The Tea Masters


The Tea Masters

A Philosophy of Simplicity


Murata Shuko (1422-1502), a Zen monk attached to the Shogun's court, brought rigor, refinement, and modesty to the tea ceremony. He left his luxurious quarters and built a small pavilion (the "poorhouse" or soan) at the end of a garden; here he himself prepared and served matcha, green powdered tea, using the simplest of utensils. Decoration in the tea house was reduced to a vase of flowers and a scroll displaying a Zen epigram or a drawing.

Takeno J-o (1502-1555) became in turn a grand master of tea, accentuating the Zen spirit and rigor of the ceremony. His disciple, Sen Rikyu (1522-1591), defined the Chado or "way of tea" through two types of ceremony: the traditional "tea of lords" and the new Wabi, or "satisfaction in poverty". Rikyu resisted pressure from the lords who wanted luxurious ceremonies, and so was forced to commit hara-kiri. But his son Sotan took up the cause, and his three grandsons founded the three great schools of the tea ceremony, still in existence today: Urasenke, Omotesenke and Mushanokojisenke. Still today, Rikyu is considered the greatest tea master of all times.

Another great master of Chado was Furuta Oribe (1544-1615), Rikyu's successor, who introduced asymmetrical bowls and utensils, among other innovations.

In 1868, Japan put an end to the feudal reign of the shoguns in favor of rule by the Emporer. The official state tea ceremony that had continued to exist in parallel with the Chado, came to be too much associated with the old regime and was abandoned. Today when we think of the Japanese tea ceremony, we think of the austerity and simplicity of the Wabi. Some may not be aware that it was only in the 19th century during the period of intense Westernization in Japan, that the Way of Tea, the Cha no yu (literally meaning "hot water for tea") began to be taught to women.

©1996: Centre d'histoire de Montréal
Picture source: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, B.-C.