Monday, 13 October 2014

Tea and the Japanese Garden



A major factor in accelerating the emergence of the Tea ceremony(茶の湯) in the early Middle Ages was the rise of the samurai (warrior) class during the Muromachi era (1392-1573), and the corresponding decline of the Heian elite. With the transformation from one ruling class to another, new ideas and motivations were brought into play. The Heian elite had always regarded Chinese culture as being the model of highest cultural achievement. Probably tea drinking for them represented another way of associating themselves with that realm of achievement, if only in a romanticised, and ultimately illusory manner. The samurai did not adhere to any such notions, drinking tea was essentially a pragmatic matter, and it was to their taste and was reputed to be a good tonic for the physical body.

The rise of the samurai class did not mean a move away from admiration of Chinese artworks and artefacts, the veneration and appreciation of karamono (Chinese wares) continued to be sought after and collected by the new elite, and such utensils continued to be used in the course of tea drinking, particularly in the tea contests (tõcha).  A key figure in this transformation of tea drinking from pastime to aesthetic concern was the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa. 

Yoshimasa was born in 1436 to the sixth Ashikaga Shogun Yoshinori, his mother Shigeko, was the daughter of the minister of the left, Hino Shigemitsu. His grandfather Ashikaga Yoshimitsu had created the great villa now widely known as Kinkaku-ji (‘The Golden Pavilion’), located on the western side of Kyoto. Yoshimasa was born into an age of violence and political intrigue; his father was assassinated in 1441. Yoshimasa was to inherit the title of Shogun in 1449, though he was to prove ineffective as a ruler, incapable of controlling the political machinations of those around him. Yoshimasa was keen to retire from the world of politics but was without a son, he persuaded his brother to abandon the priesthood to take up the challenge of ruling the country. He named one of his senior aides Hosokawa Katsumoto to be his brother’s counselor. Within a year, Yoshimasa had a son, and then reneged on his promise to his brother. This act was the catalyst that was to spark the brutal and disastrous civil disorder known as the Onin War (1467–1477), which was to leave most of Kyoto, including the Imperial Palace complex in ashes. Hosokawa Katsumoto, who died during the conflict, had willed his estate to become a Zen temple, which it duly did, and was renamed Ryoan-ji.


Among those whom Yoshimasa had drawn into his circle was Nõami (1397-1476), a priest, painter and man of the arts. Nõami was to compile the Kundaikan Shõchõki, a catalogue of the Shogun’s treasures (a catalogue of tea utensils and their proper usage), and was also influential in the development of the shoin (study or reception room) style of architecture as a place where tea was prepared and enjoyed. There is not the space to enter into details of the shoin architecture here, but the relevant elements which pertain to the development of tea house architecture include; a tokonoma (an alcove for hanging a scroll of either calligraphy or a painting, a secondary alcove tsuke shoin (in which a desk would be situated), and chigaidana, a set of two shelves used to display precious ornaments.

 Nõami followed the accepted manner of serving tea but placed it into an environment that was neither the gaudy over elaboration of the tea contests, nor was to be as severe as the austere Zen temple. In 1483 Yoshimasa finally retired (passing on the title to his son) and set about creating a place where he could fulfill his desire to immerse himself as a patron of the arts. This was to become the Jishõ-in, now better known as Ginkaku-ji (‘Silver Pavilion’). Here Yoshimasa continued to gather about him men of the arts, and until his death in 1490 Ginkaku-ji was the centre of what is now referred to as the Higashiyama (‘Eastern Hills’) School. 
Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto

One of those drawn into this elite clique was Murata Shukõ (1423-1502), reputedly introduced to Yoshimasa by Nõami, who was to have a profound influence on the direction of the development of the Tea ceremony. Shukõ had been a priest for most of his life; he had been brought up at the great Nara temple of Shõmyõ-ji, he came to Kyoto in his early twenties to study Zen at the Daitoku-ji subtemple Shinjū-an (a sub temple associated with the priest Ikkyū) and ikebana (flower arrangement) under Nõami. For Shukõ at the heart of Tea lay Zen Buddhism, it gave purpose and depth to his conception of Tea. During a meeting with Yoshimasa it is reputed that Shukõ explained his approach to Tea in the following manner; “Tea is not play, it is not technique, it is not entertainment.” When asked then why practice Tea, Shukõ replied, “ Through Tea one can exercise li (the Confucian virtue of decorum and grace)”. 

Tea house, Genku-en, Kyoto

Shukõ preferred his ‘grass hut’ to the shoin room for tea. This relatively modest structure, made of simple, though well crafted materials, deliberately set out to evoke the mood of a rural retreat, it also implied the tea gathering would be a more intimate affair. His ideal tea room (sukiya) was four and a half mats in size, which equates to an area roughly 9 square yards. This was to become a standard dimension in respect of teahouses. Shukõ also prepared and served the tea himself, again a departure from preceding practices.

Shukõ further elucidated his thinking on Chadõ 茶道(the Way of Tea) in the following expression attributed to him; “It is best to have a magnificent steed in the straw hut.” This is taken by many commentators to be the beginning of wabicha. Wabi a term initially used in poetic circles to summon the sense of anguish of a forlorn lover; it is derived from the verb wabu (to languish), and wabishi (‘spiritual loneliness’). Gradually the term came to be associated with the circumstances of the poet-hermit, and later still came to be interpreted as an appreciation of imperfection and the irregular. Shukõ himself did not use the term, rather he referred to hie (cold)’ and kare (withered). The cult of imperfection had been clearly voiced in earlier times by the monk Kenkõ, in his delightfully titled collection of observations and philosophical jottings, ‘Essays in Idleness’ (Tsurezuregusa 徒然草, complied 1330-1332; “In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity was undesirable. Leaving something unfinished makes it more interesting.” Shukõ in his reference to the ‘magnificent steed, is comparing the perfection of Chinese tea bowls and other utensils to the more earthy Japanese aesthetic of the imperfections of the straw hut of the poet-hermit. Whilst resisting turning his back on the highly refined Chinese wares, he places, and so contrasts them, within the context of an original Japanese aesthetic experience.

Tea room interior, Jikko-in, Ohara
To his way of seeing, drinking Tea was fundamentally a religious rite, a means of striving towards profound insight. Shukõ practiced a simple life himself (he built a grass roofed hut to live in Kyoto), yet did not scorn the practice of using fine Chinese wares, rather his way of Tea was rooted in an earthy simplicity. He was content to mix both imported pieces with native Japanese pottery, the aesthetic merit of the utensils was paramount. Nor for him were the elaborate gardens usually associated with tea drinking, Shukõ created simple landscapes around his ‘grass hut’, which were evocative of views of distant mountains. His vision was that of an ‘urban hermit’, living within, yet ultimately detached from the travails of society. The evidence of which would have of been only too apparent to him. Kyoto the greatest city in Japanese history to date was a smoldering ruin, laid waste by a war fuelled by ambition and the lust for power.

 In a letter written to his principal disciple, Shukõ spells out the scope of his understanding: “In Chadõ chief among evils is the heart’s overbearance, attachment to self. Begrudging the masterly and scorning beginners are thoroughly wrongheaded. …However artful one’s motions, a painful awareness is crucial. Repression and attachment simply obstruct. And yet the Way lies unattainable if there is no overbearance (discipline) at all.” Shukõ’s vision of the Way of Tea was steeped in his experience of Zen Buddhism; it lifted the drinking of tea beyond the platitudes of materialism and pleasure seeking, and sought to place it beyond duality. For the first time (in either China or Japan) he articulated a way for Chadõ to fuse art, aestheticism, and religion in a new philosophical expression. Whilst others would expand on the vision, Shukõ provided a map and a set of directions.
Woodblock print of a tea ceremony, Edo period.

Shukõ had several disciples who were keen to maintain the procedures and dictates of his style of Tea. Whilst his disciples kept alive Shukõ’s style, none of them had the vision to develop the tradition further. Many of Shukõ’s disciples lived in and around Sakai, a town near Osaka, which was the principal port involved with trading links to mainland China. Many of the Sakai merchants and traders were wealthy individuals, and there developed a rich tradition of involvement in Tea, with a number of Tea masters residing there. It was through Shukõ’s pupils that Takeno Jõõ (1502-1555) also originally of Sakai came to study tea. Jõõ, whose grandfather has died in the Onin war, had by the age of thirty begun to make a name for himself as a poet in Kyoto. It was there he met and discussed tea with tea masters of Shukõ’s lineage. Jõõ threw himself into the world of tea, and his collection of fine vessels itself became a subject of much admiration. He collected discarded, even broken items to serve as flower arrangement containers, misshapen tea bowls which had distorted in the firing, their incompleteness revealing an inner beauty. He widely applied the terms wabi (‘cold, withered’) and sabi (‘refined rusticity’) to describe his emerging tea style, which he saw as being humble, courteous, and above all, intimate, a gathering of friends. The modest interior of the tea house, it’s tokonoma alcove adorned with sprays of fresh flowers would have allowed small groups of three or four to gather at any time. The tea contests by comparison could attract crowds in the hundreds. Jõõ began to infuse the spirit of Tea with a poet’s sensibility. The following poem by Fujiwara Taiko was a favourite of Jõõ’s, capturing for him the essence of the mood meaning of wabi:

Where are the crimson leaves,
Flowers of the season ?
Only a small hut on the long curving bay
Stands in the serenity of an autumn evening.

Jõõ undoubtedly brought the whole concept of Tea to new heights of refinement. Emphasing particularly the relationship between hosts and guest. The phrase ‘ichi go, ichi e’  (‘one life, one meeting’) expresses a sense of uniqueness of each and every moment, the preciousness of each moment, he recognized in the sharing of a bowl of tea.. 

Through both, Shukõ and Jõõ, Tea escaped from the strictures formal shoin style, avoided the spectacle of the Tea contests and their extravagances, and established the predominance of the Zen as the spiritual foundation. Cha no Yu was now as widely followed and practiced an art among the upper echelons of the samurai ranks, as the wealthy merchants of Kyoto, Nara and Sakai. Utensils attained legendary status from their historical associations and renowned tea utensils changed hands for large sums of money, as well as featuring as bargaining pieces. The powerful feudal lords in particular exploited the passion among the wealthy merchants in political and diplomatic negotiations over finance and supplies, in pursuit of their constant military ambitions. The country was still torn by near constant civil war, as the great feudal clans fought for a supremacy which would deliver the whole country as a prize. In this fierce, uncertain climate it was to be the son of a well-connected Sakai wholesale fish merchant who would bring Cha no Yu to its fullest flowering, also bring into closer focus the spaces around the Tea house too.

Sen no Rikyū

Sen no Rikyū (1521-1591) was born with tea in his blood; his father, Yohei, a successful wholesale fish merchant in Sakai, was also influential politically in the town. Rikyū’s grandfather had been a Tea man, part of Ashikaga Yoshimas’s intimate circle at the Silver Pavilion gatherings. He began his study of Tea at the age of sixteen, under the name Sen Yoshirõ as a pupil of Kitamuki Dõchin at Daitoku-ji, and studied with Jõõ. In this way he experienced two different approaches to Chadõ. Dõchin’ style came from the Higashiyama school, the Tea of his grandfather’s time, and from Jõõ he would have absorbed the most modern approach. Rikyū was soon recognised by the Tea masters of the day as being someone of special ability and perception. In 1570 Rikyū served tea to the Shogun Nobunaga, following this he became one of three stipended tea masters to serve and advise Nobunaga directly. Following the betrayal and death of Nobunaga, he entered the service of the formidable Kwampaku (Regent) Hideyoshi Toyotomi, as Tea master, and was charged with the task of revising the form and rules of the Tea ceremony. Rikyū's genius was to fuse in one place, at one moment in time the various threads of social, aesthetic and spiritual aspiration inherent in Japan. He drew from Chinese sources the poetry of Li Po and the mystique of the ‘Grass Cottage, absorbed the concern with cleanliness from Shinto, and looked again at the utensils and tea man’s surroundings, with eyes unshackled by a Zen inspired directness and lucidity. For Rikyū, beauty was Nature presented in absolute order. Rikyū’s Tea was founded on the four principals, Wa (Harmony), Kei  (Reverence), Sei  (Purity), and Jaku  (Calmness). His conception of the form of the ceremony, the architecture of the Tea house and its garden setting were all rigorously subject to these ideals, and became accepted as expressing the classical form ever since, his descendants continue to run the finest Tea schools in Japan.

Ceremonial tea;
Just to boil water,
Make the Tea
And drink it -
That is all.

Roji 露地, is now the name given to the Tea garden, and can be translated as ‘dewy path’ or ‘dewy ground’. It is derived from the Lotus sutra, one of the most important Buddhist texts, and occurs in the phrase, “Escaping from the fire stricken habitations of the Three Phenomenal Worlds take their places on the dewy ground.” The concept of the roji is often attributed to Rikyū. Whilst previously gardens featured in association with Tea, they were more often an addition to the scene, rather than being an element of the fabric of the entire experience. The main emphasis of tea gatherings had been centred on tea itself, the garden was used by guests to stroll, and relax in. The garden Yoshimasa created at Ginkaku-ji, sophisticated as it was, remained ‘outside’ of the Tea ceremony. To Shukõ and Jõõ the garden was used with the intention of providing a tasteful backcloth to proceedings within the Tearoom. In an illustration of Jõõ’s four and a half mat Tearoom, the garden is shown as being divided into Inner and Outer halves. Jõõ favoured a garden without planting, simply moss-covered earth with no stones arranged at all. Most town-dwelling merchants would have precious little space for a tea garden, and often the garden was simply a means of allowing guests to approach the Teahouse without having to go through the home. For the ranking samurai, feudal lords (daimyo), and nobles concerns over finance and space were less of an issue. By the end of the sixteenth century many Teahouses and gardens were being created. Successive Tea masters would apply their own ideas of style and taste, though all in some way followed in Rikyū’s steps.


Tea garden, Daiho-ji, Kyoto
In Rikyū’s vision the garden was wholly integrated into the experience of Tea, from the moment the guest steps through the entry gate to raising the tea bowl to drink. The roji is a path that leads from the ‘outside’, everyday world, to the Tearoom, the ‘heart’. One important principle stands out, and that is the garden should be as simple and unostentatious as possible. Space allowing, it may be divided into two, or even three parts, the Inner, Middle and Outer gardens, separated by a Middle gate, (chumon). In the Outer garden is found the Machiai (Waiting Room) or some other pavilion, a quiet spot where the guests will gather. 

Cleanliness of the Tearoom and garden was paramount to Rikyū. He prescribed the garden should have water sprinkled about it, to freshen the atmosphere before the guests approach the Teahouse. The roji would always contain a water basin arrangement (chõzubai), usually placed in the outer garden, here a guest will rinse hands and mouth in an ritual act of ablution This ‘cleansing of the dust of the world” reveals the role of the garden space as a buffer between the outside world and the inner sanctity of the Tearoom. The garden has a transformitory function, the guest whilst walking calmly along the garden path gradually leaves behind the cares of the everyday world, thus enabling him to enter the Tea room with a fresh and unencumbered mind and heart.
Roji at Koto-in, Kyoto
The path itself is often composed of mainly flat-sided mountain stones laid in patterns of a natural logic, each stone set with deliberate purpose and consideration. To Rikyū the laying of stepping-stones required six parts practicality and four parts artistic sensibility. The paths would be varied with the insertion of ‘pavement’ sections (nobedan), small stones set closely packed together. Most path stones were set near to the ground level, in samurai gardens the stones were raised higher, later, precise heights of steppingstones would be decreed to maintain, as it were, the gap between social classes The ground between and to the sides would be bare earth, weeded and sprinkled with coarse sand or silver-white gravel. Planting in the garden would be evergreen, with very few flowering plants. It was an ambience of Nature refined, groomed, ordered and caressed, which was sought after. Rikyū took the ideal of the hermit poet in his remote mountain retreat and encapsulated it within a framework of actions, ideas and a charged awareness of detail.

Rikyū 's life, full of extraordinary achievements, was to end in tragedy of Shakespearian dimensions. Rikyū had attained a very powerful position on the national stage due to his closeness, and famously fraught relationship with Hideyoshi. In 1590 Hideyoshi lead an army of 200,000 troops to victory at Odawara, a victory which finally brought to an end over two centuries of civil wars and rebellion. Daitoku-ji temple built an elaborate two-story gate in its grounds to acknowledge the victory; a statue of Rikyū was placed in the upper story in recognition of his role in securing funding for the project. Hideyoshi took grievous offence at the perceived slight, as he would have had to pass under the statue when visiting Daitoku-ji. On the twenty-eighth day of the second month Rikyū was ordered to commit ritual suicide. There was the final Tea ceremony surrounded by his closest associates, after which the utensils were distributed among the guests, and final poems written. Rikyū died by his own hand in a Tearoom designed and built by himself. He was seventy-one years old. History did not end with Rikyū in1592, other tea masters would follow who would also make their contributions. If none that followed have been recognised as achieving the reputation and respect of Rikyū, it is a measure of just how clear his vision was.

What I have often dreamed
Far beyond my troubled life
In this weary world,
Now perhaps I may attain
True reality.




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