Water Jar
Tea Ceremony water jar (mizusashi), by Nakamura Takuo —   
(rough and refined) stoneware, gold and silver (MMA, NYC)   

Zen-Taoist Aspects of the Japanese Tea Ceremony
Art & Spirituality of Japanese Gardens

The following excerpts adapted from Julia V. Nakamura's "The Japanese Tea Ceremony" (NY: Peter Pauper Press, 1965) focus on the 'chado,' or 'way of tea' (jap.茶道) from the standpoint of a Zen-Taoist religious practice: Nakamura's study provides a rare and profoundly comprehensive spiritual teaching. The book has long been out of print and difficult to find even in libraries.

Note: Used copies of this volume have recently surfaced, happily, and are available for a very low sum at various online book stores. Illustrated with simple green and gold silkscreen images, it contains a small but vast treasure!!

Ideogram for Tea "From China came the tea, the ideogram for tea (jap.茶, illustrated right), the rudiments of the Tea Cult and the many arts associated with it. Our own term for tea is a corruption of the original Chinese ideogram which translates into 'cha,' and which was adopted intact by the Japanese. The ideogram for tea house ('sukiya') also came from China and translates into three different definitions — all metaphysical. First, 'Abode of the Void' obviously refers to the Buddhist concept of nothingness, of the vacuum, and the aesthetic principle that the pavilion must exist for itself alone. When not used for tea rites it stands empty and idle. 'Abode of the Fancy' implies a personal relationship between the tea room and its designer. It is not built for permanency or posterity, but to express the Buddhist teaching that just as the body is a temporary temple, so the 'hut' is fleeting, a temporary thing, a resting place. The thatched roof suggests perishability; the slender pillars the fragility of life; the bamboo supports suggest lightness; the use of ordinary materials testifies to non-attachment. 'Abode of the A-Symmetrical' is also basically Zen, which is the philosophy of Becoming — a dynamic, endless process. Symmetry suggests completeness and the 'aping of an abstract and artificial perfection.' In the tea room or the Japanese house the decorations are always off-center, the balance occult; sets come in threes and fives; one never finds the artistic representation of a person on display...

Green Tea Bowl

"The challenge of the tea room is to build it of several seemingly incompatible materials, to fuse the highly refined and polished with the rough and the natural; to vary the sizes, shapes, and placements; to create an effect of sublime beauty, expressing naturalness and ease."

Ikebana Flower Holder
Ikebana Flower Holder (click to zoom)

"In the fifteenth century in Japan as the Tea Ceremony reached a pinnacle of perfection, all the associated arts went along with it, 'ikebana' (jap.生け花) — the art of flower arrangement being one of them. Legend ascribes the first flower arrangement to early Buddhist saints who gathered flowers scattered by a storm and, in their infinite solicitude for all living things, placed them in vessels of water. Since that time a number of schools have evolved but all are based on three fundamental (Taoist) principles: the Leading Principle (Heaven), the Subordinate Principle (Earth), and the Reconciling Principle (humanity). Flower masters are partial to a formal school; they tamper with flowers to create effects. The Tea Master follows a more Natural School of Flower Arrangement and leaves it to carry its own message. Thoughtfully one combines a slender spray of wild cherry with a budding camellia* to echo the departure of winter, and give the promise of spring... A Tea Master can make a dramatic impact with one bloom, or release a flood of sentiment with seventeen vowels in the form of a haiku, or the painting of one bird in flight. The Japanese concede imagination to all people. It is not art, therefore, to paint a complete picture or write a poem complete with denouement. Rather it is craftsmanship. Far better is it to capture one universal thought or image and with it guide the imagination of the reader along the path you wish them to travel but at their own pace and to their own destiny! A complete picture or a complete poem negates the Buddhist premise of becoming.

"Under the Tokugawa Shogunate all the arts reached a peak, most outstanding among which was the haiku, a seventeen syllable poem with one exquisite thought.

    Behold! A camellia
        flower
    Split water when it fell!

    The ancient pond!
        a frog plunged . . .
    The sound of water!

All Tea Masters are conversant with the poetry of Basho, the greatest writer of haiku, and are poets in their own right. It is part of the Tea Cult syndrome."

"Rooted and nurtured in Zennism, the Tea Cult of Japan is a way of life, a living expression of eastern philosophy: deceptively simple and paradoxical. It is a social function and a religious experience.* The Japanese call it the Cha-do (jap.茶道) — The Way of Tea — returning to the Tao concept of 'path,' investing tea-drinking with philosophical dignity... Fosco Maraini, in Meeting with Japan, summarized the Tea Ceremony thus:

    'a ritualized sequence of movements, a formal dance of significant gestures, designed to purge the mind of irrelevancies, of petty or personal things.'
"Ideally, ceremonial tea is served to provide the atmosphere in which to meditate on the reality of unreality, achieve the state of mind necessary to fulfill oneself according to the Taoistic idea of Becoming as opposed to Being; the comprehension of the doctrine of Vacuum wherein the truly essential is to be found. What constitutes a room? — is it floor, walls, ceiling? Or is a room the emptiness which these tangibles create? The utility and worth of a water pitcher are not its form and color but rather the circumscribed emptiness which the form provides."

"Chanoyu (jap.茶の湯) is based on the expression of four underlying concepts. These are wabisabishibuifura, which have no comparables in the English language and are filled with subtle, intellectual and emotional overtones.

D.T. Suzuki says:

    Wabi in the narrow sense indicates a life of poverty and avoidance of luxury, remote from falsity and intrigue. Whoever lives according to wabi is content with simple things, has understood the wisdom of rocks and grasshoppers, serenely accepts poverty as an enrichment of the spirit of life.

    Sabi has a not dissimilar meaning but refers rather to things and places; it brings to mind a certain 'unpretentious rusticity, an archaic imperfection' which put people and matter into a relationship of loving intimacy. This implies somewhere in the background a solitary, a hermit, actively putting all this into practice.

    Shibui literally means astringent, broadly means good taste. It implies sobriety, absence of ostentation, simplicity, impeccable taste.

    Fura indicates a way of life prescribed by Zen principles. It is a chaste enjoyment of life...identification of the self with the creative spirit, the spirit of the beauty of nature. Men and women of fura find their friends among flowers and animals, in rocks and water, in showers and the moon.

"Upon these four precepts, then, the Chanoyu is predicated, and in practice they are ambivalent. Shibui, while implying restraint and simplicity results in a kimono that is softly hued, simply designed, but costly and elegant. Fura, the spirit of beauty in nature, results in a garden of great charm but contrived naturalness. Wabi by definition 'a life of poverty and avoidance of luxury' produces a tea house which is austerely simple in appearance, but made of wood that is carefully chosen for beauty of grain and meticulously fashioned by a cabinet-maker who is a master craftsman. The tea house is more costly than the residence and often more than a temple. Sabi, an archaic imperfection, results in the expression of ultimate poetic beauty. It symbolizes the Zen Principle of Becoming as the viewer is brought into active participation with the artistic moment. The essence of this idea is incompleteness. A complete, obviously balanced painting, poem, flower arrangement, lacks dynamics, challenge or inspiration.

"As an oriental ideal, the Tea Ceremony has been forgotten in China, the land of its origin. It lives in Japan as an exercise in courtesy and art carried to an incomparable perfection."

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