The Japanese Tea Masters

The Japanese Tea Masters

Various tea masters have made their mark on the history of tea in Japan. Through continual aesthetic and spiritual research, they have steered tea culture in a new direction. The three tea masters presented below are renowned for having developed the Japanese art of preparing powdered tea by Japanese teapots and for establishing the precepts of the tea ceremony, chanoyu.


The father of the Way of Tea, or chado, and of the tea ceremony as we know it today, is the Zen monk Murata Shuko (1422 - 1502). This disciple of the famous and eccentric monk Ikkyu taught his master that the spirit of the Buddha could be present not just in the act of drinking tea but also in the simple gestures involved in its preparation. Shuko was the first to serve tea to his guests himself and to simplify the tasting rules. As official tea master to the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, he introduced the qualities of refinement rigor, spiritual values and humility into the preparation of tea. He put an end to the use of sophisticated salons and luxurious reception rooms. He himself designed the first building devoted to the tea ceremony, a simple cabin made of rustic materials at the back of a garden.


Having been initiated into the tea ceremony by Shuko's disciples, Takeno Joo (1502-1555) first practiced the tea ceremony according to the principles of the master Shuko, but he then enriched it with the ideal of Zen simplicity. His tearoom, decorated with modest objects like everyday bowls from Japan or Korea, was closer to a personal concept of how to practice the Way of Tea. He eliminated the shelves Shuko used to display precious Chinese objects and replaced them with a piece of calligraphy and a simple floral arrangement His "simple and natural" ceremony was imbued with honesty, caution and the strict emotional control typical of the wabi philosophy.


A disciple of Takeno Joo from the age of 19, Sen No Rikyu (1521-1591) radicalized the trend established by his master. The ceremony he offered became a cross between performance art and spiritual practice. While unifying the style of his predecessors, he set down the rules of the chado and codified chanoyu, the tea ceremony, which he raised to a high degree of perfection. Poverty, humility, modesty and imperfection became the fundamental criteria of the chado. Sen No Rikyu reduced the number of utensils used in the ceremony and demanded that the teahouse be built of coarser materials, such as straw, earth or wood still bearing its bark He also invented the nijiri guchi, a small entrance that obliged the guests to bow their head to enter the tearoom.

Though famous for having defined the seven rules of the chanoyu ceremony, Rikyu went down in history for having been sentenced to commit suicide for treason by the powerful Emperor Hideyoshi. The real reasons for this sentence remain obscure. According to legend, following a final tea ceremony in the company of his faithful friends, he broke his bowl to indicate that "the lips of misfortune had touched it and so no other man should drink from it." Then he committed seppuku (hara-kiri) in silence with honor and dignity.