A Question Regarding “Democracy [in the Tearoom]” and Chanoyu.
> As I read and reread the poems and the
> densho to date, I am struck by
> the prevalence of relative rank and
> hierarchy as an underlying theme to
> everything - shelf usage, arrangements,
> utensils, and people. Would you
> care to comment on this hypothesis: the
> emphasis on equality in the tea
> room (everyone humbles themselves via
> the nijiri-guchi, etc.) arose first when
> Japan was forced open and the bakufu
> collapsed (Meiji Restoration) and then
> given final impetus with Japan’s loss of
> WW2 and the subsequent rejection of all
> things “inherently” Japanese? The final
> nail in the old social structure of Tea
> Ceremony was likely the democratization
> forced by the pursuit of money by the
> modern Tea schools as well, no?
Thank you for your question/comment, Elmar.
However, I do not think I can subscribe to your thesis. Really, egalitarianism was always an important part of chanoyu, at least since the time when living persons began to take the place of the carved image of the Buddha as the entity being served a bowl of tea¹. There is an essential element of the “no-mind” (egoless) state that has been part of chanoyu from the beginning, in which host and guest are supposed to approach the exercise. Ideally, at least, both host and guest are supposed to participate in a state of samadhi². The host is the host, and the guest is the guest; but beyond this distinction which function makes necessary, they are equal. This was the foundation of the offering of tea to other people — long before chanoyu was ever brought to Japan.
But now looking at your statement “I am struck by the prevalence of relative rank and hierarchy as an underlying theme to everything - shelf usage, arrangements, utensils, and people […],” we have to put this into context before we can understand it.
First, the entire situation is only intelligible if we accept that most of the people doing chanoyu in the days of Jōō and Rikyū were, by and large, expatriates who were in sore need of establishing themselves in their new situation³, if only so they could resume the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed in their former homeland. (The people who were inclined to do chanoyu were mostly from the upper middle class and upper classes — even the early tea hermits and wabi recluses appear to have come from such antecedents, whether or not they chose to pursue the restoration of their fortunes in Japan.) So they represent something quite different from people whose desperation is caused by a real lack of food and access to even the most rudimentary shelter (hence when people like Shukō are associated with things like the tomaya⁴, it should be understood as more of a poetic reference to that person’s mental-state or attitude, rather than to his actual physical condition: Shukō had obviously been a man of considerable wealth and influence before he emigrated to Sakai, hence he could move comfortably — and not a little condescendingly — even in the company of a shōgun; the same can be said for Nōami, Zeami, and the rest of the dōbōshū [同朋衆] and their successors under other governments, whose instruction and attendance is always tinged with a faint patina of one “born to it” looking down on the upstart and usurper).
Second, as I have said before, we must constantly bear in mind that Rikyū is always addressing his densho to a particular person, in a specific situation. Most of them (especially those from the early period, before Rikyū became involved with Hideyoshi — hence almost all of the densho dated prior to Tenshō 10 [天正十年]⁶) were written for tea men from Sakai, hence his fellow expatriates. Thus the frequent references to the proper way to serve a nobleman are intended to instruct the recipient in these particular practices, so he can properly make his overtures to persons of political power, and thus advance his situation (and thereby the reputation of his master — Rikyū).
Ever since chanoyu became the cherished hobby of Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1435~1490; he reigned from 1449 to 1473, and devoted the final 26 years of his life to chanoyu), tea became a potential fast track to power and influence for those skilled in the practice. From this time onward there was an unbelievably fierce competition going on among the different groups of tea men in Sakai (and to a lesser extent, those in Hakata — the men of Hakata came to prominence only when Hideyoshi began to turn his political attention to the continent, though even then the entrée to Hideyoshi’s presence and ear was still largely through chanoyu) for the opportunity to introduce the rulers of the day to “their” version of chanoyu — because a successful introduction meant that they could bring their ideas to influence the ruler (while first discretely limited to the details of chanoyu, soon enough it would be possible to progress beyond and influence matters of public policy — this is the same scenario that was acted out by Nōami, Zeami, Shukō, and ultimately the master-player of them all, Rikyū): influence brought power, and power brought wealth⁵, and so the potential restoration of the fortunes of their house to something akin to what they had been before the Ming invasions of the Korean peninsula during the second half of the fifteenth century.
Yet on what did this sort of entrée to the powerful hinge? In the time of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, after the death of Jōō, three men were considered to be the top masters of chanoyu: Tsuda Sōkyū, Imai Sōkyū, and Sen no Rikyū. Tennojiya Sōkyū was apparently the oldest, and also a life-long friend of Rikyū’s, and so seems to have deferred to Rikyū in this ultimate contest for Hideyoshi’s ear⁷. So the two contenders, Imai Sōkyū and Sen no Rikyū, were invited before Hideyoshi, and Hideyoshi asked them to explain to him how the dai-temmoku is used. Sōkyū replied that it should be washed with the thumb at the beginning of the temae, and also at the end, because the most important thing is that the temmoku be clean, particularly when serving tea to a nobleman — thus the cleaning should be performed before the nobleman’s own eyes.
Rikyū answered this by saying that since the temmoku is already clean at the beginning of the temae (it having been thoroughly purified in the mizuya before it was even brought into the shoin), rubbing it with the thumb can not but defile it, therefore it should be cleaned with the thumb only after koicha has been drunk, to remove the stain left by the tea.
This apparently simple contradiction saw Rikyū raised to a position of greater and greater power, while Imai Sōkyū had to content himself with whatever influence he could wield over his followers in Sakai⁸ (and his hatred of Rikyū and his success would continue to fester to the end of his life). It was not how much one knew, or how “right” or “wrong” were the particulars of the kind of chanoyu that one advocated, but only ones ability to express oneself convincingly. Thus it has long been said that the man with a quick tongue is the one who knows how to drink tea⁹.
Given the almost imperceptible differences between the ways in which the serving of tea was practiced, great emphasis had to be placed on these insignificant details if one hoped his “school¹⁰” would prevail (because even if it were not the teacher himself who succeeded in attaining a position of political significance, his influence and seniority over his disciples still remained intact, and so he would be in a position to influence the man who now found himself in a position of influence over the political leader). But before any of this could be possible, the person or his school had to gain the ruler’s ear, and this is why so much detail is lavished on the means of doing this — for the man of tea.
As for your suggestion that this perhaps represents a post-Edo (or post-WWII) phenomenon, all I can say is that you obviously have never seen how chaonyu functions in Japan¹¹! The nitpicking over rank and position (particularly between two opposing phalanges of old women in their just-slightly-too-young-for-their-years kimono, defending the “prerogatives” of their teacher) is absolutely breathtaking in its terror! There is a reason that the sword rack was placed as far away from the nijiri-guchi as it is; and even so, the rhetorical sword thrusts if someone of not quite equal rank plops down in the senior teacher’s seat are absolutely murderous! If there ever was a time when democracy prevailed in the tearoom, it may have been in Rikyū’s day (or, even more likely, during the years when the tea world was looking to Jōō¹² for his blessings — or maybe we have to look even farther back in time, to Shukō and his expatriate friends, all equally the victims of the social leveling that a sudden and unanticipated exile necessarily imposes), but it definitely is not now!
¹From the first someone (at first, probably the person who prepared the tea*) always drank the tea after it was offered on the altar, so as not to waste it.
But at a certain point in time things changed: the tea was no longer offered to an enshrined image first†, but presented directly to the guest (perhaps this was rationalized on the basis of the argument that all people are inherently Buddha), and it was from this time that chanoyu as we know it really began.
*I.e., the person we would consider to be the “host” — though I am sure that at this time the monk performing the ritual did not so view himself.
†The correlate would have been placing the chawan in the toknoma before offering it to the shōkyaku.
²The Sanskrit word samadhi, which is transliterated as sanmai or sammai [三昧], is a mental state in which the conscious mind is detached from experience (in that the mind is no longer reflecting on experience — sensual input from extra-corporeal stimuli — immediately after the fact, as it usually does; this reflection is what gives us the feeling of self-awareness, and immediately interprets everything as good or bad or neutral). There is the expression wa-kei-sei-jaku [和敬静寂] which, according to one interpretation (there are several levels of understanding of these four words, and this is perhaps the most basic), which refers to samadhi in situations like chanoyu. Wa [和], which originally meant self-sufficiency (“peacefulness” is the resulting feeling engendered by being completely self-sufficient) represents the samadhi of the host when performing temae; jaku [寂], which refers to the extinction of the ego, is the samadhi of the guest when seated on the guests’ mat. Kei [敬], the attitude of “take what you need but no more” is what happens when wa penetrates into jaku, that is, the samadhi of the guest when he or she interacts with the host; sei [静]*, quietness, occurs when jaku permeates wa, hence the samadhi of the host when he interacts with the guest.
*Note that somehow sei [静], quietness, has become transmuted into sei [清], the purity (of flowing water), and then a deluge of nonsense has been mouthed by businessmen masquerading as tea masters who have no understanding of anything but money-money-money and how to get it. I guess keeping the tearoom clean and orderly was more important than keeping it quiet (if things are clean, then there will be no doubt about the focus f attention; while enforcing a rule of quietness would mean that one can not discuss the prices of tea utensils and negotiate a sale if one must refrain from speaking, after all — common practice in the tearooms of today).
³It would have been unthinkable for a Japanese native to even attempt to achieve some sort of influence over the effective head of state in this way (the closest parallel would be when a young person was taken as a lover*). Furthermore, the shogun were always afraid of surrounding themselves by Japanese nationals, especially ones who appeared quite suddenly, because (as I have mentioned before in this blog) anyone who was cleaver enough to manage to catch the ruler’s ear (when not born and raised to that station), would also potentially have the cleverness to usurp the ruler’s position, given the least opportunity to do so. This would have been impossible with a foreigner, hence they were welcomed (if the ruler felt he could benefit by this association).
*But such people, whether male or female, were more often discounted as playthings of the moment, than taken seriously — if only because of their youth and lack of political experience, and usually inferior social status as well.
The people vying for influence through chanoyu were not only mature men, but men who were well educated, cultured, and possessed an air of social and political awareness that would make them suitable candidates for the role of adviser. And their foreignness meant that they could never be a political danger in and of themselves; and their lack of affiliations among the Japanese meant that they were unlikely to ever be acting in the interests of someone else. Their sole goal was establishing themselves and their family comfortably in Japan, and they were accepted on those terms.
⁴Tomaya [苫屋]: from the kanji, originally, a shaman’s/fortune-teller’s booth. It was hardly an enclosure designed to protect the occupants from the elements, rather to give them a sense of privacy from the public setting (usually a marketplace) in which the booth had been erected. A bamboo frame made by pounding four bamboo poles into the ground and attaching four cross-pieces across the top was then covered by roughly hand-woven reed mats (think, place-mats woven from palm leaflets, but of a much larger size), one on each side and a fifth to form a sort of roof (or sun-shade).
In Japan, apparently from time immemorial, a similar construction was occasionally used by the poorest of the poor for some slight degree of protection from the elements during the coldest months, and so the name of the shaman’s booth was borrowed and applied to these kinds of structures as well. The word, derived from Fujiwara no Sadaie’s well-known poem*, was used to describe of the wabi chanoyu of Shukō by the author (or a subsequent contributor or editor†) of the Three Hundred Lines of Chanoyu (and thence it became part of tea culture in Japan).
*Mi-watase-ba hana mo momiji mo nakari-kere; ura no tomaya no aki no yū-gure [見渡せば花も紅葉もなかりけれ、浦の苫屋の秋の夕暮れ]. See the Three Hundred Lines of Chanoyu, Line 300, for more on this poem.
†The commentator on the Three Hundred Lines, Uesugi Kenshin (one of the principal disciples of Jōō) said that Jōō wrote this document, while Jōō himself stated that the document had been passed down from Shukō. Since the last line addresses the notable characteristics of the chanoyu of both Shukō and Jōō from the point of view of an analytical observer, it can safely be concluded that at least some of the entries should be ascribed to other hands. (On the other hand, it is also possible to interpret Kenshin’s remark to mean that the copy of the Three Hundred Lines at his disposal had literally been transcribed by Jōō; however, other of his remarks suggest that Kenshin believed that many of the ideas contained in the Lines were clearly a product of Jōō’s deliberations and methods.)
⁵Not just benefices received from the government. As has been stated by many authors, Hideyoshi taxed no one, yet everyone contributed voluntarily, and this also applied to the members of Hideyoshi’s court. When Rikyū was involved in any sort of transaction, such as acting as the go-between in the purchase of a chaire, after the deal was concluded, both parties gave Rikyū a thank-gift (as was the custom, regardless of whom the go-between was); but the value of the thank-gift was directly commensurate to Rikyū’s position (without his having to resort to anything so vulgar as naming a fee).
⁷Tsuda Sōkyū’s personal relationship with Akechi Mitsuhide (albeit while Nobunaga was alive, and Mitsuhide was still one of his prominent generals) also likely made it impossible for him to aspire to any sort of political position* under Hideyoshi.
*While Hideyoshi did in fact retain his services, it was only in the capacity of sa-tō [茶頭], a “commander” or overseer of the staff of the Lord’s tearooms (the same post Sōkyū had held under Nobunaga). But advancement beyond this largely ceremonial post would prove impossible (the Tennōjjiya was a very successful commercial enterprise, so a government income was not necessary for his life or comfort), and Sōkyū died (perhaps of old age) not long after the initial advancement of troops onto the Korean Peninsula in 1592.
⁸Of course Imai Sōkyū retained his post of sa-tō [茶頭], but this largely ceremonial position only required his attendance at Hideyoshi’s court every third month (and since matcha was routinely ground every day, and the rooms and other preparations always made ready in case the Lord suddenly felt a desire for chanoyu, there was really little that the sa-tō had to do — other than “be responsible” for the work that all of the other members of his staff were doing).
Rikyū, on the other hand, was in constant attendance on Hideyoshi, and came to be delegated more and more responsibility and power (for things unconnected with chanoyu) as time went by.
⁹The comment is said to have been made by Jōō, when he was first told about the young Yojirō (the youth who would later become widely known as Sen no Sōeki, and then Rikyū-kōji) by Kitamuki Dōchin.
¹⁰I hesitate to use the word, because it is really anachronistic: there were no schools of tea, in the modern sense, during this period — schools (like the three Senke) came into existence during the Edo period, in part a result of the introduction of Korean neo-Confucianistic attitudes that began to appear in the country after the change of government.
What existed in the days of Jōō and Rikyū might better be described as “tea clubs” congregating around a leader who was also (usually) the teacher of the group. Though the degree of control was limited — more than “giving lessons” the way tea is taught today, the function of the master was as a brickbat against which the followers tested their own ideas (thus we see many instances where Rikyū not only deferred to the sakui of competent and well-trained people like Oribe, who was one of Rikyū’s followers or disciples, but often incorporated their ideas into his own temae and manner of teaching as well: this kind of thing is typical of the period — we have only to look back half a generation to the interactions between Jōō and Rikyū to see just how flexible the master-disciple relationship truly was — though such would have been scandalous in a neo-Confucian setting).
¹¹And (for the benefit of the other readers) I should mention that, indeed, Elmar has (happily) not been involved with the tea world in Japan, hence his idealistic innocence can be excused with a kindly (albeit knowing) smile.
¹²Jōō seems to have associated with people of all social classes, from the high court nobles to everyday townsmen (given his intimate knowledge of the details of their life and living quarters) on terms that appear (at least to us) to have been very close to a true sense of true social equality; and since he was apparently apolitical, he never muddied the waters the way Rikyū did from time to time. When Jōō died, he was apparently well and sincerely mourned.