IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia

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The Way of Tea

Anna Beerens is of the opinion that The Japanese Way of Tea. From Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyu by Sen Soshitsu XV and translated by V. Dixon Morris (Honolulu: University of Hawai`i Press, 1998.32 pp., ISBN 0-8248-1897-0) should be approached with caution because of its tendency to read history backwards.

By Anna Beerens


The title of this book suggests that it is the story of the Way of Tea, that is chado, or chanoyu, best known in the West as the Japanese tea ceremony. Actually, it deals with the prehistory of the tea ceremony, but, it is no simple history of tea-drinking either: to its author, tea-drinking and the tea ceremony are much the same thing. The story moves from Tang China to Sen Rikyu, the founder of modern chanoyu, with striking inevitability. The evolutionary line presented by Sen may not be quite so straightforward.

It is significant that the term chanoyu is not defined at the outset or later in the book. Although it has been used throughout the history of tea-drinking practices in Japan, it has not always had the same meaning. In obscuring these differences, Sen creates an impression of continuity that is not altogether justifiable. The term chanoyu, left undefined, is turned into an extremely elastic concept by a veil of rather vague spiritual, aesthetic, and idealistic notions.
Sen tells his story mainly by presenting quotations from sources relating to what may be called a spirituality of tea, beginning with Lu Yu's Chajing, or Classic of Tea, from Tang China. This focus on spirituality often obscures the reality and actual practice of the period under discussion. For example, in the last chapters on Murata Juko, Takeno Joo, and Sen Rikyu, Sen focuses so exclusively on the texts expressing the thought of these masters that he forgets to tell us how the `tea ceremony' had developed in the meantime. We find words cropping up like `tea master', `tea student', `beginners', `men of tea', `practice sessions', that make us realize that `tea' had become an established `Way' with its own recognized rules, teaching practices and hierarchy. This development, however, is not discussed in any systematic way.
The starting point of Sen's book is the Chajing of the second half of the eighth century. As this work is simply the oldest remaining monograph on tea it might be considered the ancestor of any tea drinking tradition. The Chajing has been a very influential book, both in China and in Japan, but it never led to the development of a Chinese tea ceremony, nor did it set in motion a chain of reactions that produced Sen Rikyu some centuries later. The Chajing and the other Chinese sources mentioned by Sen should be studied for their own sake and be carefully related to their own context, to the subtleties of the Chinese literati way of life and the role of connoisseurship.
It is a pity that the format of The Japanese Way of Tea does not permit any discussion of later reactions to Sen Rikyu's chanoyu. Then we would have seen how the Kyoto literati of the eighteenth century used that same Chajing and many other Chinese works on tea to justify their rejection of chanoyu which they had come to see as an anaemic and stilted performance, an expensive pastime that pursued an image of rustic simplicity at high cost.
Sen, however, presents Lu Yu as the representative of a certain aspect of chanoyu: the creation of a world apart, away from the daily grind and the vulgar. In the same way, looking back at the history of tea drinking in Japan with a thorough knowledge of the finesses of modern chanoyu, Sen states that occurrences `foreshadow' later developments, certain expressions are `an embryonic form' of later terminology. Eisai (1141-1215) and his Kissa Yojoki are declared representative of the quotidian and rational element of chanoyu. The tea drinking habits of the Zen temples of the mediaeval period provide the necessary link between Zen and chanoyu. The tea-tasting contests of the same period `introduce' the elements of entertainment, hosts and guests and the growing importance of utensils both as decoration and as prize. The last part of the book shows the emergence of the `grass hut style' chanoyu and the terms of wabi and sabi. While these developments are often depicted with a certain objectivity and independence in the chapters in which Sen deals with them at length, later in the text they are inevitably summarized in such a way as to fit seamlessly into the line of the argument.
This book directs one to a large amount of relevant source material and this is a redeeming feature. But it is marred by its tendency to read history backwards. In his foreword to this book Paul Varley states that the `greatest value' of it `lies in the authority with which Dr Sen has been able to describe the evolution of the way of tea in Japan from its beginnings to the age of Sen Rikyu'. This is exactly what is wrong with this book. In spite of its great erudition, Sen's Japanese Way of Tea is a book that should be approached with caution because of its highly teleological character.
Anna Beerens can be contacted at e-mail: abeerens@brick.cistron.nl.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 17 | Regions |East Asia