Recently, I was invited to the Kankyu-an of Mushanokojisenke in Kyoto. I was to attend the most formal of tea ceremonies hosted by the next (15th) Iemoto Designate, Mr. Souoku Sen.
Certain cultural essences never travel far. People might get to have a very faint idea of what a tea ceremony is all about, by coming to witness some of the outreaching events. However, I knew from my own experience so far in life that the essence of certain ancient traditions would be never be known, unless one actually lives and breathes the "heart" of the event at its best.
In my life, a particularly poignant example was the Ise shrine. The essence of its natural and architectural beauty could never be understood, unless one actually visited the sacred place. All the historical, cultural and sometimes political connotations that surrounded this institution did not help, but rather hindered, my appreciation of its jealously conserved merits.
A tea ceremony at Kankyu-an is very special. It is said that even if one dedicates oneself to the teachings of the masters of the school all life, it is not certain whether one would be invited to a ceremony at this important historic site. It was a special consideration on the part of Mr. Sen to grant me, a complete novice in the art of tea and not even a formal pupil of his school, this very rare opportunity.
So here was my chance to get to know the real thing, where my only weapons were the open senses.
During the ceremony which lasted for more than four hours, I was moved by a series of inner discoveries. Although I do not have the time to go into all the details in this journal, I will try to convey the (in my view) most essential elements below.
I think I could understand the historical context surrounding the initiation of this form of art for the first time. I had to travel to Kankyu-an and go through the formal procedures of the classic tea ceremony to come to this realization.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the most powerful man at the time of the founder of tea ceremonies, Sen no Rikyu. After many years of warfare between the Daimyos, Hideyoshi united Japan. Being appointed Kampaku by the Emperor, his power was second to none in the earthly sense. After a long period of often brutal battles, in which betrayals by the closest of allies, sometimes even by those of one's own blood were the norm, people were accustomed to the idea of a man in power giving a free vent to his often savage whims. The grave matters of life and death were nothing but trifle movement of a finger for the powers that be.
It was all the more significant, then, that Sen no Rikyu defied the supreme political powers by inventing an art form which requested, for example, the practitioners to stoop as they enter the chasitsu. No weapons were allowed in the small hall of exquisite beauty where all the ceremonies took place. The powerful warriors had to abandon all the worldly glories they had fought all their lives for and obey rules of quite another world, where the most humble and unassuming items were deemed lofty and valuable.
No exceptions were made even for the most powerful of all. Hideyoshi must have felt that his world was being turned completely upside down, his taste for the decorative and rich effectively ridiculed by the tea master. It must have been as if that Hideyoshi's achievements, laudable by any reasonable estimates of history, were reduced to mere nothingness. Hideyoshi was again transformed into a complete novice, where he had to learn everything from scratch in the great universe of wabicha created by Sen no Rikyu.
Here was a creative tension between politics and the arts almost unrivaled in the long history of humanity. It would have been psychologically helpful for Hideyoshi if the cosmos of Sen no Rikyu was something he could reject and ignore. On the contrary, it was so attractive, probably more desirable than being the supreme power of the nation. Hideyoshi must have envied the tea master deeply. Yearning and respect can easily turn into resentment and an urge for a revenge, when it becomes clear that the object of desire is not attainable no matter how hard one tries.
It was a regrettable act of Hideyoshi to order Sen no Rikyu to commit ritual suicide. At the same time, it indicates that Hideyoshi perceived the significance of Rikyu's approach in full, seeing rightly the radicalism behind the seemingly peaceful processions.