What is tea ceremony?

"You should know that tea ceremony is nothing more than boiling water, making tea and drinking it", said Sen no Rikyu.

This means nothing else than that the well-ordered, yet unpredetermined action of boiling water and drinking tea is still subject to certain rules. It is through that that the normalization of everyday life through aesthetic means becomes possible. Thus the rules of tea ceremony have their roots in a decidedly rational basis. There is a pattern which underlies them, and which corresponds to certain sequences of actions taken from everyday life.

A really appropriate definition is given by Okakura Tenshin in his work The Book of Tea: "The beverage grew to be an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane." I call it the art of living, the art in life and from life.

Tea ceremony in particular is expression of Japanese aesthetic consciousness, it is artistic activity. Part of the ritual for example is the entrance to the tea room called nijiriguchi. It remains unused in everyday life. It was created as a ritual entrance to the tea ceremony in silent contemplation, to shut out the outer world, the mundane, the imponderable, and to separate from it the created art world of the tea room. With an area of 1½, 2 or 3 tatami mats, the extreme narrowness of the tea room too means nothing else than a rejection of the mundane. Rikyu said: "It is good to drink tea with a light heart." Exactly with that he demanded the negation of the mundane.

Essentially, art was inventing action, creating out of emptiness, the search for truth and reality through giving shape out of emptiness. Life, the mundane – and art, its shaping out of emptiness, these two opposite elements coexist. More precisely, they are contradictory elements.

Tea ceremony is the form of art that emerges from the unity of these contradictory elements through whom it is able to exist. In a certain way, it provides satisfaction to the mind. That satisfaction certainly doesn't develop from everyday life, but is a satisfaction of the senses that is gained out of the element of the artistic. In this regard, the mood of the people from Kyoto and Sakai (Osaka) of the 16th century, who looked for a place of quiet contemplation in the middle of the city, surely wasn't different. Furthermore, the inherent medical effect of tea was given at all times. The world of today though is not like the world of that time.

Tea ceremony is, as said at the beginning, normalization and transformation of the mundane into an artistic activity. Shouldn't one assume that especially today, in our everyday life, tea ceremony – which is an art world negating the mundane, forming empty space – is the appropriate place for the reawakening of human nature? I think that in this sense, real conditions are given for a new way of looking at tea ceremony as an art of living, or living of art. Probably, this meaning of tea ceremony will gain in significance the more we are "modernized" as men.

New Year's Day 1996
Prof. Suikou Shimon
Saga Art Academy - Germany