Tea ceremony and chashitsu: the ultimate example of Zen design
What is 茶道 (sado – a traditional Japanese tea ceremony)? What is 茶室 (chashitsu – a small, rustic tea room or hut dedicated to the tea ceremony)? And how are they related to Zen design?
“茶道 (sado)” is usually translated to mean “traditional Japanese tea ceremony,” but that translation is a little misleading. The meaning of sado is closer to “the quest for beauty/truth through a tea ceremony:” the emphasis is on “quest for beauty/truth” and the sado achieves this by organizing or even ritualizing the behavior of participants during the ceremony. Such behavior is often called “ふるまい (furumai)” or “所作 (shosa).” In other words, it’s not a question of acting politely but acting aesthetically, and this has long been one of the core tenets of traditional Japanese culture, including wabi-sabi. But how is this behavior related to Zen design?
Wabi-sabi emerged in Japan around the 16th century in the midst of prolonged civil wars as regional military leaders fiercely fought to monopolize their rapidly increasing economic affluence. A product of a paradoxical chemistry between military leaders (power), emerging rich merchants (money) and Zen masters/artists (the philosophy of “nothingness” of Buddhism), wabi-sabi was revolutionary in that it found beauty in each and every part of natural cycle, including the process of breaking, decaying, declining, disappearing, or any other stages that were usually perceived as detrimental to prosperity. It was a realization that nature was a mesmerizing whole of countless elements that kept moving towards death or nothingness but which were, at the same time, the source of birth and creation.
So how would you best capture the beauty of ephemeral nature? Since it’s constantly moving, you have to move too. Whereas much of the wabi-sabi culture can still be seen in ink paintings, calligraphy or architecture, other creations were more transient: ikebana (traditional Japanese flower arrangements) captured specific moments of plants/flowers that would eventually die. Kare-sansui (Zen rock gardening) was designed to dissolve into the different seasons that surrounded it. Cryptic nou theater, an elusive traditional dance/theater, turned the spotlight on the beauty found in stages that would come after one’s prime, such as getting old or passing away. Then, the tea ceremony emerged as a culmination of wabi-sabi aesthetics that put YOU in a position to capture (and release) the universe made of transient elements, by behaving reflecting, or living in accordance with the changes. Imagine each and every move you make: walk, talk, eat, relate, and prepare to host a tea ceremony – clean your place, pick flowers from a garden for a vase in your tea room, choose tea bowls or sweets for guests, and decide who to invite – all would be a reflection of the beauty at the specific moment that the tea ceremony would be held in ever-changing universe. Great tea (wabi-cha) masters in the Middle Ages such as Murata Juko or Sen no Rikyu who cemented the foundation of what we know as sado today weren’t really instructors of tea brewing; they were extraordinary designers of their living environment with keen consciousness and aesthetic awareness. They were able to capture, prepare and demonstrate the best moments of transient elements by designing or curating tools and artworks, setting the proper stage/tone, and leading conversations.
If you want to appreciate every subtle element/moment of ever-changing beauty, how should you behave? You must move carefully rather than carelessly, slowly rather than abruptly, consciously rather than casually. In sado, there are rules for pretty much every move, from the way you walk and enter a tea room, sit, bow to the host, where to sit, how to eat sweets, drink tea, to the flow of the conversation. Those rules work as restrictions to force you to concentrate on your every single move. When you focus on your body and senses so keenly, you start becoming aware of subtle things that you have neglecting. The tools, embellishments (or lack of thereof in the spirit of wabi-sabi), the room/house/garden need to help such sensorial concentration and be the sources of inspiration. That’s what Zen design is all about: it is a catalyst to unleash your sensibilities so that you can sense every beauty in your surroundings. Zen design is not about decorating your surroundings, but about polishing your inner self.
Here are some examples of sado/zen design ideas you could apply in your daily life.
露地・庭 (Entrance approach & garden)
Roji (entrance approach) and niwa (garden) are very important for sado, because they are the first things guests see, and also where they can directly feel the surroundings and the season.
The area often has a soto-koshikake (outside bench) at which guests wait for the ceremony, admire the garden and clean their hands for a special moment. You don’t need many flamboyant trees/flowers, but it’s important to keep it clean and neat. Cleaning is an important part of aesthetic behavior. (Rake or weed using your hand tools. Do not rely on machines.) You will be surprised how much you learn about your immediate surroundings by doing so.
しつらえ (Room setting)
Chashitsu needs to be a medium that make your senses keenly focused. Design should be focused on avoiding destruction and inspiring your imagination, creativity or awareness. In order to achieve this goal, chashitsu became smaller and smaller. The ultimate chashitsu designed by the Tea Master Sen no Rikyu in the 16th century was only 3.65m2. Chashitsu also leverages rustic/bucolic materials as a way to help you connect and dissolve into nature, and that’s where aesthetics come in to play because that’s what allows beauty to emerge from otherwise plain, sad and cheap stuff.
In order to incorporate chashitsu-like Zen design in your place, pay attention to the square footage of the room, the effect of lighting – i.e. the positioning of windows, and securing the tokonoma – equivalent space.
You don’t need a large room to be concentrated. You don’t need very, very bright light either. But you need well-prepared, well-curated aesthetic items that inspire you. Many chashitsu are as small as about 7.3m2, and face North so that you can learn how to appreciate dim sunlight that comes through translucent shoji windows. No matter how small the room is, you need to secure ample space for the tokonoma – a slightly raised area often defined by a pillar (usually natural, untreated wood) in which you place a roll of kakejiku (see below) and a flower vase that expresses seasonality. A kakejiku provides a vertical (rising) vector that overcomes the smallness of the room while the base is animated by a flower base that sits at a perfect angle when you sit directly on a tatami mattress. Do not “decorate” this area, and apply a “less is more” approach to the flower vase: empty space needs to be filled by your own imagination.
Also, consider furnishing something made of fragile materials such as paper (shoji, fusuma). They will force you to act carefully so that you don’t break them when you touch, open or close them. It may sound strange, but it really makes you pay attention to your move. It also applies to the tatami mattress that has cloth-covered edges. It’s good not to step on the edges, which also makes you become more aware of your moves.
Nijiri-guchi is a unique device created by chashitsu. In order to get into the small room from outside, people designed even smaller entrances which you could only go through by crawling. The effect of lowering your eyes almost to the ground is much more dramatic than you would imagine. Although it’s almost impossible to add a nijiri-guchi to modern homes, it’s interesting to create areas in which you can sit directly on the floor with low furniture. The room will look totally different, and you will find new ways to relax.
Kake jiku is the most defining item of a tea ceremony, because it is a manifestation of the theme. Kake jiku could be boku-seki (calligraphy by prominent Zen priests in China or Japan), kyo-gire (excerpt from Buddhist textbooks), or waka (traditional Japanese poems), among other things. You notice that kake-jiku is hung in toko no ma, a narrow space dedicated for displaying kake-jiku or a flower vase at the bottom.
花入れ (flower vase)
Flowers and plants are indispensable for the tea ceremony to signal seasonality. But wabi-sabi does not call for a lot of them. In many cases, one stem (ichi rin zashi) is enough, or you can arrange them based on the ikebana protocol (you minimize the number plants/species to make most of the empty space around them). There is an interesting anecdote about sado and flowers: the legendary tea master Sen no Rikyu once invited the then military leader Hideyoshi for a tea ceremony saying the morning glories in his yard were in full bloom. When Hideyoshi visited Rikyu, the garden was already empty: not a single flower. Disappointed, Hideyoshi entered the room and found that there was only one morning glory planted in a vase. Hideyoshi was amazed.
Onkyoku, a bamboo vase designed by Sen no Rikyu
If you want to arrange flowers like ikebana, there are several schools in Japan. Ikenobo is the largest one.