Japan's Master of Tea Ceremonies

Sen no Rikyu, a tea master in the 16th century, created a legacy that still lives on strong today in the tea rooms of Japan and in the hearts of its people.

Every year on March 27 and March 28, two of the most revered schools of tea in Japan pay solemn tribute to Sen no Rikyu, the man who left the single greatest legacy on the Japanese tea tradition. Rikyu did not invent the Japanese Way of Tea, the tea ceremony known as chado or chanoyu, but he made significant impressions on it that have lasted until today, effects that extend to many other aspects of Japanese culture as well. Believing in the four key principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility, Rikyu added the rustic simplicity of the Japanese tea ceremony, and the philosophical Zen-like are his doing.

Sen No Rikyu

Rikyu (pictured right) was born into a wealthy family in 1522. His birthplace of Sakai, near Osaka, was one of the main centers for the tea ceremony in Japan and he began formal tea studies while in his teens, studying under some of the most famous tea masters of the time. The Japanese tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism have always been interconnected, and Rikyu, like other tea masters, underwent Zen training as part of his studies. It was during this period that he penned one of his most famous poems, revealing a deep philosophical bent that was a sign of things to come:

“Though many people drink tea, if you do not know the Way of Tea, tea will drink you up.”

Without a spiritual appreciation for tea, Rikyu believed, the experience of drinking was squandered.

Rikyu followed in the footsteps of his teachers to become a revered tea master himself, in service to powerful daimyo, the lords in Japan’s feudal system. He developed a new style of tea house that lives on today: simple, tiny, rustic and unadorned rooms that incorporated elements of nature, with low doorways so that everyone, from samurai lord to simple peasant, would have to bow to enter, humbling themselves before their fellow guests. He also created simple tea tools such as scoops and containers, which he sometimes carved himself out of bamboo. Last but not least, Rikyu, unconvinced by the expensive Chinese tea accessories that were in fashion at the time, collaborated with a tile maker to develop raku tea ware. The hand-formed, rustic tea bowls are still widely popular today.

“If you have one pot
And can make your tea in it
That will do quite well.
How much does he lack himself  
Who must have a lot of things?”

The last daimyo that Rikyu served was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who held an important position as chief adviser to the emperor. This gave Rikyu significant political influence but at some point, for reasons that history has been unable to untangle, Hideyoshi became angered by Rikyu and ordered him to commit suicide. In 1591, the tea master, Zen to the end, wrote a stoic death poem before killing himself at the age of 70 by ritual disembowelment.

teahouse duo

Main image: James Willamor | Middle image: Wikimedia Commons | Bottom image left: photoantenna | Bottom image right: Sean Kirkpatrick