The Great Japanese Tea Wizard, Sen no Rikyu

We’ve written about Japanese tea as well as Japan’s infamous tea ceremonies before, and it’s plain to see that tea is a very important part of Japanese culture. But who made this happen? Who were the tea wizards that worked their magic on Japan, coming up with tea ceremonies and really ingraining tea into the Japanese culture?

Sen no Rikyu was one such tea wizard. He was a master of tea under both daimyos Nobunaga and Hideyoshi. Incorporating elements of wabi-sabi, Rikyu mastered the art of the tea ceremony. Because of this, Rikyu is consistently ranked as one of Japan’s top ten historical figures alongside the likes of Sakamoto Ryoma.

The Magic Man is Born

sen-rikyuRikyu is considered to be the most influential historical figure on the Japanese way of tea. He was the first to really emphasize several key pillars of the ceremony, including rustic simplicity, directness of approach, and honesty of self. This was most likely due to the Zen training he received as a young man.

Born in 1522 in Osaka prefecture, Rikyu lived a fairly normal life until his teens when he decided to change Japan’s relationship with tea forever. Not much is known about his early and middle years other than his deciding to study tea under Kitamuki Dochin and Takeno Joo, both respectable tea wizards in their own right. He also married around the age of twenty-one. But that’s not important. Let’s get back to the tea.

It’s Tea Time

sen-teaRight around the ripe old age of sixty, things start to get serious for Rikyu. He was a tea master for Nobunaga, and after Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582, Rikyu became a tea master for Hideyoshi. This was a pretty big deal, as the daimyos of Japan were like, super important. Rikyu and Hideyoshi really hit it off, and soon Rikyu was practically in charge of everything having to do with tea ceremonies.

With his newly granted tea wizard powers, Rikyu started to form the tea ceremony as we know it today. He started to make use of very tiny and rustic tea rooms, some even as small as two tatami mats. He also implemented flower containers, teascoops, and bamboo lid rests. He really enjoyed using everyday objects for tea ceremonies, often in new and novel fashions.

Raku-pottery

Rikyu had a preference for simple Japanese-made items rather than the expensive Chinese-made items that were popular at the time. As a result, Rikyu collaborated with Raku Chojiro to make Raku teabowls, pictured above.

Rikyu was heavily responsible for working wabi-sabi (finding beauty in the very simple, imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete) into the Japanese tea ceremony. Because of this, the popularity of wabi-sabi owes a lot to Rikyu and his developing it into the tea ceremony and the utensils he implemented are still used as the standards today.

chasen

The Way of Tea is naught but this:
first you boil water,
then you make the tea and drink it.
-Sen no Rikyu

The Way of Tea was very important to Rikyu. His unique way of life combined everyday aspects of living with the highest spiritual and philosophical tenets. Without any spiritual training, he believed that one could not truly appreciate the tea.

The Tea Ceremony Reborn

tea-toolsA new form of tea ceremony was born from Rikyu. His tea ceremonies were very simple. Simple instruments, simple surroundings. But it was beautiful. Such is the way of wabi-sabi. Rikyu also wrote poetry and practiced ikebana.

Though you wipe your hands and brush off the dust and dirt from the vessels, what is the use of all this fuss if the heart is still impure?
-Sen no Rikyu

Many aspects of the modern Japanese tea ceremony date back to Rikyu’s influence. A tea house that can accommodate five people, a separate tea room where utensils are washed, two entrances (one for the host and one for the guests), and a doorway low enough to make the guests have to bend down and humble themselves before entry were just a handful of Rikyu’s contributions.

Tea-Ceremony

Though many people drink tea,
if you do not know the Way of Tea,
tea will drink you up.
-Sen no Rikyu

According to Rikyu there were four fundamental qualities that should be exemplified in a tea ceremony. These qualities are harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. He also believed that these qualities should be exemplified by tea ceremony practitioners in their daily lives. If not, the tea would “drink them up” instead of the other way around.

The Death of Rikyu

seppuku

Photo by Kris Knapp

Even though Rikyu and Hideyoshi were basically bros for life at this point, Hideyoshi ended up ordering Rikyu to commit seppuku. While the true reasons behind this order remain shrouded in mystery (military related disagreements, arguments over respect, etc), it is known that Rikyu ended his life in Kyoto in 1591.

book-of-tea

According to Okakura Kazuko’s Book of Tea, Rikyu’s last wish was to hold a lavish tea ceremony. After serving the guests, he presented them each with a wall scroll and an item from the tea ceremony. The bowl, however, was destroyed by Rikyu. He said, “Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man.” If I was Rikyu, I would have been salty too.

Rikyu’s last words were penned in a death poem that he addressed to the dagger with which he ended his life. The poem is as follows.

Welcome to thee,
O sword of eternity!
Through Buddha
And through Daruma alike
Thou hast cleft thy way.

The Legacy Lives On

tea-house

A year after Rikyu’s unfortunate death, Hideyoshi remarked that he wished that the new residence he was building would have been pleasing to Rikyu. Hideyoshi was known for his moodiness and was said to have expressed much regret with how he treated Rikyu at the end.

Rikyu’s unique sense of simplistic beauty also left its mark on the world of ceramics, architecture, and design. Not only did he influence the tea ceremony itself, but also the aspects of the tea ceremony that can be extended to other aspects of people’s lives as well as the world around them.

Rikyu’s grave is at Jukoin temple in Kyoto and memorials are observed annually by many Japanese tea ceremony schools. There was also a movie made to honor this great man in 1989. The title of the film is “Rikyu“, and it even won a handful of awards. There are a handful of other movies featuring the man, but “Rikyu” seems to be the most quintessential.

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nO9lLWJ8QL0']

And if that wasn’t enough, they’re making another movie about Rikyu entitled “Ask This of Rikyu” which comes out in Japan in December of this year.

And for more information about Mr. Rikyu and all things tea ceremony, check out the links at the bottom of the post.


So tell me, have you heard of this mysterious tea wizard before? What do you think about what he’s done for Japan and their tea ceremonies? Share your thoughts in the comments!


Sites Referenced:
Japanese Tea Ceremony Wikipedia
Zen Stories of the Samurai
Japan-101: Sen no Rikyu
Sen no Rikyū Wikipedia

  • DAVIDPD

    The Father of Cha-Do. Tea Wizard, awesome title. Thanks John.

  • http://foxibiri.tumblr.com/ foxibiri

    There’s a tea house in Tokyo’s Hama-Rikyu garden. I wonder if there’s any relation between that place and this tea wizard.

  • How timely, I will start studying in the Urasenke tradition next weekend.

    The two main organizations of Urasenke Chado in the US are in San Francisco and New York. There are other groups in the US as well (for those Americans interested).

  • Applesauce 21

    YOU’RE BACK! Yaaaaaayy!!!! I missed you – is that weird? Nice to have tofugu articles again :) (even though it was only a couple of days hahaha)

  • Phillip

    This was a nice article.

    But, why could he just order seppuku?
    I order Koichi to commit seppuku!
    *waits*

  • John

    Because he was the emperor of Japan and that’s something they could just do, it seems.

  • Phillip

    Oh, I missed the emperor part, sorry! But yeah. That sucks.

  • John

    Well I haven’t heard from him since you posted…

  • Ole Marius Tørrisen

    Since I’m a tea fanatic, an image of Sen no Rikyu is my desktop background.

  • Yippy

    Great article, but wasn’t Hideyoshi a daimyo at most? According to Wikipedia, he had a few Imperial titles, but none of them were Emperor.

  • http://japan-australia.blogspot.com/ Japan Australia

    I don’t believe either Nobunaga or Hideyoshi were ever officially emperors of Japan. They were certainly very powerful men in their time and helped unify Japan.

  • Rocky Huang

    I love how he’s referred to as a wizard in this article. He was pretty magical. xD

  • John

    Oops, I’m not sure how that slipped my mind. I’ll get it fixed up, thanks!

  • John

    Yeah that was my bad. Fixed now though – thanks!

  • http://japan-australia.blogspot.com/ Japan Australia

    No Worries! I guess as rulers they probably seemed like emperors although there was an official emperor.

  • flora

    I think everyone appreciates wabi-sabi, at least somewhat. How else would Japanese art & design be so globally respected?

  • Admiral Awesome

    I guess it’s hard to describe, yeah they were technically at most Daimyo’s but they had more power than the emporer since after all they took over the shogunate and were pretty much destroying the armies of Daimyo that opposed them. Saying they were rulers probably wouldn’t be that far off.

  • Jonathan Harston

    Of course, the British Tea Ceremony goes: Tea up. Milk? Sugar? Fancy a biscuit?