In East Asia, it is customary to celebrate the anniversary of the death of an individual. While not marked by bombastic festivities, such an occasion is met with somber reflection on a life well led. In the tradition of Japanese tea ceremony (茶の湯 chanoyu), the life (and death) of 千利休 Sen no Rikyū (who many consider the “founder” of the art) is considered to be one of the most important dates in a year of tea. For the “Sen” schools (schools of tea that directly trace their lineage back to Sen no Rikyū), this day is marked by a observance of their founder and his exit of the world upon which he had left an indelible mark upon.
A layman, a merchant, a student of Zen, an advisor to the state, an artist, a tea person: Sen no Rikyū was all of these. As a multi-faceted individual who lived over four centuries ago, we were left countless treasures shaped by his hand and a practice that was undoubtedly shaped by his spirit and keen mind. However, he still remains an enigma.
One of his most notable contributions to tea was uniting and refining of the 侘び wabi aesthetic and spirit with the elegance of tea practiced in both temples and amongst the well-healed and everyday tea people of 16th century Japan. Illustrative of this was his commissioning and favoring of the simple 黒楽茶碗 kuro Raku chawan (black Raku teabowl) made by 長次郎 Tanaka Chōjirō (himself, a ceramicist of Korean descent). The form he created was both rustic yet subdued, suitable for both the most formal and informal tea setting.
On the morning of this day, I, too, favor a kuro Raku chawan. For my own 利休忌 Rikyū-ki (anniversary of Rikyū), I bring out a teabowl by famed Raku potter 佐々木松楽 Sasaki Shōraku III.
As this is a solemn occasion, I decide to make a bowl of 濃茶 koicha (“thick tea”). For this, I set out a 瀬戸焼 Seto-yaki 肩衝茶入 katatsuki (“shouldered”) 茶入 chaire (ceramic tea container).
While making tea this morning I find myself pausing throughout the formal yet informal 点前 temae (procedure of making tea). Little nuances that I might otherwise overlook seem to stand out in the pale light of the dawn. The soft textures upon the back of the 茶杓 chashaku (teascoop), the stippling of the slick black glaze of the Raku teabowl, the contrasting bright white fabric of the 茶巾 chakin (tea cloth). This small vignette, itself, a tiny universe, an eternity of decisions made by a long line of those who practiced the Way of tea.
Removing the chaire from its 仕服 shifuku (silk brocade pouch), I go about the process of cleansing and purifying each item.
Every piece I call into action, waking them before setting them down again in a new arrangement.
As I touch each object I begin to realize how Rikyū has touched each object. How the chashaku is set down onto the lid of the chaire.
How the tea is scooped and then poured out into the chawan.
Even how the thick tea is kneaded from powder into a viscous liquid. Although subsequent schools and masters developed their own styles and forms (even my school, 宗徧流 Sōhen-ryū), each still was (and still is) influenced and informed by the decisions of Rikyū.
Much like all schools of Zen look to Bodhidharma, tea, too, has its dharma lineage. Each has their own embodiment of “Buddha mind”. In this way, there would be no Sōhen-ryū without Rikyū. No Rikyū without 紹鴎 Jōō. No Jōō without 珠光 Shukō. No Shukō without 一休 Ikkyū. A line extending far into the past and into the future.
Working the koicha into its final form is akin to polishing a roof tile until it becomes a mirror. The end result is reflective and lacquer-like. Sitting at the bottom of the black teabowl, it feels like staring into a bottomless well or out into eternity. With a deep and resolute breath I raise the bowl to my lips. With three hearty sips I drink the thick tea, its aroma and intense character instantly waking me from a morning haze.
Returning the bowl in front of me, I cleanse it and turn it over to appreciate its shape. A single spiral set within its 高台 kōdai (foot of teabowl) seems to indicate a descent into something deeper, or a turbulent force within something inanimate.
This, perhaps, is the other meaning of Rikyū-ki. It is not just the celebration of his life and his achievements as a master of the Way; it is a observance of his suicide, which came as an order from his lord and then ruler of Japan, 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
In this, there remains something of a grim warning. Perhaps it is to never seek to own Rikyū, to never seek to appropriate him. While each school vies to weave the story of Rikyū into their own tapestry of tradition, we must call into question whether this was something he would have wanted.
Much like the art of Rikyū, the life of Rikyū was one of further reduction. His forms became more minimal. His teaware became less ornate. Even his tea rooms shrank over time, eventually reduced to a one-and-one-half mats. This reductive quality even appears in his death poem (here, using the translation done by the Meiji period scholar 岡倉覚三 Okakura Kakuzō):
Welcome to thee,
O sword of eternity!
And through Daruma alike
Thou hast cleft thy way.
With the sword he used to end his live, he cut through his achievements, his legacy, his ego, until there was nothing left, not even a Buddha. In this, the wares and the memories he imprinted upon his followers become just the worldly flesh and bones; material like a finger pointing to the moon, or the sound of windblown pines in a painting. What remains of Rikyū are figments, fragments, sentiments. Nothing to own but to think and ultimately act upon.
I finished the morning with an informal 拝見 haiken (moment to view teaware). Tea container. Tea scoop. A silk brocaded pouch. All now sitting empty. Hollow.
What did they contain before that they do not contain now? Is there still life after it has all been poured out? Fully consumed? Where does it go and what happens afterwards? How do memories of a person’s life still hold sway over us still? Is this the means by which a Way is constructed?
In the growing light of the day I sat and meditated upon this. On a life. A black bowl. A depth for an eternity.