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The Japanese Tea Ceremony

Since so much of the Chinese porcelain of the late Ming period seemingly was made with the Japanese market in mind a closer understanding of the Japanese Tea Ceremony is of interest.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony as such is a ritualized procedure for entertaining guests that puts into practice the aesthetic and spiritual principles of Zen Buddhism.

When practised as a form of spiritual and physical discipline, it provides a framework for an individual's mastery of life, while also raising aesthetic appreciation to high levels.

Acording to Japanese sources, tea was first brought to Japan from China by the priest Eisai in 1191 and drunk in Japanese temples as a form of medicine.

In the 9th century a tea ceremony, developed by Chinese masters around the Taoist philosophy of "living in the moment", may have been introduced to Japan at the same time. But, not until the 15th century the philosophy and aesthetics of ceremonial tea were refined and popularized by Zen priests and tea masters into what is now known as chado, "the way of tea". Do is here the Japanese reading of "Tao" meaning "way" or "path."

The 15th century Zen master Murata Juko (1422-1502) was the first to break with convention in Japan and serve tea in an intimate four-and-a-half-tatami mat space (3 m square), which became the forerunner of the Japanese tea room. Until this time tea was served to aristocrats in grand parlors using expensive Chinese utensils.

One of the people deeply influenced by Murata Juko's style of tea was Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), the son of a rich merchant in Sakai, near Osaka. After studying tea under Zen masters he stripped everything non-essential from the tea room and the style of preparation and developed a tea ritual in which there was no wasted movement and no superfluous object.

Central to Rikyu's tea was the concept of wabi (desolation). Zen philosophy takes the positive side of this and says that the greatest spiritual wealth emerges in desolation and poverty.

Rikyu's wabi-style tea ritual was designed to direct the consciousness of participants to the wealth within. Instead of using expensive imported vessels in lavish reception halls, he made tea in a simple earthen-walled hut using nothing but a simple iron kettle, a plain lacquered container for tea, a tea scoop and tea whisk whittled from bamboo, and rough black tea bowls known as raku ware.

The only decoration in a wabi-style tea hut is a hanging scroll or a vase of flowers placed in the alcove. The lack of decoration is designed to open up the senses of the participants to appreciate the concept of wabi.

Rikyu was employed as the personal tea master of the powerful warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and he was not always able to practice his humble form of tea, but his style was embraced by the wealthy merchants of Osaka, Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo), many of whom added their own embellishments.

After Rikyu's death by ritual suicide, tea masters serving provincial lords (daimyo) also developed more decorative tea utensils to suit the tastes and needs of their particular milieu. A number of daimyo-style and other tea schools that developed in the Edo period continue today, but the largest tea schools are descended from two grandsons of Sen no Rikyu, the Urasenke School and the Omotesenke School.

Their procedures and aesthetics differ slightly, but the Zen spirit remains the same.

A formal tea ceremony today lasts up to four hours. The guests first gather in a waiting arbor in a quiet garden, then wash their hands and mouth at a stone wash basin before entering the tea hut on their knees through a low door as a sign of equality. The host adds charcoal to the fire, then serves a meal, followed by thick tea, which the guests drink from the same bowl in a spirit of fraternity, and then thin tea

Thank you for your interest.

Best regards,
Jan-Erik Nilsson