaga Yoshinasa, the tea ceremony was fully developed and established as an independent and secular performance. Since then, Teaism has become firmly rooted in Japanese culture. The use of steeped tea, which became popular in later China, is relatively recent in Japan and has only been known since the mid-seventeenth century. It has replaced powdered tea in everyday consumption, although powdered tea continues to hold a special place as the pinnacle of tea varieties.
It is in the Japanese tea ceremony that we witness the culmination of tea ideals. Our successful resistance against the Mongol invasion in 1281 allowed us to carry on the Sung movement that had been abruptly halted in China due to the nomadic incursion. Tea in Japan became more than a mere idealization of the act of drinking; it evolved into a religion of the art of life. The beverage became a conduit for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred practice in which the host and guest united to create the highest state of bliss in the mundane world. The tea room became an oasis amidst the dreary expanse of existence, where weary travelers could gather to partake in the shared spring of art appreciation. The ceremony became an improvised drama, with the tea, flowers, and paintings forming its plot. Every element was carefully orchestrated: colors harmonized with the room, sounds blended seamlessly into the rhythm, gestures were unobtrusive yet natural, and words were absent to maintain the unity of the surroundings. All movements were performed with simplicity and grace, and remarkably, this vision was often achieved. A profound philosophy underpinned it all. Teaism was Taoism in disguise.
Chapter 3. Taoism and Zennism
The association of Zen Buddhism with tea is well-known. We have previously mentioned that the tea ceremony originated from the Zen ritual. The name of Laozi, the founder of Taoism, is also closely linked to the history of tea. According to the Chinese school manual on the origins of customs and habits, the tradition of offering tea to guests began with Guanyin, a prominent disciple of Laozi, who supposedly presented a cup of the golden elixir to the “Old Philosopher” at the gate of the Han Pass. While we may question the authenticity of such stories, they serve to reinforce the early use of tea by Taoists. Our fascination with Taoism and Zen Buddhism lies primarily in the profound ideas about life and art that are embodied in what we now refer to as Teaism.
Unfortunately, there has yet to be a comprehensive presentation of Taoist and Zen doctrines in any foreign language, despite some commendable attempts. Translating such teachings is always a challenge, and, as a Ming author remarks, it can, at best, capture only the surface of a brocade, lacking the subtlety of its colors and design. But then again, is there any great doctrine that can be easily expounded? The ancient sages never sought to present their teachings in a systematic manner. They spoke in paradoxes, for they feared expressing only partial truths. They began by sounding foolish and ended up enlightening their listeners. Laozi himself, with his charming wit, remarked, “If people of lesser intelligence hear about the Tao, they burst into laughter. It would not be the Tao if they did not find it laughable.”
The term “Tao” has various translations, including Path, Way, Absolute, Law, Nature, Supreme Reason, and Mode. These interpretations are not incorrect, as the Taoists employ the term based on the context of their inquiry. Laotse himself described it as follows: “There is a thing that encompasses all, which existed before Heaven and Earth. How silent! How solitary! It stands alone and remains unchanging. It revolves without endangering itself and is the mother of the universe. I do not know its name, so I call it the Path. With reluctance, I call it the Infinite. Infinity is the Fleeting, the Fleeting is the Vanishing, the Vanishing is the Reverting.” The Tao lies in the Passage rather than the Path. It embodies the spirit of Cosmic Change—an eternal growth that returns upon itself to create new forms. It recoils upon itself like the dragon, the cherished symbol of the Taoists. It folds and unfolds like the clouds. The Tao can be likened to the Great Transition. Subjectively, it represents the Mood of the Universe. Its Absolute is the Relative.
First and foremost, it is important to note that Taoism, like its legitimate successor, Zen Buddhism, represents the individualistic inclination of the Southern Chinese mindset, in contrast to the communism prevalent in Northern China, which found expression in Confucianism. The Middle Kingdom, as vast as Europe, exhibits a diversity of idiosyncrasies shaped by the two major river systems that traverse it. The Yangtze and Yellow Rivers are akin to the Mediterranean and the Baltic, respectively. Even today, despite centuries of unification, the Southern and Northern Chinese differ in their thoughts and beliefs, just as a member of the Latin race differs from a Teuton. In ancient times, when communication was even more challenging than it is now, and particularly during the feudal era, this divergence in thinking was most pronounced. The art and poetry of one region breathed an entirely distinct atmosphere from that of the other. In Laotse, his followers, and Kutsugen, the precursor of the Yangtze nature poets, we encounter an idealism that is incompatible with the prosaic ethical notions of their contemporaneous northern writers. Laotse lived five centuries before the Christian Era.
The seeds of Taoist contemplation can be traced back to a time preceding the appearance of Laotse, who was nicknamed the Long-Eared. The ancient records of China, especially the Book of Changes, foreshadowed his ideas. However, the profound respect for the laws and customs of the classical period of Chinese civilization, which reached its zenith with the establishment of the Zhou dynasty in the 16th century B.C., hindered the development of individualism for a considerable period. It was only after the disintegration of the Zhou dynasty and the emergence of numerous independent kingdoms that individualism could flourish and manifest itself in the abundance of free thought. Laotse and Soshi (Chuangtse), both Southerners, became the foremost advocates of the New School. Conversely, Confucius and his numerous disciples aimed to uphold ancestral conventions. Understanding Taoism requires some knowledge of Confucianism, and vice versa.
We have mentioned before that the Taoist concept of the Absolute is the Relative. In matters of ethics, the Taoists vehemently criticized societal laws and moral codes because they viewed right and wrong as relative terms. Definitions always impose limitations—terms like “fixed” and “unchangeable” signify a halt in growth. Kuzugen once remarked, “The Sages move the world.” Our moral standards are derived from the past needs of society, but should society always remain unchanged? Adhering to communal traditions often requires sacrificing the individual for the sake of the state. Education, in order to maintain this grand illusion, promotes a kind of ignorance. People aren’t taught to genuinely embody virtue; they are merely instructed on proper behavior. We are wicked because we are excessively self-aware. We harbor a conscience because we are afraid to tell the truth to others, and we seek refuge in pride because we are afraid to confront our own truths. How can one take the world seriously when the world itself is so absurd? The spirit of transaction permeates everything. Honor and chastity! Behold the smug salesman peddling the concepts of the Good and the True. One can even purchase a so-called Religion, which is essentially common morality adorned with flowers and music. Remove the embellishments from the Church, and what remains? Nevertheless, these commercial enterprises thrive astonishingly well, as their prices are ridiculously cheap—a prayer for a ticket to heaven, a diploma for an honorable citizenship. Hide yourself quickly under a bushel, for if the world were aware of your true usefulness, you would soon be auctioned off to the highest bidder by the public auctioneer. Why do men and women enjoy self-promotion so much? Is it not an instinct inherited from the days of slavery?
The strength of an idea lies not only in its ability to challenge prevailing thought but also in its capacity to shape subsequent movements. Taoism exerted significant influence during the Shin dynasty, the era of Chinese unification from which the name “China” originated. It would be fascinating, if we had the time, to explore its impact on contemporary thinkers—mathematicians, legal and military writers, mystics, alchemists, and later nature poets of the Yangtze River. We shouldn’t overlook the speculators on Reality who questioned whether a white horse was real because of its color or its solidity, or the Conversationalists of the Six Dynasties who, like Zen philosophers, engaged in discussions about the Pure and the Abstract. Above all, we should acknowledge Taoism for its contribution to the development of the Chinese character, imparting it with a certain elegance and refinement, like “warm jade.” Chinese history is replete with instances where devotees of Taoism, whether princes or hermits, pursued the teachings of their creed with diverse and intriguing outcomes. Their stories will provide both enlightenment and entertainment. They will abound with anecdotes, allegories, and aphorisms. We would eagerly engage in conversation with the delightful emperor who never died because he had never truly lived. We might ride the wind with Liehtse and find it utterly still because we ourselves are the wind, or dwell suspended in mid-air with the Aged one of the Yellow River, who lived between Heaven and Earth, subject to neither. Even in the present-day distorted representation of Taoism found in China, we can immerse ourselves in a wealth of imagery that is unmatched by any other belief system.
However, Taoism’s greatest contribution to Asian life lies in the realm of aesthetics. Chinese historians have long regarded Taoism as the “art of being in the world” because it concerns itself with the present—the realm of ourselves. It is within us that the divine meets with nature, and yesterday separates from tomorrow. The present represents the dynamic infinity, the legitimate domain of relativity. Relativity seeks adjustment, and adjustment is art. The art of life lies in constantly readjusting ourselves to our surroundings. Taoism embraces the ordinary world as it is and, unlike Confucianism or Buddhism, endeavors to find beauty in our realm of sorrow and anxiety. The Sung allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters perfectly illustrates the inclination of the three philosophies. Sakyamuni, Confucius, and Laozi once stood before a jar of vinegar—the symbol of life—and each dipped his finger to taste it. Confucius, practical and matter-of-fact, found it sour; the Buddha declared it bitter; and Laozi pronounced it sweet.
The Taoists believed that the comedy of life would become more captivating if everyone embraced the unities. Success in the mundane drama depended on maintaining balance, giving space to others without relinquishing one’s own position. To properly play our parts, we must comprehend the entire play; the concept of totality must never be overshadowed by the individual. Laozi elucidates this through his favorite metaphor of the Vacuum. He asserted that true essence resided only in the vacuum. The true reality of a room, for example, lay in the empty space enclosed by the roof and walls, not in the physical structure itself. The value of a water pitcher lay in its emptiness, where water could be poured, not in its shape or the material it was made of. The Vacuum holds immense power because it contains everything. Only in vacuum can motion manifest. One who can transform themselves into a vacuum, into which others can freely enter, would become the master of all situations. The whole can always exert control over the part.
These Taoist ideas have profoundly influenced our theories of action, even extending to practices like fencing and wrestling. Jiu-jitsu, the Japanese art of self-defense, derives its name from a passage in the Tao Te Ching. In jiu-jitsu, the objective is to draw out and deplete the enemy’s strength through non-resistance, by creating a vacuum, while conserving one’s own strength for the decisive moment of victory. In art, the significance of this principle is exemplified by the power of suggestion. By leaving something unsaid, the viewer is given the opportunity to complete the idea, and thus a magnificent masterpiece captivates your attention irresistibly, making you feel as though you are truly a part of it. There exists a vacuum for you to enter and fill with the entirety of your aesthetic emotions.
The Taoist ideal of the “Real man” is one who has mastered the art of living. From birth, they navigate the realm of dreams until they awaken to reality in death. They humbly temper their own brilliance to blend into the obscurity of others. They are described as hesitant, respectful, trembling, unassuming, vacant, and formless. The three treasures they hold dear are Pity, Economy, and Modesty.
Shifting our focus to Zen Buddhism, we discover its emphasis on Taoist teachings. Zen, derived from the Sanskrit word Dhyana, meaning meditation, asserts that supreme self-realization can be achieved through dedicated meditation. Meditation is one of the six paths to attaining Buddhahood, and Zen practitioners claim that Sakyamuni placed particular importance on this method in his later teachings, passing down the rules to his chief disciple Kashiapa. According to tradition, Kashiapa, the first Zen patriarch, shared the secret with Ananda, who then passed it on to successive patriarchs until it reached Bodhi-Dharma, the twenty-eighth patriarch. Bodhi-Dharma arrived in Northern China in the early sixth century, becoming the first patriarch of Chinese Zen. The history and doctrines of these patriarchs carry uncertainties. In its philosophical aspect, early Zen Buddhism appears to have affinities with both Indian Negativism, as exemplified by Nagarjuna, and the Gnan philosophy formulated by Sancharacharya. The sixth Chinese patriarch, Yeno (637-713), founder of Southern Zen, played a significant role in shaping Zen as we know it today. He was followed closely by the influential Baso (died 788), who made Zen a vibrant force in Chinese life. Hiakujo (719-814), a disciple of Baso, established the first Zen monastery and formulated rituals and regulations for its governance. In the discussions that took place within the Zen school after Baso’s time, we witness the influence of native modes of thought from the Yangtze River region, in contrast to the earlier Indian idealism. Despite any sectarian claims to the contrary, one cannot help but notice the similarities between Southern Zen and the teachings of Laozi and the Taoist Conversationalists. The Tao Te Ching already contains references to the importance of self-concentration and the proper regulation of breath, which are essential in Zen meditation practices. Some of the most insightful commentaries on the Tao Te Ching have been written by Zen scholars.
Similar to Taoism, Zen Buddhism venerates Relativity. One Zen master defines Zen as the art of sensing the polar star in the southern sky. Truth can only be grasped through the understanding of opposites. Furthermore, Zen, like Taoism, strongly advocates for individualism. Nothing is truly real except that which pertains to the workings of our own minds. In a story involving the sixth patriarch Yeno, two monks were observed watching a pagoda’s flag fluttering in the wind. One monk claimed, “It is the wind that moves,” while the other asserted, “It is the flag that moves.” Yeno, however, explained to them that the true movement was neither of the wind nor the flag but of something within their own minds. In another anecdote, Hiakujo was walking through a forest with a disciple when a hare ran away upon their approach. Hiakujo asked why the hare fled, to which the disciple replied, “Because it is afraid of you.” Hiakujo responded, “No, it is because you have a murderous instinct.” This dialogue recalls a conversation between Soshi (Chauntse), the Taoist, and his friend. While walking along a riverbank, Soshi exclaimed how joyfully the fishes were frolicking in the water.
Zen Buddhism, much like Taoism, stood in opposition to orthodox Buddhism, just as Taoism opposed Confucianism. Zen practitioners saw words as hindrances to true insight and considered Buddhist scriptures merely commentaries on personal speculation. Their goal was direct communion with the inner nature of things, considering external forms as obstacles to perceiving Truth clearly. This affinity for the Abstract led Zen practitioners to prefer black and white sketches over elaborate, colorful paintings of the traditional Buddhist school. Some Zen followers even became iconoclastic, seeking to recognize the Buddha within themselves rather than through images and symbolism. An example of this iconoclastic mindset is seen in the story of Tankawosho, who broke up a wooden Buddha statue on a winter day to use as firewood. When someone expressed shock at the sacrilege, Tankawosho calmly replied, “I wish to get warmth from the ashes.” The angry retort came, “But you certainly will not get warmth from this image!” To which Tankawosho responded, “If I do not, then this is certainly not a Buddha, and I am committing no sacrilege.” He then turned to warm himself over the kindling fire.
One of Zen’s unique contributions to Eastern thought was its recognition of the equal importance of the mundane and the spiritual. It held that in the grand scheme of things, there was no distinction between small and great, with even the tiniest atom possessing the same possibilities as the entire universe. Those seeking perfection had to find the reflection of the inner light within their own lives. The organization of Zen monasteries reflected this perspective. Each member, except the abbot, had a specific task in caring for the monastery. Interestingly, lighter duties were assigned to the novices, while the more respected and advanced monks were given the more laborious and menial tasks. These services formed part of Zen discipline, demanding perfection in every action. Profound discussions could arise while weeding the garden, peeling a turnip, or serving tea. The entire philosophy of Teaism is a direct result of this Zen understanding of greatness in the smallest incidents of life. Taoism provided the foundation for aesthetic ideals, while Zen Buddhism made these ideals practical and tangible.
Chapter IV. The Tea-Room
To European architects who were accustomed to the traditions of stone and brick construction, our Japanese method of building with wood and bamboo may seem unworthy of being classified as architecture. Only recently has a knowledgeable student of Western architecture recognized and acknowledged the remarkable excellence of our grand temples. Given this perspective on our classic architecture, it is difficult to expect outsiders to appreciate the subtle beauty of the tea room. Its principles of construction and decoration are entirely different from those of the West.
The tea room, known as the Sukiya, does not claim to be anything more than a simple cottage—a straw hut, as we call it. The original meaning of the ideographs for Sukiya is “Abode of Fancy.” Over time, different tea masters substituted various Chinese characters to reflect their own understanding of the tea room, so Sukiya could also signify the “Abode of Vacancy” or the “Abode of the Unsymmetrical.” It is an Abode of Fancy because it is a temporary structure built to accommodate a poetic impulse. It is an Abode of Vacancy because it lacks ornamentation, except for what is placed within it to satisfy a momentary aesthetic need. It is an Abode of the Unsymmetrical because it is dedicated to the worship of imperfection, intentionally leaving certain aspects unfinished to stimulate the imagination’s creative participation. Since the sixteenth century, the ideals of Teaism have significantly influenced our architecture, to the point that the ordinary Japanese interior of today may appear barren to foreigners due to its extreme simplicity and austerity in decorative scheme.
The first independent tea room was created by Senno-Soyeki, more commonly known as Rikiu, the greatest of all tea masters. In the sixteenth century, under the patronage of Taiko-Hideyoshi, Rikiu established and perfected the formalities of the Tea Ceremony. The proportions of the tea room had been previously defined by Jowo, a renowned tea master of the fifteenth century. Early tea rooms were simply sections of ordinary drawing rooms partitioned off by screens for tea gatherings. This partitioned section was called the Kakoi, a term still used for tea rooms built as part of a house rather than as separate structures. The Sukiya consists of the tea room itself, designed to accommodate no more than five individuals—a number evocative of the saying “more than the Graces and less than the Muses.” It also includes an anteroom (midsuya) where the tea utensils are washed and arranged before being brought in, a portico (machiai) where guests wait for the summons to enter the tea room, and a garden path (roji) that connects the machiai with the tea room. The tea room does not make a strong visual impression. It is smaller than the tiniest Japanese houses, and the materials used in its construction aim to convey an impression of refined simplicity. However, we must recognize that all of this is the result of profound artistic foresight, with the utmost care and precision given to even the smallest details. In fact, a well-executed tea room can be more costly than an ordinary mansion, as the selection of materials and the craftsmanship demand immense attention. The carpenters employed by tea masters are a distinct and highly esteemed class among artisans, with their work requiring a level of delicacy comparable to that of the makers of lacquer cabinets.
The tea room stands apart not only from Western architecture but also from the classical architecture of Japan itself. Our ancient noble structures, whether secular or religious, should not be dismissed, even in terms of their sheer size. The few that have survived the devastating fires of centuries still inspire awe with their grandeur and opulent decoration. Enormous wooden pillars, measuring two to three feet in diameter and thirty to forty feet in height, supported the weighty tile-covered roofs through a complex network of brackets. While this construction material and technique were susceptible to fire, they proved resilient against earthquakes and suited the country’s climatic conditions. The Golden Hall of Hōryū-ji and the Yakushiji Pagoda stand as remarkable examples of the durability of our wooden architecture, having remained practically intact for nearly twelve centuries. The interiors of old temples and palaces were lavishly adorned. In the Hoodo temple in Uji, dating back to the tenth century, one can still witness the intricate canopy, gilded baldachinos, multicolored inlays, mirrors, mother-of-pearl, and remnants of paintings and sculptures that once adorned the walls. Subsequently, at Nikkō and Nijō Castle in Kyoto, we find structural beauty sacrificed for an abundance of ornamentation that rivals the most resplendent Arabian or Moorish designs in color and exquisite detail.
The simplicity and purity of the tea room emerged from the influence of Zen monasteries. Zen monasteries differ from those of other Buddhist sects in that they are primarily dwellings for monks. Their chapels are not places of worship or pilgrimage but rather college rooms where students gather for discussion and meditation. These rooms are sparsely furnished, except for a central alcove containing an altar with a statue of Bodhidharma, the sect’s founder, or of Sakyamuni flanked by Kāśyapa and Ānanda, the two earliest Zen patriarchs. Flowers and incense are offered on the altar in remembrance of the great contributions these sages made to Zen. It was the ritual of Zen monks drinking tea from a bowl in front of the image of Bodhidharma that laid the foundation for the tea ceremony. It is worth noting that the altar in the Zen chapel served as the prototype for the tokonoma, the place of honor in a Japanese room where paintings and flowers are displayed to delight guests.
All our esteemed tea masters were students of Zen who sought to infuse the spirit of Zen into daily life. Thus, the tea room, along with other elements of the tea ceremony, reflects many Zen doctrines. The size of the traditional tea room, which measures four and a half tatami mats or ten square feet, is determined by a passage in the Vikramaditya Sutra. In this intriguing work, Vikramaditya welcomes the saint Manjushri and eighty-four thousand disciples of Buddha into a room of this size—an allegory based on the theory of the enlightened perception of space as non-existent. Furthermore, the roji, the garden path leading from the machiai (waiting area) to the tea room, symbolizes the initial stage of meditation—the transition into self-illumination. The roji was designed to sever connections with the outside world and induce a fresh sensation that would enhance the full enjoyment of aestheticism within the tea room itself. Those who have traversed this garden path cannot forget how their spirits were uplifted as they walked through the twilight of evergreen trees, stepping on the irregularly shaped stepping stones, with dried pine needles strewn beneath their feet and moss-covered granite lanterns by their side. Even in the heart of a bustling city, one can feel transported to a distant forest, far from the dust and clamor of civilization.
Others, such as Kobori Enshiu, pursued a different effect. Enshiu found inspiration for the garden path in the following verses: “A cluster of summer trees, a glimpse of the sea, a pale evening moon.” His intention becomes clear: to evoke the state of a newly awakened soul, still lingering in hazy dreams of the past while basking in the sweet unconsciousness of a gentle spiritual light, yearning for the freedom that lies beyond.
Once prepared, the guest approaches the sanctuary in silence. If a samurai, he will leave his sword on the rack beneath the eaves, as the tea room embodies peace above all else. He then bows low and enters the room through a small door no more than three feet in height. This ritual is mandatory for all guests, regardless of social status, to instill humility. After determining the order of precedence while resting in the machiai, the guests enter noiselessly, one by one, taking their seats and paying respects to the painting or flower arrangement displayed on the tokonoma. The host will not enter the room until all guests have seated themselves, and silence prevails, only interrupted by the sound of boiling water in the iron kettle. The kettle emits a pleasing melody, as pieces of iron within it are arranged to produce a distinctive tune reminiscent of a waterfall enveloped in mist, the distant sea crashing against rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest, or the rustling of pines on a faraway hill.
Even during daylight, the room is bathed in subdued light, as the low eaves of the sloping roof allow only a few rays of sunshine to enter. Everything within is adorned in modest hues, from the ceiling to the floor. The guests themselves have carefully selected garments in unassuming colors. An air of age and wisdom permeates the space, with anything suggesting recent acquisition being strictly avoided, except for the contrasting elements of the bamboo dipper and the linen napkin, both immaculately white and new. However weathered the tea room and tea utensils may appear, everything is impeccably clean. Not a speck of dust can be found, even in the darkest corners, for a true tea master possesses the knowledge and skill of sweeping, cleaning, and washing. There is an art to tidying and dusting. An antique piece of metalwork should not be vigorously scrubbed like a Dutch housewife would do. Droplets of water clinging to a flower vase need not be wiped away, as they can evoke the essence of dew and coolness.
There is a story about Rikiu that perfectly illustrates the tea masters’ view on cleanliness. Rikiu was observing his son Shoan as he swept and watered the garden path. When Shoan finished his task, Rikiu remarked, “Not clean enough,” and instructed him to try again. After an hour of tireless effort, Shoan turned to his father, exclaiming, “Father, there is nothing more to be done. I have washed the steps three times, sprinkled water on the stone lanterns and trees, and even made the moss and lichens gleam with fresh greenness. I have removed every twig and leaf from the ground.” To this, the tea master chided, “Young fool, that is not how a garden path should be swept.” With these words, Rikiu entered the garden, shook a tree, and let golden and crimson leaves scatter over the surroundings like autumn brocade. Rikiu sought not only cleanliness but also beauty and the natural essence of things.
The name “Abode of Fancy” implies a structure designed to meet the unique artistic needs of its creator. The tea room is made for the tea master, not the other way around. It is not meant to stand for generations but is instead ephemeral in nature. The concept of every individual having their own house stems from an ancient Japanese custom rooted in Shinto superstition, which mandated that a dwelling should be vacated upon the death of its primary occupant. Perhaps this practice had some unspoken sanitary reason behind it. Another early custom was to construct a new house for each newlywed couple. This is why, in ancient times, the imperial capitals were frequently relocated from one site to another. An example of such ancient rites that still continue today is the rebuilding of Ise Temple, the revered shrine of the Sun-Goddess, every twenty years. These customs were only possible due to our wooden architectural system, which allowed for easy construction and deconstruction. If a more durable style that employed brick and stone had been adopted, such migrations would have been impractical, as was eventually the case when we began adopting the more stable and massive wooden construction style from China during the Nara period.
However, with the rise of Zen individualism in the fifteenth century, the old concept took on a deeper meaning when associated with the tea room. Zen philosophy, with its emphasis on impermanence and the mastery of the spirit over material things, regarded the house merely as a temporary shelter for the body. The body itself was likened to a hut in the wilderness, a flimsy refuge made by binding together the surrounding grasses. When these bindings unraveled, the grasses returned to their original state of disarray. In the tea room, transience is embodied in the thatched roof, fragility in the slender pillars, lightness in the bamboo supports, and an apparent nonchalant use of ordinary materials. The eternal essence can only be found in the spirit, which, when manifested in these simple surroundings, adorns them with the subtle radiance of refinement.
The idea that the tea room should reflect individual taste emphasizes the vitality of art. To truly appreciate art, it must be rooted in contemporary life. It doesn’t mean we should disregard the future, but rather, we should embrace the present more fully. We should not ignore the creations of the past, but instead, strive to integrate them into our consciousness. Blindly conforming to traditions and formulas restricts the expression of individuality in architecture. It is disheartening to witness the mindless imitation of European buildings in modern Japan. We wonder why architecture, in the most progressive Western nations, lacks originality and is saturated with outdated styles. Perhaps we are going through an era of democratization in art, eagerly awaiting the emergence of a visionary master who will establish a new artistic dynasty. If only we loved the ancients more and imitated them less! It has been said that the Greeks achieved greatness because they never copied the antique.
The term “Abode of Vacancy” conveys the Taoist concept of encompassing everything while also suggesting a continual need for change in decorative motifs. The tea room is intentionally empty, except for temporary objects brought in to satisfy specific aesthetic moods. Each item is carefully selected and arranged to enhance the beauty of the central theme. Just as one cannot listen to multiple pieces of music simultaneously, a genuine appreciation of beauty requires focusing on a central motif. Therefore, the decoration in our tea rooms differs from that in the West, where the interior of a house often resembles a museum. To a Japanese observer accustomed to simplicity of ornamentation and frequent changes in decorative style, a Western interior permanently filled with an abundance of paintings, sculptures, and trinkets appears as a vulgar display of wealth. It takes an extraordinary capacity for appreciation to enjoy the constant presence of even a masterpiece. Those who can live amidst the cacophony of color and form commonly found in European and American homes must possess an immeasurable capacity for artistic sensitivity.
The concept of the “Abode of the Unsymmetrical” represents another aspect of our decorative scheme. Western critics have often noted the absence of symmetry in Japanese art objects. This, too, stems from the influence of Zen philosophy and the working out of Taoist ideals. Confucianism, with its belief in dualism, and Northern Buddhism, which reveres a trinity, were not opposed to symmetry. In fact, when we examine ancient Chinese bronzes or the religious art of the Tang dynasty and the Nara period, we see a strong emphasis on symmetry. The decoration of our classical interiors was characterized by a harmonious arrangement. However, Taoism and Zen had a different notion of perfection. Their dynamic philosophy placed greater emphasis on the process of seeking perfection rather than its final form. True beauty could only be discovered by those who mentally completed what was incomplete. The vitality of life and art resided in their potential for growth. In the tea room, it is left to each guest’s imagination to complete the overall effect in relation to themselves. As Zennism has become the prevailing mode of thought, the art of the Far East deliberately avoids symmetry as it represents completion and repetition. Uniformity of design was considered detrimental to the freshness of imagination. Thus, landscapes, birds, and flowers became favored subjects for depiction instead of the human figure, which is present in the form of the beholder. We are often too present as it is, and even our self-regard can become monotonous, despite our vanity.
The tea room is characterized by a constant aversion to repetition. Every object chosen for its decoration should be carefully selected to avoid any duplication of color or design. For instance, if a living flower is present, a painting of flowers should not be displayed. If a round kettle is used, the water pitcher should have angular features. A cup with a black glaze should not be paired with a tea caddy made of black lacquer. When placing a vase or an incense burner on the tokonoma, caution must be exercised to avoid positioning it exactly in the center, as this would divide the space into equal halves. Furthermore, the wood used for the pillar of the tokonoma should differ from the wood used for the other pillars, thereby breaking any hint of monotony in the room.
Once again, the Japanese approach to interior decoration differs from that of the West, where we often witness symmetrical arrangements of objects on mantelpieces and elsewhere. In Western homes, we frequently encounter what appears to be redundant repetition. Engaging in conversation with someone while a full-length portrait of them looms behind can be disconcerting. We question which is real—the person speaking or their pictorial representation—and we develop an uneasy sense that one of them must be fraudulent. Many times, while seated at a festive table, we contemplate, to the detriment of our digestion, the depictions of abundance adorning the dining room walls. We question the need for these images of hunted prey and sporting scenes, along with the elaborate carvings of fish and fruit. Why the display of family heirloom plates, which only serve to remind us of those who have dined and are now deceased?
The simplicity and absence of vulgarity in the tea room transform it into a genuine sanctuary from the disturbances of the outside world. It is a space where one can wholeheartedly devote themselves to the undisturbed appreciation of beauty. In the sixteenth century, the tea room provided a welcome respite for fierce warriors and statesmen who were engaged in the unification and reconstruction of Japan. During the seventeenth century, when the strict formalism of the Tokugawa rule prevailed, the tea room became the sole space that allowed for the free communion of artistic souls. Before a magnificent work of art, there was no distinction between daimyo, samurai, and commoner. In today’s world, industrialization has made true refinement increasingly rare. Isn’t it true that we need the tea room more than ever?
Chapter 5. Art Appreciation
Have you ever heard the Taoist tale known as “The Taming of the Harp”?
In ancient times, deep within the Lungmen Ravine, there stood a majestic Kiri tree, a true monarch of the forest. It reached for the stars, its roots intertwined with the silver dragon slumbering beneath the earth’s surface. A powerful sorcerer fashioned an extraordinary harp from this tree, declaring that only the greatest of musicians could tame its stubborn spirit. The instrument became a treasured possession of the Emperor of China, but all attempts to coax melody from its strings proved futile. Despite their earnest efforts, the harp responded with disdainful and discordant notes, refusing to recognize a master.
Then came Peiwoh, the prince of harpists. With a gentle touch, he caressed the harp as one might calm an unruly horse and delicately plucked the strings. He sang of nature’s wonders and the ever-changing seasons, of towering mountains and meandering waters. Memories dormant within the tree stirred to life once more. The breath of spring wafted through its branches, as young cascades laughed in harmony with blossoming flowers. Summer’s dreamy voices resounded, accompanied by the chorus of insects and the soothing patter of rain. The plaintive cry of the cuckoo joined in. Listen! A tiger roars, and the valley responds in kind. It is autumn—a moon as sharp as a sword illuminates the frost-kissed grass. Then winter arrives, and flocks of swans swirl through the snow-laden air, while hailstones playfully strike the branches.
Peiwoh shifted the melody and sang of love. The forest swayed as if lost in deep contemplation, while a bright cloud, akin to a proud maiden, floated gracefully above, casting fleeting shadows on the ground—shadows tinged with despair. Once more, the tune changed. Peiwoh sang of war, evoking the clash of steel and the thundering hooves of charging steeds. The harp unleashed the tempest of Lungmen—dragons rode on lightning, and avalanches thundered through the mountains. Overwhelmed by ecstasy, the Celestial Emperor inquired of Peiwoh the secret behind his triumph. “Sire,” he replied, “others failed because they sang only of themselves. I allowed the harp to choose its own themes, unsure whether the harp was Peiwoh or Peiwoh was the harp.”
This story beautifully illustrates the enigmatic nature of art appreciation. A masterpiece is like a symphony that resonates with our deepest emotions. True art is like Peiwoh, and we are akin to the harp of Lungmen. When touched by beauty’s magic, the hidden strings of our being awaken, and we vibrate and thrill in response to its enchantment. Minds communicate with one another. We listen to the unspoken, and we behold the unseen. The master artist conjures forth notes that were previously unknown to us. Long-forgotten memories return with renewed significance. Hopes once stifled by fear and yearnings we dared not acknowledge emerge with a newfound glory. Our minds become the canvas on which artists paint, their pigments are our emotions, and their interplay of light and shadow reveals joy and sadness. The masterpiece is a reflection of ourselves, just as we are shaped by the masterpiece.
The harmonious connection between minds, essential for art appreciation, relies on mutual openness and understanding. The spectator must cultivate the right disposition to receive the message, just as the artist must know how to convey it. The tea master, Kobori Enshiu, himself a daimyo, left us with these profound words: “Approach a great painting as you would approach a great prince.” To comprehend a masterpiece, one must humbly lower oneself before it, awaiting its slightest utterance with bated breath. A distinguished Sung critic once made a delightful confession, saying, “In my youth, I praised the master whose paintings I liked, but as my judgment matured, I praised myself for appreciating what the masters had chosen to offer.” It is regrettable that so few of us make the effort to understand the moods of the masters. In our stubborn ignorance, we neglect to extend this simple courtesy, thus often missing the abundant feast of beauty laid before our very eyes. A master always has something to offer, while we remain hungry solely due to our own lack of appreciation.
For the sympathetic observer, a masterpiece becomes a living reality that draws us closer in a bond of camaraderie. The masters are immortal, for their loves and fears resonate within us, time and time again. It is the soul rather than the hand, the person rather than the technique, that deeply appeals to us. The more human the call, the deeper our response. This secret understanding between the master and ourselves is what makes us suffer and rejoice with the heroes and heroines of poetry and romance. Chikamatsu, our Japanese Shakespeare, emphasized the importance of involving the audience in the author’s confidence as one of the fundamental principles of dramatic composition. When several of his students submitted plays for his approval, only one piece truly captivated him. It resembled the Comedy of Errors, featuring twin brothers who suffer due to mistaken identities. Chikamatsu remarked, “This play possesses the true spirit of drama, for it takes the audience into consideration. The public is allowed to know more than the actors. It discerns the source of the mistake and pities the unwitting characters on the stage as they rush towards their fate.”
Both the esteemed masters of the East and the West understood the power of suggestion in engaging the spectator. When we contemplate a masterpiece, we are awestruck by the vast expanse of thoughts laid before us. How familiar and empathetic they all are, in stark contrast to the cold commonplaces of modern art! In the former, we feel the heartfelt expression of the artist; in the latter, we encounter mere formal gestures. Lost in their technical prowess, modern artists rarely transcend their own selves. Like the musicians who futilely sought to unlock the secrets of the Lungmen harp, they sing only of themselves. Their works may be closer to science, but they drift further from humanity. In Japan, we have an old saying that a woman cannot love a man who is truly vain, for there is no space in his heart for love to enter and fill. In art, vanity is equally detrimental to fostering sympathetic emotions, be it on the part of the artist or the audience.
Nothing is more profound than the union of kindred spirits through art. In that moment of connection, the art lover surpasses his individual self. He exists and yet ceases to exist. He catches a glimpse of Infinity, but words fail to express his delight, as the eye lacks a tongue. Liberated from the constraints of materiality, his spirit moves in harmony with the rhythm of existence. Thus, art becomes akin to religion and uplifts humanity. It is this transformative quality that renders a masterpiece sacred. In ancient times, the reverence with which the Japanese regarded the works of great artists was profound. Tea masters safeguarded their treasures with religious secrecy, often requiring the opening of multiple boxes, nested one within another, before reaching the innermost shrine—the silk wrapping that cradled the sacred object. Rarely was the piece exposed to view, and even then, only to those initiated into its significance.
During the heyday of Teaism, the generals of the Taiko would find greater satisfaction in receiving a rare work of art than in obtaining vast territories as rewards for their victories. Many of our cherished dramas revolve around the loss and recovery of renowned masterpieces. For example, in one play, Lord Hosokawa’s palace, which housed the celebrated painting of Dharuma by Sesson, succumbs to a sudden blaze due to the negligence of the samurai entrusted with its care. Determined to rescue the precious artwork at all costs, he charges into the inferno, seizes the kakemono, and finds all escape routes engulfed in flames. Thinking solely of the painting, he unsheathes his sword, slashes open his own body, wraps his torn sleeve around the Sesson, and plunges it into the gaping wound. Eventually, the fire is extinguished. Amidst the smoldering ashes, a partially consumed body is discovered, cradling the treasure unharmed by the inferno. As horrific as these tales may seem, they highlight the immense value we place upon a masterpiece and the unwavering devotion of a trusted samurai.
However, we must bear in mind that the value of art lies solely in its ability to resonate with us. Art could serve as a universal language if our sympathies were universal. Yet, our finite nature, the influence of tradition and convention, and our inherited instincts limit our capacity for artistic enjoyment. Our individuality, in a sense, sets boundaries to our understanding, and our aesthetic personality seeks affinity with creations from the past. Indeed, our own image in the universe is all we perceive—our unique idiosyncrasies shape our perceptions. The tea masters, therefore, collected only objects that fell within the realm of their personal appreciation.
In this context, a story about Kobori-Enshiu comes to mind. Enshiu’s disciples praised him for his exceptional taste in selecting his collection. They remarked, “Each piece is so admirable that no one could help but admire them. It shows that you have better taste than Rikiu, whose collection could only be appreciated by one out of a thousand beholders.” Sadly, Enshiu responded with sorrow, saying, “This only reveals how ordinary I am. The great Rikiu dared to love only those objects that personally appealed to him, while I unconsciously cater to the taste of the majority. Truly, Rikiu was one in a thousand among tea masters.”
It is deeply regrettable that much of the apparent enthusiasm for art in our present age lacks genuine sentiment. In this democratic era, people clamor for what is popularly deemed the best, disregarding their own emotions. They seek the expensive over the refined, the fashionable over the beautiful. For the masses, contemplating illustrated periodicals, the products of their own industrialism, provides more accessible material for artistic enjoyment than the works of the early Italians or the Ashikaga masters, whom they claim to admire. The name of the artist holds greater importance to them than the quality of the work. As a Chinese critic complained centuries ago, “People critique a picture with their ears.” It is this lack of authentic appreciation that gives rise to the pseudo-classical horrors that confront us wherever we turn today.
Another common error is the confusion between art and archaeology. The reverence for antiquity is indeed a commendable trait in human character, and we should strive to cultivate it further. The old masters deserve our respect for paving the way to future enlightenment. The fact that their works have withstood centuries of criticism and reached us adorned with glory commands our admiration. However, it would be foolish to value their achievements solely based on their age. Yet, we often allow historical sentiment to overshadow our aesthetic judgment. We shower accolades when the artist is safely laid to rest. Furthermore, the nineteenth century, saturated with the theory of evolution, has led us to lose sight of the individual within the broader context of a period or school. Collectors are eager to acquire specimens that exemplify a specific era or style, forgetting that a single masterpiece can teach us more than numerous mediocre works from the same period or school. We tend to classify excessively and enjoy too little. The sacrifice of the aesthetic on the altar of the so-called scientific method of exhibition has plagued many museums.
The significance of contemporary art cannot be disregarded in any meaningful approach to life. The art of today is the one that truly belongs to us—it is our own reflection. By condemning it, we condemn ourselves. When we proclaim that our era lacks art, we must ask ourselves: Who is accountable for this? It is indeed a shame that despite all our rhapsodies about the ancients, we pay so little attention to our own potential. We offer meager inspiration to struggling artists, weary souls lingering in the shadow of indifference. In our self-absorbed century, what encouragement do we provide? The past may view our civilization with pity for its poverty, and the future will mock the barrenness of our art. We are eradicating beauty from life. If only a great wizard could fashion a magnificent harp from the very fabric of society, whose strings would resound with the touch of genius.
Chapter 6. Flowers
In the delicate gray of a spring dawn, when the birds whispered in mysterious harmony among the trees, have you not felt that they were conversing with their mates about the flowers? Surely, with humankind, the appreciation of flowers must have existed alongside the poetry of love. Where else but in a flower, innocent in its beauty, and fragrant in its silence, can we witness the unfolding of a pure soul? When primeval humans offered the first garland to their beloveds, they transcended their animal instincts. They embraced their humanity by rising above the raw necessities of nature. They entered the realm of art when they recognized the subtle purposefulness of the seemingly useless.
In times of joy or sorrow, flowers remain steadfast companions. We eat, drink, sing, dance, and flirt with them. We celebrate weddings and christenings with flowers. We cannot contemplate departing this world without their presence. We have worshipped with lilies, meditated with lotuses, and charged into battle adorned with roses and chrysanthemums. We have even attempted to communicate through the language of flowers. How could we possibly live without them? The mere thought of a world devoid of their presence is terrifying. What solace do they not bring to the sickbed, what light of happiness do they not shed upon weary souls? Their serene tenderness restores our dwindling faith in the universe, just as the unwavering gaze of a beautiful child rekindles our lost hopes. When we are laid low in the dust, it is the flowers that mourn sorrowfully over our graves.
However saddening it may be, we cannot deny the fact that, despite our companionship with flowers, we have not risen far above our animalistic nature. Scratch the surface, and the wolf within us will bare its teeth. It has been said that at ten, a person is an animal; at twenty, a lunatic; at thirty, a failure; at forty, a fraud; and at fifty, a criminal. Perhaps one becomes a criminal because they have never ceased to be an animal. To us, nothing is as real as hunger, and nothing is as sacred as our own desires. Shrine after shrine has crumbled before our eyes, but one altar remains eternally intact—the one where we burn incense to the supreme idol: ourselves. Our god is mighty, and money is his prophet! We ravage nature to offer sacrifices in his name. We boast of conquering matter and forget that it is matter that has enslaved us. What atrocities do we not commit in the name of culture and refinement!
Gentle flowers, delicate teardrops of the stars, standing gracefully in the garden, nodding your heads to the buzzing bees as they serenade the dew and the sunbeams, are you aware of the dreadful fate that awaits you? For now, dream on, sway, and frolic in the gentle summer breezes. But tomorrow, an unforgiving hand will grip your tender throats. You will be forcefully plucked, torn apart limb by limb, and carried away from your tranquil abodes. The culprit, though outwardly fair, may utter words of praise while her fingers remain stained with your lifeblood. Tell me, can this be called kindness? Perhaps you will be imprisoned in the hair of one who possesses a heart devoid of compassion, or thrust into the buttonhole of someone who would never dare to meet your gaze if you were a person. It may even be your fate to be confined in a narrow vessel with stagnant water as your only drink, as your desperate thirst warns of your fading existence.
Flowers, had you been in the land of the Mikado, you might have encountered a dreaded figure armed with scissors and a tiny saw. He would proclaim himself a Master of Flowers, assuming the rights of a doctor, and you would instinctively despise him, as you know that a doctor often prolongs the suffering of his victims. He would cut, bend, and contort you into impossible positions that he deems fitting. He would twist your muscles and dislocate your bones, mimicking the actions of an osteopath. He would sear you with scorching coals to stanch your bleeding and insert wires into your fragile form to facilitate your circulation. He would subject you to diets of salt, vinegar, alum, and at times, even vitriol. Boiling water would be poured on your feeble roots when you appeared on the verge of collapse. He would boast of his ability to keep life within you for weeks longer than would have been possible without his interventions. Would you not have preferred to have met instant death when you were first captured? What sins must you have committed in your past life to deserve such torment in this one?
The wanton wastage of flowers in Western societies is even more disheartening than the treatment inflicted upon them by Eastern Flower Masters. The sheer number of flowers severed daily to adorn the ballrooms and banquet tables of Europe and America, only to be discarded the next day, must be astronomical; if strung together, they could drape across an entire continent. In comparison to this utter disregard for life, the transgressions of the Flower Masters become trivial. At least they respect the natural order, carefully selecting their victims and honoring their remains after death. In the West, the display of flowers appears to be a mere spectacle of wealth—a passing fancy. Where do all these flowers go once the revelry ends? Few things are as sorrowful as witnessing a withered flower callously cast aside onto a dung heap.
Why were flowers created to be so exquisite yet so defenseless? Insects possess stingers, and even the meekest of creatures will fight when cornered. Birds, whose feathers are coveted for adorning bonnets, can escape their pursuers by taking flight, while the furry animals whose coats are desired can conceal themselves at our approach. Alas! The butterfly alone among flowers possesses wings; all others stand vulnerable before their destroyers. Even if they were to shriek in their final moments, their cries would never reach our callous ears. We are perpetually cruel to those who love and serve us silently, but a day may come when, due to our cruelty, we are abandoned by these steadfast friends. Have you not noticed the dwindling numbers of wildflowers with each passing year? It is possible that their wise elders have urged them to depart until humanity becomes more humane. Perhaps they have migrated to heaven.
There is much to be said in favor of those who cultivate plants. The gardener is far more compassionate than the one armed with scissors. We observe with joy their attentiveness to water and sunlight, their battles against parasites, their dread of frost, their anxiety when buds bloom slowly, and their elation when leaves radiate their brilliance. In the East, the art of floriculture is ancient, and the love between a poet and his cherished plant has been chronicled in tales and songs. During the Tang and Sung dynasties, with the advancement of ceramics, magnificent vessels were crafted to house plants—palaces adorned with jewels, not mere pots. Each flower was assigned a dedicated attendant who would delicately brush its leaves with soft rabbit-hair brushes. In the book “Pingtse” by Yuenchunlang, it is written that the peony should be bathed by a beautiful maiden in full attire, while a winter-plum tree should be watered by a pale and slender monk. In Japan, one of the most beloved No-dances, the Hachinoki, composed during the Ashikaga period, recounts the story of an impoverished knight who, on a freezing night, sacrifices his cherished plants to entertain a wandering friar. The friar is none other than Hojo-Tokiyori, the Haroun-Al-Raschid of our tales, and the sacrifice does not go unrewarded. Even today, this opera never fails to evoke tears from a Tokyo audience.
Great care was taken to preserve delicate blossoms. Emperor Huensung of the Tang Dynasty hung tiny golden bells on the branches in his garden to deter birds. He himself would venture out with his court musicians in springtime, filling the flowers with the strains of gentle music. In one of the Japanese monasteries, Sumadera near Kobe, a quaint tablet attributed to Yoshitsune, the hero of our Arthurian legends, remains. It serves as a notice for the protection of a remarkable plum tree and captivates us with the grim humor of a martial era. After extolling the beauty of the blossoms, the inscription warns: “Anyone who dares to cut a single branch from this tree shall forfeit a finger.” If only such laws could be enforced today against those who recklessly destroy flowers and mutilate works of art!
Yet even with potted flowers, we cannot help but suspect the selfishness of humans. Why remove plants from their natural homes and expect them to bloom in unfamiliar surroundings? Isn’t it akin to caging birds and demanding their songs and courtships? Who’s to say that orchids don’t feel stifled by the artificial heat in conservatories and yearn for a glimpse of their Southern skies?
The true lover of flowers is one who visits them in their native habitats, like Taoyuenming and other celebrated Chinese poets and philosophers. They sat before broken bamboo fences, engaging in conversation with wild chrysanthemums, or wandered in twilight among the plum blossoms of the Western Lake, losing themselves in mysterious fragrances. It is said that Chowmushih slept in a boat so that his dreams could merge with those of the lotus. This same spirit inspired Empress Komio, one of our revered Nara sovereigns, as she sang: “If I pluck you, O flower, my hand would defile you. Standing in the meadows as you are, I offer you to the Buddhas of the past, present, and future.”
However, let us not indulge in excessive sentimentality. Let us be less self-indulgent but more magnificent. Laotse proclaimed, “Heaven and earth are pitiless.” Kobodaishi echoed, “Flow, flow, flow, flow, the current of life is ever onward. Die, die, die, die, death comes to all.” Destruction confronts us from every direction—below and above, behind and before. Change is the only eternal constant. So why not embrace Death as we do Life? They are but two sides of the same coin—the Night and Day of Brahma. Through the disintegration of the old, re-creation becomes possible. We have revered Death, the merciless goddess of mercy, by many different names. The Gheburs greeted the shadow of the All-Devouring in fire. Shinto-Japan still prostrates itself before the icy purity of the sword-soul. The mystic fire consumes our weaknesses, and the sacred sword severs the bonds of desire. From our ashes emerges the phoenix of celestial hope, and through freedom, we attain a higher realization of our humanity.
Why not embrace the destruction of flowers if it leads to the evolution of new, ennobling forms that enhance our perception of the world? We only ask them to join us in our sacrifice to beauty. Our atonement shall be found in dedicating ourselves to Purity and Simplicity. Such was the reasoning of the tea-masters when they established the Cult of Flowers.
Anyone familiar with the practices of our tea and flower masters cannot help but notice the profound reverence they hold for flowers. They do not pluck them haphazardly but carefully select each branch or spray, considering the artistic composition they wish to create. They would be ashamed to cut more than what is absolutely necessary. It is worth mentioning that they always include the leaves, if any, in their arrangements, for their aim is to present the complete beauty of the plant. In this regard, and many others, their approach differs from that of Western countries, where we often see only the flower stems, detached from their bodies, haphazardly arranged in a vase.
Once a tea-master has arranged a flower to their satisfaction, they place it on the tokonoma, the place of honor in a Japanese room. Nothing else is placed nearby that could detract from its impact, not even a painting, unless there is a specific aesthetic reason for the combination. It rests there like a prince on a throne, and when guests or disciples enter the room, they bow deeply to it before addressing the host. Drawings inspired by these masterpieces are created and published to educate enthusiasts. The amount of literature on the subject is extensive. When the flower fades, the master lovingly releases it into a river or carefully buries it in the ground. Occasionally, monuments are erected in their memory.
The Art of Flower Arrangement emerged alongside Teaism in the fifteenth century. According to legends, it was the early Buddhist saints who first engaged in flower arrangement. In their compassionate concern for all living beings, they collected the flowers scattered by storms and placed them in vessels of water. Soami, a renowned painter and connoisseur at the court of Ashikaga-Yoshimasa, is credited as one of the earliest practitioners. Juko, the tea-master, was one of his pupils, as was Senno, the founder of the esteemed Ikenobo lineage—a family celebrated in the history of flower arrangement, much like the Kanos in painting. It was during the refinement of the tea ritual under Rikiu, in the late sixteenth century, that flower arrangement reached its full potential. Rikiu and his successors—Ota-wuraka, Furuka-Oribe, Koyetsu, Kobori-Enshiu, and Katagiri-Sekishiu—competed with one another in creating new combinations. However, it is important to note that flower worship by the tea-masters was just one aspect of their aesthetic rituals and was not an independent religion. A flower arrangement, like other works of art in the tea room, was integrated into the overall decorative scheme. Sekishiu, for example, prohibited the use of white plum blossoms when there was snow in the garden. “Noisy” flowers were also strictly excluded from the tea room. Removing a flower arrangement from its intended location diminishes its significance since its lines and proportions are carefully designed to harmonize with its surroundings.
The reverence for flowers for their own sake emerged with the rise of “Flower-Masters” around the mid-seventeenth century. This marked a departure from the tea room, as flower arrangement now adhered solely to the rules imposed by the vase. This shift opened up new concepts and execution methods, leading to the establishment of various principles and schools. In the mid-eighteenth century, one writer claimed to have identified over one hundred distinct schools of flower arrangement. Broadly categorized, these schools fall into two main branches: the Formalistic and the Naturalesque. The Formalistic schools, led by the Ikenobo lineage, pursued a classic idealism akin to the Kano academicians. There are records of arrangements by early masters of this school that closely resemble the flower paintings of Sansetsu and Tsunenobu. On the other hand, the Naturalesque school embraced nature as its model, incorporating modifications of form that contributed to the expression of artistic unity. In their works, we can discern the same creative impulses found in the Ukiyo-e and Shijo schools of painting.
If we had the time, delving deeper into the laws of composition and intricate details formulated by the flower-masters of that period would be truly fascinating. It would reveal the fundamental theories that governed Tokugawa decoration. These theories revolved around the Leading Principle (Heaven), the Subordinate Principle (Earth), and the Reconciling Principle (Man). Any flower arrangement that failed to embody these principles was considered lifeless and devoid of meaning. The flower-masters also emphasized the significance of approaching a flower from three different perspectives: the Formal, the Semi-Formal, and the Informal. The Formal aspect represented flowers dressed in the grand attire of a ballroom, the Semi-Formal aspect embodied the graceful elegance of afternoon attire, and the Informal aspect captured the charmingly relaxed atmosphere of a boudoir.
Personally, our sympathies lie with the flower arrangements of the tea-master rather than those of the flower-master. The former is art within its proper context and resonates with us due to its genuine connection to life. We could label this school as the Natural school, contrasting it with the Naturalesque and Formalistic schools. The tea-master considers their duty fulfilled upon selecting the flowers and allows them to speak for themselves. When entering a tea room in late winter, you might encounter a slender branch of wild cherries combined with a budding camellia—a poetic reflection of the departing winter and the promise of spring. Similarly, during a midsummer noon tea, within the cool dimness of the tokonoma, you might discover a single lily in a hanging vase, glistening with dew and seemingly smiling at the folly of existence.
A solo performance by flowers is undoubtedly captivating, but when combined with painting and sculpture, the ensemble becomes enchanting. Sekishiu once arranged water-plants in a shallow container, evoking the lush vegetation of lakes and marshes. Above it, he hung a painting by Soami depicting wild ducks soaring through the sky. Another tea-master, Shoha, paired a poem celebrating the Beauty of Solitude by the Sea with a bronze incense burner fashioned as a fisherman’s hut, accompanied by wild beach flowers. One of the guests who experienced this composition recalled feeling the very essence of fading autumn throughout the entire arrangement.
Let us share one more captivating flower tale. During the sixteenth century, the morning glory was a rarity in our land. Rikiu, with devoted care, cultivated an entire garden filled with these delicate blooms. The fame of his convolvulus reached the ears of the Taiko, who expressed a desire to witness their beauty. As a result, Rikiu invited the Taiko to a morning tea gathering at his home. On the designated day, the Taiko strolled through the garden, yet he could find no trace of the convolvulus. The ground had been meticulously leveled and adorned with fine pebbles and sand. Frustrated and irritated, the ruler entered the tea room, but what awaited him there swiftly transformed his mood. Resting upon the tokonoma, in a rare Sung bronze vessel, lay a solitary morning glory—the queen of the entire garden!
In such instances, we witness the profound significance of the Flower Sacrifice. Perhaps the flowers themselves grasp its true essence. Unlike men, they are not cowards. Some flowers exult in death—particularly the Japanese cherry blossoms—as they willingly surrender themselves to the whims of the wind. Those who have stood amidst the fragrant cascade at Yoshino or Arashiyama must have felt this truth. For a fleeting moment, they hover like shimmering clouds, gracefully dancing above the glistening streams. Then, as they gracefully glide away upon the playful waters, they seem to whisper, “Farewell, O Spring! We embark upon eternity.”
Chapter 7. Tea-Masters
In matters of religion, the Future lies behind us, while in the realm of art, the present moment holds the eternal. The tea-masters firmly believed that genuine appreciation of art could only be attained by those who allowed it to shape their daily lives. They sought to imbue their existence with the refined standards upheld within the tea room. In every circumstance, they maintained serenity of mind and engaged in conversations that harmonized with their surroundings. The cut and color of their attire, the grace of their movements, and the way they walked—all of these aspects became expressions of their artistic personalities. These were not trivial matters to be overlooked, for one must strive for inner beauty before approaching external beauty. Thus, the tea-master aspired to be more than an artist; they aimed to embody art itself. It was the Zen of aestheticism. Perfection permeates everything if only we choose to recognize it. Rikiu delighted in quoting an old poem that proclaims, “To those who long only for flowers, I am eager to reveal the fully bloomed spring that resides within the toiling buds of snow-covered hills.”
The contributions of the tea-masters to the world of art are truly manifold. They revolutionized classical architecture and interior design, establishing the new style we have described in the chapter on the tea room. Even the palaces and monasteries built after the sixteenth century were influenced by their vision. The versatile Kobori-Enshiu left remarkable examples of his genius in the Imperial villa of Katsura, the castles of Najoya and Nijo, and the monastery of Kohoan. The tea-masters were responsible for the creation of all the renowned gardens in Japan. Our pottery would not have achieved its exceptional quality without their inspiration, as the production of utensils for the tea ceremony demanded the utmost ingenuity from our ceramic artists. The Seven Kilns of Enshiu are renowned among students of Japanese pottery. Many of our textile fabrics bear the names of tea-masters who conceived their colors and designs. In fact, it is impossible to find any art form untouched by the genius of the tea-masters. Their immense contributions to painting and lacquerware hardly need mentioning. The tea-master Honnami-Koyetsu, celebrated as a lacquer artist and potter, even gave rise to one of the greatest painting schools. The splendid works of his grandson, Koho, and his grand-nephews, Korin and Kenzan, nearly overshadow his own achievements. The entire Korin school, as it is commonly known, is an expression of Teaism. Within the broad strokes of this school, we glimpse the very vitality of nature itself.
The tea-masters’ influence in the realm of art, great as it may be, pales in comparison to the impact they have had on the conduct of life. Their presence is not only felt in the customs of polite society but also in the arrangement of our daily affairs. They have invented delicate dishes and refined our manner of serving food. They have taught us to dress in modest colors and have guided us in approaching flowers with the proper spirit. They have emphasized the natural beauty of simplicity and the value of humility. Through their teachings, tea has become integrated into the fabric of people’s lives.
Those of us who have not discovered the secret of harmoniously navigating this tumultuous sea of trivial troubles called life are perpetually miserable, attempting to appear happy and contented. We struggle to maintain our moral balance and see impending storms in every passing cloud. Yet there is joy and beauty in the rolling waves as they surge towards eternity. Why not embrace their spirit and, like Liehtse, ride upon the very hurricane itself?
Only those who have lived with beauty can depart from this world with beauty. The final moments of the great tea-masters were imbued with exquisite refinement, mirroring the tenor of their lives. Always seeking harmony with the grand rhythm of the universe, they were prepared to enter the unknown. The “Last Tea of Rikiu” will forever stand as a pinnacle of tragic grandeur.
Rikiu had enjoyed a long-standing friendship with the Taiko Hideyoshi, and the esteemed warrior held the tea-master in high regard. However, the friendship of a despot is always a perilous honor. It was an age rife with treachery, where even one’s closest kin could not be trusted. Rikiu, not a subservient courtier, had dared to disagree with his fierce patron in debates. Exploiting the growing coldness between the Taiko and Rikiu, his enemies accused him of being involved in a plot to poison the despot. Whispers reached Hideyoshi that the lethal potion was to be administered to him in a cup of the tea-master’s prepared green tea. In Hideyoshi’s eyes, suspicion alone was enough for immediate execution, and there was no appeal from the wrath of the ruler. The condemned were granted one privilege—the honor of taking their own lives.
On the fateful day of his self-immolation, Rikiu gathered his chief disciples for a final tea ceremony. With heavy hearts, the guests assembled at the entrance, casting their gaze upon the garden path where the trees trembled as if haunted by restless spirits. Gray stone lanterns stood like solemn sentinels before the gates of the underworld. A waft of rare incense drifted from the tea room, beckoning the guests to enter. One by one, they moved forward and took their designated places. In the tokonoma, a kakemono—a remarkable scroll written by an ancient monk, contemplating the fleeting nature of all worldly things—hung in solemn display. The bubbling kettle atop the brazier, overflowing with steam, echoed the lament of a cicada bidding farewell to departing summer.
Finally, the host entered the room. Each guest was served tea in silence, drinking their cup with solemnity, while the host, Rikiu, sipped his own cup last, adhering to established etiquette. Following tradition, the chief guest sought permission to examine the tea utensils. Rikiu presented the various items, along with the kakemono, for everyone to admire their beauty. Then, as a memento, Rikiu bestowed one of the utensils to each guest, keeping only the bowl for himself. He declared, “This cup, tainted by misfortune’s lips, shall never be used by another.” With those words, he shattered the vessel into pieces.
The ceremony concluded, the guests, their tears held back with difficulty, bid their final farewells and left the room. Only one person, the closest and dearest to Rikiu, remained to witness the end. Rikiu removed his tea gown, carefully folding it on the mat, revealing the pristine white death robe that had been hidden beneath. Tenderly, he gazed at the gleaming blade of the fatal dagger and spoke to it in exquisite verse:
“Welcome to you, O sword of eternity! Through Buddha And through Daruma alike, You have cleaved your path.”
With a serene smile adorning his face, Rikiu embarked on his journey into the unknown.