Simple Tea, the Soul Soother

Japan, a hectic, densely-populated country, has always been guilty of overloading the senses. It is only natural that here too an ameliorating aesthetic should have developed. This is best expressed by the calmness and simplicity of the tea ceremony.

Although cha-no-yu, or the way of tea, leads out of the comfort zone of accessible Japanese culture, this path also brings us to a more profound understanding of that culture.

You know you are on the right path when you enter Tokyo's Gotoh Museum and experience that first feeling of anticlimax. Although it has an extensive and impressive Japanese garden hidden behind the museum building, the current exhibition markedly lacks visual fireworks.

That's the point.

The exhibition consists of 70 utensils used in tea ceremonies over the centuries, including bowls, vases, water pots, kettles and tea caddies. Many of the items actually belonged to the famous tea master, Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), who did so much to evolve this unique and mysterious ritual.

One of the most challenging pieces is Yaburebukuro (Burst Pouch) a 16th-century Iga-ware freshwater jar in natural-ash-glazed stoneware (pictured).

It has a comical shape, with a wide, top-heavy neck pressing down on a small body that seems to be cracking under the pressure. Despite looking like a potter's mistake, it is revered as an important cultural property.

Although there are several conventionally beautiful objects, such as the pale green celadon flower vase from the Southern Song Dynasty, whose form subtly hints at the shape of a gourd, many of the items reveal the tendency to construe imperfections as charms.

This is evident in the cast-iron Ashiya kettle with its hailstone pattern from the Momoyama Period (1573-1615). The fact that a large part of the lower surface has since cracked off has only ensured this piece's reputation as a unique work of beauty.

To understand why such unlikely works are so highly regarded, it is vital to understand the ideas behind chanoyu. Rules concerning the preparation and consumption of the humble beverage had already been formulated when tea masters like Murata Shuko in the 15th century started to incorporate Zen concepts and artistic ideas.

Sen no Rikyu completed the process by further formalizing the rules of behavior and identifying the tea ceremony's spirit with the four Buddhist principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility, creating the highly evolved wabi-cha style of tea ceremony that is most admired today.

The aim is simplicity and serenity. With regard to the attendant ceramics, art, gardening and architecture of the tea ceremony, it is held that these objectives can best be achieved by suggesting nature.

This is done by the avoidance of symmetry and pretentiousness and by stressing the intimate and down-to-earth aspects. The aesthetic is clearly at work in another unassuming masterpiece from the exhibition: Mine no Momiji (Maple on the Peak)," a gray Shino-ware tea bowl also from the Momoyama Period.

Although it is easy to understand how this austere aesthetic appealed to Zen priests and samurai warriors, chanoyu was also very popular among the rich merchant class, particularly in the commercial hub of Sakai. Sen no Rikyu himself came from such a background.

Merchants were renowned for their gaudy extravagance and wild parties, and it seems surprising that they had a penchant for such a rarefied pleasure. But, then, after a night of hedonism, what could be more soothing for a rich merchant with a hangover than the subdued colors, silence and reassuring ritual of the tea ceremony?

Japan Times
December 30, 2000

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