45. Sen No Rikyū [SER]

In the field of philosophy, Western philosophy can clearly be distinguished from Eastern philosophy. This is due to the fact that Western philosophy often incorporates, long, non-fictitious gobbledygook. However, Eastern philosophers show a proclivity of writing poems (i.e. haiku), penning aphorisms and chanting. Sen no Rikyū is one of the most renowned Zen philsophers hitherto, mostly known for his work on tea and its visceral, therapeutic applications.

Rikyū’s introduction to Eastern philosophy manifested itself in the form of the Japanese tea tradition. The Japanese had been consuming tea, since the 9th century, with the drink being deemed a calming and spiritual substance. It would become Rikyū’s achievement to put tea ceremonies on a more rigorous and profound philosophical footing. Not only would he be responsible for the many rituals practiced after his passing, but also for the design and aesthetics of many buildings, wherein the tea is consumed.

By the 16th century, Japan became plagued by a consumerist and monetary-oriented mindset. However, Rikyū believed these values to be perverse, promulgating the wabi-sabi values. This term is a mélange of wabi (simplicity) and sabi (appreciation of the imperfect). These values were particularly designed for tea rituals and ceremonies. He approached this old tradition, through multifarious measures. He revolutionized the space of tea ceremony. He believed that one’s teahouse should be reduced to two meters squared, isolated in a secluded garden or “green space”, with doors made deliberately too small, thus coercing everyone to bow, creating a sense of égalité. Rikyū was determined to form a barrier between the teahouse and the outside world. De facto, the path toward the teahouse, would be ornamented with stones and trees; serving as a meander.

If properly executed, the tea ceremony would promulgate what Rikyū coined “wa”. This would unravel as the tea drinkers would reach a state of interconnectedness with their surrounding environment. It would provide an ineffably natural experience, achieved by listening to the humming of birds, the crackling fire, and smelling the unvarnished wood. He dubbed this sentiment “kei” or harmony. It would provide the artifices of sitting with one’s cronies or families, unbound by the shackles imposed by social structures. The success of such an event would be gauged through a feeling of “jaku” or tranquility by its participants.

Grosso modo, Rikyū’s achievement can be seen as taking an act as rudimentary/ cyclical as sipping tea, and imbuing it with much deeper meaning and passion. All actions, from the boiling of tea, to the measurement of tea powder, directly mirrored zen philosophy. Rikyū serves as a reminder, a wake up call if you will, between large ideas and daily routines (i.e. drinking a cup of tea). Not only does he stress that these routines are intrinsically connected with these larger ideas, but that they are essential to giving such themes more gravitas and overall enjoyment.

Source: Book of Tea by Sen No Rikyū.

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