Sen no Rikyū (1521-1591)
Born to a family of wholesale fish merchants in Sakai, nearby present-day Osaka. Rikyū changed his name from Tanaka to Sen after his grandfather Sen-ami, the painter and Tea man. He began his study of Tea at the age of seven and became the pupil of Kitamuki Dõchin and went on to study under Takeno Jõõ. Rikyū was soon recognised by the Tea masters of the day as being someone of special ability and perception. He hosted his first official ceremony at the age of sixteen, a mark of his precocious ability.
At the age of 58 in 1579 Rikyū was appointed Tea Master to the Shogun Nobunaga, following the death of Nobunaga he entered the service of his successor Hideyoshi Toyotomi as Tea Master in 1582, and was charged with the task of revising the form and rules of the Tea ceremony. For Rikyū, Tea was founded on the four principals, Wa ( Harmony), Kei (Reverence ), Sei (Purity), and Jaku (Calm). His conception of the form of the ceremony, the style of pottery he favoured, the architecture of the Tea house and its garden setting all have been accepted as the classical form ever since. Rikyū's taste defined the tea aesthetic in his day,and its reverberations continue into the modern age The three principal tea schools in Kyoto today are descended from Rikyū through his sons who set up the schools after his death (Ūrasenke, Omotesenke, Mushakõjisenke)
Just to boil water,
Make the Tea
And drink it -
That is all.”
Rikyū's inspirational insight was to fuse in one place, at one moment in time the threads of social, aesthetic and spiritual aspiration inherent in both Japanese and Chinese cultural trditions. He drew on the poetry of Li Po and the mystic of the ‘Grass Cottage, absorbed the concern with cleanliness from Shinto, and looked again at the utensils and his surroundings, with eyes unshackled by a Zen inspired directness and lucidity. For Rikyū', beauty was Nature presented in absolute order, the cleanliness of the roji which prepares the guest for introspection, the pattern of movements of the hands preparing the tea, the studied calm of host and guests, a coming together of the past, present and future. Above all the genius of Rikyū' was to formulate a ceremony that was accessible to everyone, steeped in Zen, the tea ceremony is essentially a democratic practice.
Rikyū's life despite his extraordinary cultural achievements was to end in Shakespearian tragedy. The precise reason for his falling out with Hideyoshi is not wholly known, certainly in his role as Tea Master to the Shogun, Rikyū attained a very powerful position politically and his influence may have troubled Hideyoshi. There are rumours of a plot to poison Hideyoshi’s tea, also it has been noted that several of Rikyū's disciples had converted to Christianity, a highly fraught occupation at the time. The security of the Tea room was sometimes taken as a cover for the performing Mass, at a time when Christianity was a proscribed religion in Japan, one practised one’s faith at risk of the death penalty. There is no evidence that Rikyū himself had converted to Christian belief. On the twenty-eighth day of the second month of the year of Emperor Tenso (1592) word was sent to the tea Master that the Shogun considered his value to be at an end and that Rikyū was to take ‘the honourable way out’.
There was the final Tea ceremony surrounded by his closest associates, after which the utensils were distributed among the guests, final poems were written. Rikkyu died by his own hand in the Tea room, he was seventy-one years old.
‘What I have often dreamed
Far beyond my troubled life
In this weary world,
Now perhaps I may attain
In the true reality.’