Like a gossamer web, drifting in mist, the threads that link Japan’s traditional arts can be hard to grasp. Yet some links become visible as soon as a keen observer points them out.
Peter McMillan, professor of literature at Kyorin University, is also a tea-ceremony aficionado. “Of course,” he said, pointing out one such thread, “some of the movements in the tea ceremony and the noh theater are clearly similar.”
Of course. Just think of the gliding movements of the actor, as he appears on stage, and the host in the tea-ceremony room. Or even the subtle pauses between movements, when the atmosphere unfolds like a bud.
Both noh and tea blossomed during the 15th and 16th centuries, an era of bitter warfare, when warlords rivaled each other in displays of power and wealth. Yet many knew their days of glory would be brief, and thus were drawn to the self-reliant philosophy of Zen. From there, it was possible for them to appreciate the Zen spirit within Zeami Motokiyo’s noh plays, and Sen no Rikyu’s wabi, or modest, Way of Tea.
In the case of noh, writes Shuichi Kato, in his “History of Japanese Literature,” “the new upstart warrior ruling class needed professional artists to provide them with entertainment.” But in the case of the tea ceremony, the spectator was also a performer. Immersed in its almost religious rituals, feuding warriors might have found consolation in a rustic tea hut, where even the noise of the boiling water evoked the timeless sound of wind in the pines.
The Way of Tea went on to influence the renaissance of Japanese poetry, through Matsuo Basho (1644-94). Widely considered one of Japan’s greatest poets, Basho once said, “Saigyo’s waka [poems], Sogi’s renga [linked verse], Sesshu’s painting, Rikyu’s Tea: The spirit animating them is one.”
In turn, Basho continued the tradition and elevated verse from the trivial pastime it had become into a soaring art.
But who was this giant of Japanese literature? One of his disciples, Chora, left us a wonderful haiku portrait:
In traveling attire, A stork in late autumn rain: The old master Basho.
Yet this priestlike figure came from a very different background. By birth a samurai, he was supposed to “live and die, sword in hand.” However, after the sudden death of his artistic young master, Todo Yoshitada, he ran away from his feudal lord and began a new life in Kyoto. There, tea was at the heart of aesthetic life, and although no records remain, it is fair to assume that Basho, as a young scholar and budding literati, deepened his understanding of tea in those years.
On moving to Edo (present-day Tokyo), he also became a lifelong follower of Zen. However, despite a growing reputation, he seems to have become increasingly dissatisfied with his life and poetry. At the age of 40, he set off on the first of several difficult journeys throughout Japan.
On these journeys of discovery, he relied on the hospitality of poets and monks. Near Kyoto, for example, he stayed in a tumbledown teahut called “the house of fallen persimmons.” He described it as “an ideal place for meditation, for it is hushed in silence.”
It is clear from his poems that Basho felt affection and respect for the world of tea. Some refer directly to the formal ceremony, such as the following, written late in life:
Autumn is near: I feel drawn toward The four-and-a-half-mat room.
In others, he evokes the atmosphere itself:
A white Narcissus And a white paper screen, Illuminate each other In this quiet room.
When Basho describes the qualities of meaningful poetry as sabi (literally, rust, but also meaning loneliness), shiori (tenderness) and hosomi (slenderness), we can see how they dovetail perfectly into the aesthetics of tea.
The social pleasures of tea were also important. In Basho’s day, many cultivated people enjoyed tea gatherings, where they composed renga and admired the beauty of snow, moon or flowers.
But to Basho and his companions, these occasions demanded far more than a formulaic composition, praising the cherry blossoms of spring or the full moon of autumn. Instead, they challenged and encouraged each other with fresh verses, drawn from firsthand experience.
Basho told his disciples: “Go to the pine, if you want to learn about the pine. And lose your preoccupation with yourself. Poetry issues of its own accord when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there.”
In this way, he broke through the deadening effect of centuries of poetic convention and revealed the life force in everything: From a nameless reed by the roadside to tiny shells tumbling in the surf.
Rikyu, a man of few words, is said to have quoted several poems to illustrate the essence of wabi tea, and McMillan translates a poem by Fujiwara no Ietaka (1158-1235) as follows:
To those who long only For cherry blossoms, How I wish to show them Spring in a mountain village — Green shoots sprouting through the snow.
In other words, says McMillan, “rather than the flowers in full blossom, it is the potentiality, the sense of life that underlies everything and pushes forth shoots, that is close to the real heart of beauty.”
Centuries later, the tea ceremony, through its power of suggestion, can still reveal this vital beauty to the inner eye. As can haiku, in the great tradition of Basho, which contain a world of meaning in a few simple words.