Japanese Tea Masters & the Way of Tea

Japanese Tea Masters & the Way of Tea

While the traditions of Japanese tea ceremonies, matcha, and Zen Buddhism have evolved organically, many of the rituals that survive to the present day were initiated by a few tea “masters” hundreds of years ago. Combining Zen teachings with the powerful, harmonious nature of matcha tea, these pioneers paved the paths followed by generations of tea drinkers.

Murata Juko Shapes Tea Tradition

In a previous blog post, we took a close look at Myoan Eisai, a Japanese priest who traveled to China and returned with matcha tea seeds and new ideas about Zen Buddhism. In the years that followed, Japanese Zen Buddhists slowly but surely began to develop a tea tradition that was influenced by, but also distinct from, the traditions of Chinese tea ceremonies.

At first, Japanese tea ceremonies closely mirrored those of the Chinese. As in China, the Japanese used expensive, ornate utensils and pieces. Matcha was most often consumed by the wealthy, and ceremonies were expensive, elaborate, and jovial.

However, the Japanese ceremony was eventually greatly influenced by the “masters” of tea, including Murata Juko. A Zen Buddhist, Murata Juko was greatly influenced by the teachings of Zen, which he saw as inextricably linked with tea. In contrast to Chinese tradition, his teachings emphasized spiritual tea drinking in simple teahouses, using Japanese utensils. His ceremonies placed great value on Zen values, including humility and simplicity.

The Life of Sen no Rikyu

Murata Juko became the teacher of Takeno Joo, who later taught Sen no Rikyu, considered by many to be the most influential figure in the development of Japanese tea ceremony and tradition. Also a Zen Buddhist, Sen no Rikyu further developed his teachers’ ideas about tea drinking, in particular wabi-cha and the Way of Tea.

Born in Sakai, Sen no Rikyu studied both tea and Zen Buddhism from an early age, and later became tea master to two significant daimyos (lords). At the core of Sen no Rikyu’s beliefs was an even more direct focus on simplicity within the tea ceremony. He used only rustic Japanese implements and drank tea in very small, unadorned spaces. Rikyu also wrote poetry, much of which was about tea and Zen beliefs.

Influence and Wabi-cha

Having upset his master Hideyoshi, Rikyu was ordered to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, at the age of seventy. However, his legacy and influence have continued to grow beyond his own lifetime. In particular, his ideas about wabi-cha have influenced Japanese tea tradition up to the present day.

Rikyu’s ideas about tea focused on four core Zen principles—purity, harmony, respect, and tranquility. The importance of these principles in both tea drinking and Zen, along with Rikyu’s poetry, his unique tea implements, his love for matcha tea, and his emphasis on simple, unfinished pieces, have ensured his enduring popularity and importance in Japanese culture.

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