|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!!
"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...
"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 (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.
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
'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 wabi
sabi shibui fura, 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
"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
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