Tea is nought but this,
First you make the water boil,
Then prepare the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.
– Sen no Rikyu
Japanese history tells the story of how drinking tea evolved from a simple process into an elaborate ceremony, yet one based on simplicity and power. Zen monks developed a system for preparing, serving, and consuming tea. Sen no Rikyu (1522-91), a famous tea master, perfected the wabi aesthetics, incorporating Zen philosophy.
Wabi style created an aesthetic based on tranquility, harmony, respect, and simplicity. Those elements are based on the Zen philosophy of minimalism, poverty, and beauty. Sen no Rikyu believed superfluous utensils, tools, and decorations distracted from the tea practice. His tea room displayed only the most essential utensils and decorations. Using simple utensils, instead of expensive Chinese wares, conveyed humility and equality to his guests. He always followed these seven rules:
1. Make a satisfying bowl of tea.
2. Lay the charcoal so that the water boils efficiently.
3. Provide the sense of warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer.
4. Arrange the flowers as though they were in the field.
5. Be ready ahead of time.
6. Be prepared in case it should rain.
7. Act with utmost consideration toward your guests.
Sen no Rikyu’s brief instructions simplified the art and tradition around preparing, serving, and consuming tea. He believed that the foundation of the tea ceremony was grounded in all aspects of life and that it took great effort to master the simplicity of the tea ceremony. Whisking powdered tea in a bowl is part of a meditation that leads to enlightenment. The wabi aesthetic enables you to concentrate on making and enjoying a cup of tea.
Originally, the wabi style tea ceremony was expected to act as a social leveler during the warring era in Japan. Sen no Rikyu trained two powerful feudal lords in the art of the wabi style tea ceremony. During this period, feudal lords held elaborate tea gatherings to broker peace treaties and display political power.
Japanese merchants enjoyed tea as a part of everyday life. They liked to combine a simple tea ceremony and negotiations. Using elements of wabi style, merchants presented an amenable social framework for confidential dialogue.
A tea ceremony provided a space to display the beauty of tea, encourage camaraderie, and share confidences. The Japanese have embraced this simplicity for over four centuries. Sen Rikyu’s legacy lives on in the Uresenke schools.