Originating in ancient China and refined in medieval Japan, Chanoyu (Japanese, literally “hot water for tea”), commonly known as the Japanese tea ceremony, had jumped continents by the end of the 20th century and found new homes in lands far and near from its origins. A delicate balance between conservation and internationalisation enabled this tradition to transplant to new places in its most original form and take root. It developed to accommodate local conditions while conversely influencing the original tradition in its motherland. Though the globalisation of Chanoyu is just a raindrop in a hurricane of cultural globalisation, it is a complex and diverse transmission across national borders on multiple levels. As John Tomlinson wrote: “…the huge transformative processes of our time that globalisation describes cannot be properly understood until they are grasped through the conceptual vocabulary of culture, likewise that these transformations change the very fabric of cultural experience and, indeed, affect our sense of what culture actually is in the modern world.”
Chanoyu literally means “hot water for tea” which is not really very helpful as a definition. Chado or Sado translates as The Way of Tea and refers to the path of practice. It is a discipline, a tradition and a learning complex. Paul Varley defines Chanoyu as “a unity of ritual, methods of expression, setting and highly structured environment.” As such Chanoyu is a synthesis of various aspects: spiritual, philosophical, moral, aesthetic and artistic. All senses are brought into play in a complex ritual, which involves food, wine, two types of fire and two types of tea preparations. A tea gathering typically takes three to four hours with one host and up to five guests. It has been called meditation in motion.
Tea students usually visit their teacher’s tearoom three times a month and study one of dozens of different forms of making two types of tea: thin whisked tea and thick kneaded tea. They learn by watching others and practicing one of the forms themselves. Variations on the basic forms of increasing complexity encourage mindfulness, awareness and memory. The student, depending on interest and ability, studies calligraphy and its reading in Japanese and Chinese, cooking, flower arranging, Japanese garden and tearoom design, the history and philosophy of tea, poetry and so on to the end of one’s life or physical and mental ability which, by the way, remains remarkable in tea practitioners. Tea is the perfect paradigm for life-long learning. Chanoyu comes very close to the definition of culture itself.
The origins of Chanoyu are in 12th-century Zen Buddhist monasteries in China. The monks, using tea as the rare medicine, offered it at the altar and then drank it communally. This communal sharing of a single bowl of tea is still at the heart of currently practiced Chanoyu. Japanese monks took back tea seeds and the tea-sharing ceremony to Japan as part of their import of the Zen (meditative) school of Buddhism. Over the next 400 years as the drinking of tea as a beverage became popular, it gradually left the temples and Chanoyu became a primarily secular pursuit. The tea drunk in today’s tea room is the same now: powdered tea leaves are whipped into a foamy infusion by mixing tea with hot water using a bamboo whisk.
By the 16th-century Chanoyu had been formalised, under the patronage of the military elite, which ruled Japan. It then spread to the mercantile and artistic communities. The foremost among these formalisers was Sen Rikyu (1522-1591) whose descendants have carried on the tradition for 16 generations. Rikyu’s 20th-century descendant, Sen Soshitsu XV, was instrumental in globalising tea.
“A tea gathering typically takes three to four hours with one host and up to five guests. It has been called meditation in motion.”
Globalisation of Chanoyu can be considered in a number of different dimensions. The first is that it is taught as an art form and a discipline to thousands of people around the world. The huge learning curve and dependence on innumerable accouterments have prevented it from achieving the millions of adherents of its Asian cousin’s yoga and tai chi. Nevertheless, it has reached a critical mass of enough people to be considered part of global culture. The second dimension is apparent in the influence Chanoyu has on its connected arts, such as cuisine, architecture, design, gardens, pottery and other crafts. Few would know that Japanese cuisine actually derives from “kaiseki”, the formal Chanoyu meal, which in turn had its roots in Zen Buddhism. Thought to predate the better-known French formal meal, the food of tea has influenced western cuisine through its emphasis on seasonality, beauty of presentation, small portions, staggered service and the elevation of native and natural tastes. The architecture of the tearoom, spare and empty, has influenced the work of such architects as Stanford White, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and others. The tea garden, “roji” literally “dewy ground”, has greatly influenced western garden designers, not only as something to incorporate, but also as an inspiration for the re-consideration of the concept of space itself. Yanagi Soetsu writing in 1972 defined Chanoyu as “a complete university of artistic taste.” Several philosophical and aesthetic qualities associated with Chanoyu have been influential in the West, for example, wabi (natural beauty), sabi (beauty of age and patina) and shibui (astringency). Not widely understood in their native land, they nevertheless have influenced artists, designers and writers far beyond Japanese borders.
“Jao Rodrigues who spent most of his life in Japan, suggests that “the qualities required to appreciate Chanoyu have a much wider application and can be extended to every branch of cultural life.”
The third dimension is the most fascinating. It is the nascent application of the forms of Chanoyu itself which could be adapted to areas from education, business, leadership, hospitality, business, art appreciation, psychological testing to memory and sensory improvement. Take for example, learning. The whole pattern for learning tea can become a model for learning of almost any other subject. Things like the “loop” review, the specific emphasis on learning rather than being taught and the panoramic style of learning opposed to a vertically structured one could be applicable to learning any subject. Study of principles and structure of curriculum can also become a valuable resource for other disciplines.
Chanoyu represents so-called “hand made” cultures, the ones that preserve and protect the old ways of doing things. Today, when most things in our lives are not made or grown by yourself, but mostly bought or ordered, Tea practice offers something like a security system for the humankind and can diffuse de-humanising of our lives.
Paul Varley considers the concept of harmony as being central to Chanoyu. He describes harmonious interaction between people, nature and objects in a very limited space for an extended period of time and concludes that this experience could be fully applicable to the ways human society strives to function. It can be linked to the areas of a number of environmental issues such as sustainability, slow food and many others. In a way, “tea” became an adjective, at least among practitioners to define certain style or approach.
“This communal sharing of a single bowl of tea is still at the heart of currently practiced Chanoyu.”
First to encounter Chanoyu in Japan were the early Europeans, mostly Portuguese and Spaniards who arrived in Nagasaki in the mid 16th century. They were mainly diplomats, merchants and Jesuit missionaries. The latter group stayed and lived in Japan having to learn about the country and its culture and find ways to fit in. It was due to the non-religious but deeply spiritual quality of Chanoyu that it was chosen (by the missionaries from the multitude of cultural complexes available) as a path to the hearts and minds of their future converts and as a key to this unknown civilisation. Acute observers of culture, the Jesuits have left us accurate descriptions of early Chanoyu in letters, diaries and reports. Since Chanoyu is mainly an orally transmitted tradition, equivalent texts of similar age and value don’t exist in Japanese. Their accounts are invaluable since they shed light on the prototypes of the forms, which exist now. Michael Cooper in his article “The Early Europeans and Chanoyu” writes about three Portuguese Jesuits: Luis de Almeida (1525-1583), Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) and Jao Rodrigues (1561-1633) and gives their perspective on the forms of Chanoyu and its role in Japanese society as well as their view of the possibility of a wider application of its characteristics and principles. Luis del Almeida described the actual teahouse the following way. “The place was a little larger than the courtyard and seemed to have been made by angels rather than by men… no words can describe the order and the cleanliness of it all.” Being a European of the 16th century he certainly saw things to learn and implement back home. Cooper writes, that Alessandro Valignano who was supposed to inspect the work of missionaries and implement appropriate changes in policy, not only reorganised the structure of the missions according to the order and principles of the Rinzai school of Zen but went as far as to insist that missionaries learn to speak “correct and elegant” Japanese and ordered that all Jesuit residences should possess “their own Chanoyu”, meaning that not only the ceremony was to be conducted but also a special place had to be designated and utensils to be acquired – he provided a list of approximately 40 objects everyone had to have. “Obviously, Valignano understood that the success of the Christian mission in Japan hugely depended on how deeply the missionaries themselves learned and adapted to the customs of the new land … hardly a startling thought for the 20th century, but practically a revolutionary concept for a 16th-century European” It was Chanoyu that he selected as the all-encompassing cultural repository of Japan. The descriptions of Chanoyu were not limited to its external form only. Jao Rodrigues who spent most of his life in Japan, suggests that “the qualities required to appreciate Chanoyu have a much wider application and can be extended to every branch of cultural life.”
Therefore, Chanoyu was recognised not only as a formal introduction to the Japanese culture and society but also as a deeply spiritual, indeed unique practice with great potential for intercultural communication. Immersion in Chanoyu allowed the Jesuits access to Japanese society. It subsequently made its way to Europe in the form of objects, descriptions and stories. The connection worked both ways and enriched both sides. At least three of the seven closest disciples of Sen Rikyu became converted Christians.
It is apparent that there was a very close connection between the early Europeans and Chanoyu. It was the first and most important cultural encounter between the two civilisations just before Japan was to tightly shut its doors to anything foreign for the following 300 years.
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