Friday, April 30, 2010

Harmony: Poetry and a Bowl of Tea

Ichi go ichi e, one time, one meeting. Now is the only time that exists. No other tea ceremony will be like this one. The guests will change, the taste of the tea will be different, the light slanting through the shoji will be brighter or dimmer, the chabana will wilt and a new flower will replace it. Japanese poetry, too, offers this appreciation of the moment, both in our experience of nature and in the process of writing.

Murata Shukô (1422-1502), abbot of Daitoku-ji in Kyoto, turned away from the gaudy tea ceremonies of Japan's ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi and introduced a new aesthetic, soan-cha, or thatched hut tea. Soan-cha focuses on the relationship between host and guest, emphasizing the spirit and mind of the host rather than his technique.

Tea is naught but this:
First you heat the water,
Then you make the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know              Sen no Rikyû (1522-1591)

This aesthetic is echoed by Matsuo Bashô, who sought the subtle, the refined, and the spiritual in everyday life. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one, when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. In haiku, nature is our host and we are her guests. By attuning ourselves to our surroundings, we open our hearts and minds to what is. The four principles underlying the way of tea—harmony, respect, purity and tranquility—embody the spirit of Japanese poetry as well.

Gazing long to the shore / There are neither blossoms  / Nor crimson leaves / Only a rush hut at the sea's edge  / In the autumn dusk             Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241)
Takeno Jôô (1502-1555) took Murata's soan-cha one step further to include the spiritual ideal of wabi. Wabi, he states, is honesty, prudence and self-restraint, both emotional and material. Before coming to tea, Jôô studied linked verse, so it is not surprising that he turned to Fujiwara Teika's waka to illustrate wabi. Cherry blossoms and crimson leaves refer to the extravagant tea ceremonies sponsored by the wealthy in their gold-lined tearooms. Bashô, too, cautions against ostentation: A haiku is like a finger pointing at the moon. If the finger pointed at the moon is bejeweled, one no longer sees the moon.
Sen no Rikyû (1522-1591) sought unity with humanity and nature through tea. The thought of the host shall be that of the guest. The thought of the guest shall be that of the host. Bashô reiterates this unity when he says: Learn of the pine tree from the pine tree and of the bamboo from the bamboo. Wa embodies a quiet simplicity, a feeling of oneness with nature and people. Like his teacher Jô, Rikyû quoted poetry to convey his views on wabi.
To one who awaits / Only the cherry's blossoming  / I would show  / Spring in the mountain village  / Its young grasses among snow.     Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241)
Fujiwara's waka tells those living a luxurious life in the capital that he has come to appreciate the beauty of restraint and understatement. The pathos of young grasses among snow evokes the feeling of sabi, the spiritual depth of loneliness and tranquility. In The Way of Tea, Rand Castile says that wabi spirit prepares for the guest known to come. Sabi spirit prepares with no thought whatever for a guest. Sabi spirit is necessary when writing poetry—inspiration comes to us when we keep our minds open, without goals or expectations.
Perhaps the best illustration of wa in tea ceremony and poetry is to compare a chaji (formal tea ceremony) with a renga (session to write linked verse). Each of these is highly structured with rules and procedures. When a clear etiquette of procedure is established between the host and guests through constant repetition, kata (forms) appear for each kind of action. Observance of these kata leads to harmony between host and guest, guest and guest, and mood and season.
Like the chaji, renga were traditionally held in the serenity of a Japanese tatami room. Each gathering has a master as host. The order of guests is fixed in advance; the most honored guest is seated nearest the tokonoma (alcove). The main guest in a renga opens the session by composing a hokku (first verse), which flatters the host. The shokyaku, first guest in a chaji, receives the first bowl of tea. He is also responsible for leading the others in the etiquette of entering and exiting the tearoom, as well as directing the conversation.
The progression of these two occasions corresponds to the unfolding of a Noh play with its jo (overture), ha (intensification) and kyu (finale). The mood of the first six verses of a 36-verse kasen renga is similar to attending a party—honoring the host, making poetic overtures and relaxing with each other. A chaji also begins informally with a meal and sake being served as guests relax and socialize.
The highlight of a chaji is the solemn koicha, thick tea ceremony. Guests quiet their minds as they observe the master preparing tea. Each drinks his/her bowl of tea, after first acknowledging the guests yet to be served, and then compliments the host. The middle/development section of a renga (ha) moves into an outré spirit as participants link and shift in unconventional ways. The goal is to keep the flow lively and entertaining. To signal the end of the chaji, guests are served usucha, thin tea, and perhaps some hot water to purity their palettes. A renga winds down in the last 6-8 verses. The penultimate verse involves cherry blossoms (the crowning piece of the sequence), and the closing verse ends on a light tone, generating an atmosphere of peace and warmth.
One meeting, one time. On both of these occasions, participants are not the same as when they began. The za has enjoyed many pleasant hours together creating a renga. Host and guests of the chaji leave the tearoom refreshed and tranquil.

Upon entering the tearoom, all discrimination between self and other vanishes, a spirit of gentleness prevails, and peace may be attained… Murata Shukô

Three kinds of respect are observed in a chaji and a renga: respect for the host and other guests, respect for materials, and respect for the seasons. Days before the chaji, the tea master makes meticulous preparations for the comfort of his guests. In winter the fire is laid before the food is served in order to warm the guests. In summer, the hearth is farther away and the fire is laid after serving food. The host walks down the pathway, which he has swept and watered, to greet his guests, who enter the tearoom on their hands and knees through the nijiriguchi. This 'crawling in entry' eliminates all distinctions of rank or class. Guests honor one another through ceremonial responses. For example, before drinking a bowl of tea, a guest bows to the one sitting next to him and says Excuse me while I go first. Similarly, in a renga, each poet reflects on and appreciates the previous poet's verse before composing his own. Participants also pay tribute to poets of the past by addressing them directly or by alluding to their poems.
Respect is extended not only to people but also to the utensils used. Each utensil in a chaji is selected with the intention of creating a harmonious atmosphere. Rather than antiquated art objects, they are like a mirror upon which the host's mind is reflected. Bowls, tea scoop, and whisk are handled with care. Every motion has its own rhythm. For example, the tea master picks up the tea scoop or container a little faster than he puts it down, similar to the enthusiasm of greeting a friend and the reluctance of saying good-bye. After tea has been consumed, the first guest inquires about the artist who made his tea bowl, the whisk, and the tea container as well as the meaning of the poem inscribed on the scroll or the flower in the alcove. Items are passed around with reverence for the guests to appreciate their beauty.
When I lift my eyes
To the quarter of the sky
Where the cuckoo cried,
There is nothing to be seen
But the early morning moon.
(Translation of a hanging scroll in Toyotomi Hidetsugu's tearoom)

The materials used in a renga are words. Its success depends on skillful linking through allusion, resonance, symbolism, association and then shifting by means of juxtaposed images. Great pleasure and enjoyment come from appreciating and responding to each other's cleverness and wit. Creative use of language allows for a diversity of subject matter and tone, which are essential to the spirit of renga.

Seasons play an essential role in both a chaji and in composing waka and haiku. Indeed, haiku is defined as a poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived, in which nature is linking to human nature. In Traces of Dreams, Haruo Shirane emphasizes that in a renga the seasonal landscape became the fabric out of which the sequence was woven. While making preparations for a chaji, the host reveals the essence of a season through his choice of utensils and foods, flowers, the kimono he wears, the scroll and even the method of preparing tea. Rikyû's fourth rule, In summer suggest coolness; in winter, warmth corresponds to Shirane's statement: If a haikai occurred in summer, the hokku had to avoid the word ‘hot', and in winter he could not use the word ‘cold'.

Though I sweep and sweep
Everywhere my garden path,
Through invisible
On the slim pine needles still
Specks of dirt may be found.              Sen no Rikyû

Sei embodies cleanliness and orderliness in both the physical and spiritual senses. In chanoyu (tea ceremony), purity begins with the physical surroundings. The garden has been weeded, swept and watered before the guests arrive. The tearoom and utensils are spotless, yet the host wipes them again in front of the guests to cleanse his mind. Guests too perform gestures of purity, such as rinsing their hands and mouths at the water basin and removing their shoes, swords and jewelry before entering the tearoom.
To fully enjoy chanoyu or renga, participants must cleanse their minds as well. The ideal of furyu, from the words ‘wind' and ‘to flow,' suggests that our spirit should flow through life like the wind that flows through nature. Furyu embraces the imperfect and incomplete—in chanoyu, the partially opened flower in the tokonoma; in haiku and waka, images rather than concrete words, what Shirane defines as the poetics of lightness. Soshitsu Sen XV of the Urasenke tea school states: Haiku cast a stone in the water with the brevity of seventeen syllables, but the ripples extend endlessly into the reader's heart and mind.
Another aspect of furyu is lack of symmetry. Japanese haiku and waka contain uneven numbers: three or five lines of seventeen or thirty-one syllables. Everything in the tea room appears asymmetrical—the architecture, the number of tatami, the imperfect shape of the utensils and even the flowers, which are not arranged as in ikebana but placed in a vase as they grow in the field. The vase, too, is always placed off center in the tokonoma.
Both chanoyu and Japanese poetry also exemplify the aesthetic of karumi: lightness, simplicity, leanness, avoidance of abstraction, relaxed artless expression, understatement. A tea ceremony is held in a four-and-a-half-mat tatami room using implements made of natural materials, such as bamboo and gourd vases and the imperfect teabowls. The overall impression is one of refined poverty rather than ostentation.
Just a simple shelf
Hanging from the corner wall
By a plain bamboo.
All we need in such a world
Are these artless simple things.          Sen no Rikyû

Haiku and waka poets too aim for this simplicity in their use of everyday language, subtle and evocative images, and restraint. Emotions are conveyed through suggestion and, like a scroll painting, space is left for the reader to fill in with his/her own experience.
This restraint is illustrated in the story of Rikyû and his patron Hideyoshi. In the fourteenth century, morning glories were difficult to grow, but Rikyû's grew in profusion. Hideyoshi asked Rikyû to hold a tea ceremony in the morning so he could view them. Rikyû agreed. But when Hideyoshi walked down the stone pathway in the outer garden, no morning glories could be seen. Not along the path, nor floating in the stone water basin. When he stooped to enter the tearoom, however, he was astonished to see a single morning glory hanging from a vase in the tokonoma.
It is an especially Japanese sensibility towards beauty to cut away and cut away, abbreviating to the point where nothing more can be removed and thereby creating a thing of great beauty.
Soshitsu Sen XV
If you have one pot / And can make your tea in it / That will do quite well. / How much does he lack himself  / Who must have a lot of things?          Sen no Rikyû

to live with a refined attention to detail…not because these things will enlarge the self, but because they bring our lives into harmony with that which transcends the self.                        Kakuzo Okakura
Jaku is a Buddhist term that is often translated as the sublime state of nirvana. Indeed, tea master Sen Sotan, grandson of Sen no Rikyû, said that the taste of tea and Zen are one and the same.
Chanoyu, the Way of Tea, offers a setting and a ritual for finding tranquility through the constant practice of harmony, respect and purity in everyday life. Poetry too enhances our lives as we experience the rhythms and essence of the natural world or the camaraderie of fellow poets. Both chanoyu and poetry offer a path of discipline and practice through contemplation and reverence for life, an opportunity as Soshitsu Sen XV says to transcend our false images of ourselves.
When you hear the splash  / Of the water drops that fall / Into the stone bowl / You will feel that all the dust / Of your mind is washed away.                                    Sen no Rikyû

Published in Hermitage, A Haiku Journal, Rumania, Volume III, Nos. 1 & 2, 2006.

This Moment, a book of tea ceremony haiku by Margaret Chula, can be viewed at


  1. Maggie,

    I love the comparison of a renga gathering with chaji. Two disciplines so similar. Of course we they and we are connected.


  2. Hermitage, A Haiku Journal, Romania, ah, wonderful magazine.

    all my best,