Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Through the Tearoom Window - on the aesthetics of tea

Tea as 'culture' - a poster advertising travel to Kyoto.

The tea ceremony as reflected in the photographer's eye – calm, severe beauty – a single image that conjures up a whole aesthetic, or even a whole culture…But this is not quite the aesthetic of tea. It is the aesthetic of the designer, the graphic artist. For tea, the aesthetic is only part of the story, but as an outsider, it is the part I will consider here.

I must start with an admission – I am not an aficionado of tea, but exploring the world of Japanese art and aesthetics, before long, you find yourself coming back to it. Since the end of the Momoyama period, back in the late 16th century, through to the modern day, it has attracted the powerful and the aesthetically minded, and continues to offer fascination as a window onto this culture as something peculiarly Japanese (although one should be aware that it has been promoted in just such a role in the post-war period).

As 2015 is the 400th anniversary of the death of Furuta Oribe, the daimyo tea master who succeeded Rikyu, and like him, was forced to commit seppuku, there is a surprising richness of tea utensils on display this year.

It is too rich a subject to do it full justice, but there are certain points that make it interesting, even if one is not overly enamored with the spirit of wabi-sabi and the performance of the ceremony itself.

The tea ceremony as it is practiced today in all its major variations is centred around this concept which gained popularity from Rikyu – and gave its name to the tea he practised – wabi-cha. Wabi, together with a related term, sabi, are key to the aesthetic promoted by Rikyu, and has continued ever since. They are explained well in this excerpt from the omotesenke webpage:

The unique atmosphere and environment of chanoyu are often called 'wabi and sabi'. They refer to a tranquil and serene world, and an elegant simplicity of environment.
This calm and somehow lonely condition, or the taste for elegant simplicity which is a denial of colouration has been developed as an aesthetic which is perhaps unique to Japanese culture.
The word 'wabi' is derived from the verb 'wabu', meaning 'dejection, bitterness, being reduced to poverty'. Sabi is derived from the verb 'sabu', meaning 'to get old, to be discoloured'. The origin of the word 'wabi' is 'the bitterness of things not turning out as we want them to' and of 'sabi' 'the weakening of the vital powers'. So both of them are among words expressing negative feelings.
However, these words for negative emotions were actually given a positive value and were used on the worlds of chanoyu and of haiku as 'terms used to express beauty'. It could be said that this is where Japan's unique aesthetic sense and attitude towards culture lie.

While I respect this aesthetic, I think it has been overworked and overstated… having grown up in a household decorated with the fruit of much careful hunting in jumble sales and junk shops, I certainly don't find it unique to Japan. Perhaps it was necessary to give it a specific designation to achieve recognition in a society that places high regard on precedent and propriety (and it must be noted that despite the high level of arts and craft that are produced in Japan today, the average person seems to have far less sense of interior decoration than one might suppose). Choosing things that are odd or imperfect, common or old-looking may have come as a shock to Rikyu's contemporaries in the 16th century, but to some, it's commonsense. However, to use something because you like it, rather than because it is good (or made by a famous maker) is a concept that is foreign to many here even now.

The aesthetic aside, the practice of tea is laden with rules, some of which may be based in good sense, others of which are rather arbitrary. It is the following of these rules that bring some of the benefits of the practice, the situating of oneself within a ritual which becomes 'home-ground', and also the challenge and the discipline of the practice. Rules also serve to bind the ephemeral nature of the ceremony, to enable its transmission, giving a form to an experience. They also, of course, help with the perpetuating of a role for the tea master, especially in this day and age, when the teaching and performance of tea has spread around the world.

Raku tea bowl made under Rikyu's direction by Raku Chojiro

Aesthetics is a personal subject, and judging by the stories about Rikyu, not only was he a leader in this respect, but as we expect artists to do today, he strove to develop and refine his expression of his particular brand. Likewise his successor Furuta Oribe developed his own particular aesthetic, favoring wares that now bear his name. This may have been part of their strength, but such individualism was not in step with the times. As Hideyoshi and then Tokugawa Ieyasu worked on unifying the country and stabilizing the social structure into what was to become a rigid hierarchy, tea masters defied that order. They emphasized the primacy of taste over precedence and propriety, with a certain liking for the unpredictable and sometimes the downright non-sensical. They had the ability, it seems, to keep their patrons wrong-footed, surprising and sometimes annoying them by their disregard for the standards that these very men were learning and preserving.

Perhaps, in fact, it was for this reason that the tea ceremony was developed – as an outlet for aesthetic sensibilities in a culture that was dedicated to preserving old forms and expressing oneself in their terms. With its emphasis on simplicity and awareness of what is happening at this very moment, the influence of Zen is clear. Rikyu himself studied Zen at Daitoku-Ji Temple in Kyoto, but there seems to be a contradiction in the art. While acceptance and appreciation of the beauty of the ordinary and commonplace requires a certain detachment, the search for exquisite simplicity, the lengths tea masters went to orchestrate their gatherings, and the value placed upon objects that were made cheaply for every day consumption (rustic Korean tea bowls) belies that non-attachment. This is especially true in the case of tea masters, who exercise their cultivated taste in the collection and assemblage of objects. Even for the trainee, there is just as much attachment in the unquestioning following of their school's pronouncements on aesthetics.

What is the use of tea?
Apart from it's attraction as a means to personal development and contemplation, and the partaking (and promotion) of a national culture, tea has served a number of purposes in the past. Perhaps the most notable of these was its role in politics. Oda Nobunaga made particular use of it, both as a chance to bring his generals together and as a means to dispense favors in the form of valuable tea utensils, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi followed his example.

It seems that this aspect, rather than disapproval of his increasingly austere aesthetics, was the reason for Rikyu's death (he was ordered to commit seppuku by Hideyoshi). Rikyu had become one of Hideyoshi:s most important advisors, together with Hideyoshi's half-brother, Hidenaga. Despite his important position, as a member of the merchant class, he had no power base, and fell foul of powerful interests (probably Ishida Mitsunari) after Hidenaga's death.

Clog-shaped tea bowl - owned by Furuta Oribe

Furuta Oribe, although of Daimyo class, was also a victim of politics – the reasons are not entirely clear, but commentators have noted that the total wealth of those Daimyo who were keen adherents of the tea ceremony (and thus intimates of Oribe) equalled that of the key Tokugawa vassals. Had Oribe been so inclined, he might have been able to mount a credible opposition to the Tokugawa hegemony. Oribe's own taste was particularly outre, and could be seen as a tacit challenge to the hegemony the Tokugawa clan were busy in consolidating. Anyway, Tokugawa Ieyasu wasn't taking any chances and ordered him to commit seppuku.

From the next generation, Oribe's successor, Kobori Enshu instituted a more refined style which combined elements of the grace and luxury the ruling class was used to, and took on the role of performing the tea ceremony for the ruler, rather than teaching him. Tea was no longer necessary as tool for alliance brokering, and dropped back into the role of cultural pastime.

For the practitioner, tea is more than aesthetics; it is a marriage of space and performance. Set in a dedicated space, it removes the practitioner – and the guest, if there is one – from the everyday. What one experiences is, perhaps, it's own reward, and certainly, that must differ from practitioner to practitioner. However, for whatever reason, it continues to exert a powerful pull on the imagination, and remains as a strong theme in Japanese culture.