Though many people drink tea,
if you do not know the Way of Tea,
tea will drink you up.
-Sen no Rikkyu
This man shaped what we know today to be the chanoyu, or the Japanese “Way of Tea” and Japanese Tea Ceremony. He was born Yoshiro in the merchant city of Sakai in 1522. He was trained at a young age on the art of the tea ceremony. He had also trained in the art of Zen in the Daitoku-ji Temple in northwest Kyoto. He took the name Sen from his family name. Not much else is known about his middle years.
His fame came in 1579 (when he was 58). He was the tea master to Oda Nobunaga, who was the first to unify all of Japan. When Nobunaga died, Rikkyu became the tea master for his successor: Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Rikkyu quickly rose in Hideyoshi’s esteem and eventually aided Hideyoshi in a tea gather for the Emperor Ogimachi. The emperor bestowed our tea master with the Buddhist lay name: Rikkyu Koji (利休居士).
According to Rikkyu, there are four important qualities of a tea ceremony: Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility. Some of his contributions included:
- A tea house that can accommodate five people,
- A separate small room where tea utensils are washed
- Two entrances, one for the host and one for the guests
- A doorway low enough to require the guests to bend down to enter, humbling themselves in preparation for the tea ceremony
While Rikkyu was very close to his friend Hideyoshi, their friendship was not perfect. Though the reasons remain unclear, Hideyoshi eventually ordered the ritualistic suicide of Rikkyu. According to legend, it was because when Hideyoshi entered the Daitoku-ji temple (whose construction he funded), he saw that had to walk under a statue of Rikkyu which symbolized that he was beneath the tea master. Our tea master complied but only after hosting an exquisite tea ceremony. But before he did the deed, he wrote a death poem to his dagger:
I raise the sword.
This sword of mine;
Long in my possession.
The time is come at last.
Skyward I throw it up!
Talk about going out with style!