by Dave Lowry
The scroll in this picture was given to me by my teacher. It was written by one of his ancestors, Keiichi Matsuda. It is a kakemono, designed to be hung vertically in the alcove of a traditional Japanese room. It reads 心情庵 (shin jyo an).
Shin is ‘mind’ or ‘heart.’ In context here, however, it is better translated as ‘true’ or ‘honest.’ Jyo is ‘attitude,’ or ‘sentiment.’ More challenging to translate is an. Variously, an can be rendered as ‘hermitage,’ ‘refuge’ or ‘isolated hut.’ The ‘an’ character appears frequently in the formal names of tea huts, as in Tai-an, the exquisitely simple, two-mat tea hut in Kyoto designed by the tea master Sen no Rikyu.
It was Rikyu (1522-99) and his teacher, Takeno Jō (1502-55), who revolutionized the idea of the tea ceremony. Before them, the presentation of tea was a boisterous affair, conducted in sprawling halls with gaudy implements and spirited, often raucous conviviality. It was a form of luxurious entertainment. Exuberant contests were conducted, challenging guests to guess the varieties of tea served. Sharing tea was largely an indulgence of ego, an opportunity to show off possessions and connoisseurship.
By Takeno’s day, Japan had spiraled into a civil war, one that would flicker and flame for more than two centuries. Life, always uncertain in Japan, what with fires, famines, and earthquakes became even more precarious. One’s fortunes depended on the whims of circumstance. Even a farmer mucking out a meager existence for himself and his family in some backcountry hamlet could find his entire existence changed in an instant. Alliances between daimyo were cemented and broken; realigned, then fractured. Loyalties were honoured, then abused, then reversed. Treachery, plotting, conspiracy; these were hallmarks of the age. A lord, prosperous one day, could find himself the next ruined, his lands captured or confiscated. Those who depended on the wealth and stability of a fiefdom were helpless when it was lost. Samurai became ronin when their lords were broken, killed or banished. The cinematic image of the wandering samurai was considerably less enjoyable than popular movies or novels might indicate. Think less rustically scruffy Toshiro Mifune, and more starving, lice ridden and homeless outcasts slowly freezing to death from exposure or dying from malnourishment.
This harsh reality created an atmosphere perfectly suited for the blossoming of the concept of ichi-go, ichi-e: “one encounter, one chance.” When each moment could be one’s last, an exquisite appreciation for every aspect of daily living became ever more acute. Instead of a blowout bacchanalia, the sharing of tea transitioned into an exercise in appreciating the evanescent.
A bowl of tea tasted with cherry blossoms scattered around, or as maple leaves burned crimson and yellow overhead has a romantic appeal. At the heart of the experience of tea under the direction of Takeno and Rikyu, however, is the understanding and acceptance that such moments are fleeting. Beauty was such, at least in part, because it was not permanent; it could only be experienced in a moment, soon lost forever. It was the inspiration of Takeno’s and Rikyu’s that tea presented the opportunity to embrace a way of life that accepted, elevated even, the fleeting, the ephemeral. Contentment with poverty, conversance in the language of the poignant, contemplation of the momentary: these energised the character of tea during Japan’s long civil war.
In its essence, the tea ceremony is a confrontation with impermanence. It is in actual application stunningly—deceptively—simple. A host and guest(s), assemble, share a communal bowl of tea. When it is over, it’s done. It can never happen again. The same people, even if they return the next day, will be different. Our experience, perceptions, the weather—all of it changes, perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps dramatically. Inevitably, though, it changes.
If we appreciate the moment, drawing from it all that we can, or if we merely go through the motions, the result, when it’s over, is the same. The moment vanishes, never to be repeated. Rikyu wove this transitory affirmation into the soul of his art. He elevated it, the simple process of making and sharing a bowl of tea, into a 道 (michi – ‘way’), a comprehensive approach to life itself.
Those seeing or participating in a tea ceremony for the first time, particularly Westerners, frequently wax at length about how ‘peaceful’ it is. How calming, how meditative and deeply ‘spiritual’ it all seems. To be sure, these are qualities to be found in chadō (‘the way of tea’). Those, however, who have devoted themselves to this path have a much deeper, more layered perspective.
Chadō, like all traditional Japanese arts, can be excruciatingly boring. The temae, as tea’s almost endless array of kata are called, require a painstaking exactness. Repetition is numbing; ‘mistakes’ resulting in harsh criticism can seem laughably minute, even trivial. (Tea ceremony is an embodiment of my definition of all these arts: obsessive attention to pointless detail.)
Even more demanding to those seriously following chadō is the sublimation of the ego. This is a test of the will every bit as harsh in the tea hut as in a classical martial ryū-ha’s dōjō. The student appears, full of his ideas of what lies along the path, what he will encounter, how the travel should be managed, what are the proper destinations. His ideas are ignored. His ‘contributions,’ while well-meant, are brushed off. Even worse, the more he tries to please his teacher, the less progress he appears to be making. Nothing the student does, it seems at times to him, warrants any praise on the part of the teacher. Other students appear to have all the glowing attention of the sensei—but it’s only, the student tells himself, because they’re such sycophants. Or because the teacher doesn’t recognise his devotion, his talent.
A young chajin (tea practitioner) once sought my advice: another student of her teacher was, she was sure, actually hiding implements she knew the teacher would want for the next lesson. When she was asked to retrieve these, she couldn’t find them and the other student would, with a big sigh of “How careless can you be?” fetch them from their hiding spot. The girl dissolved into tears telling me this. The stress, she confided in me, had caused serious problems in her marriage.
Students who do gain the favour of their teachers often become arrogant. Smug. ‘Tea,’ as in “yes, I do tea,” has about it a certain irritating fussiness, an epicene foppery, that appeals to some Westerners who are, in turn, nerdy and pretentious, who adore prancing about in their kimono, mincing around the tea hut, being just so sensitive, so precious, so delightfully ‘traditional.’ When encountering a good many of them, it is a matter of ‘annoying at first sight.’ They are a real impediment, or can be, to a serious pursuit of chadō. Yet even they serve a purpose in testing one’s equanimity and commitment.
Simply put, within the confines of a chashitsu (‘tea hut’), all is not necessarily lovely. The hut is not entirely a place of beatific calm and serenity. Chadō is challenging. One’s ego is constantly, frustratingly contested. So is one’s patience, tolerance, and fortitude. There is incessantly the temptation to say it’s all just a ridiculous waste of time. “Enough with it,” comes the nagging voice in a corner of the student’s mind. Enough with the legs aching after hours of sitting on one’s knees. With the silly affectation that makes holding the tea scoop five inches up its length ‘correct,’ but six a gaucherie.
Circumstances change; humanity, not so much. Matsuda, who wrote the scroll that has been passed down to me, lived in the last half of the 18th century in Owari Province (today’s Aichi Prefecture.) We don’t know too much about him. He was fairly affluent, with an estate that had a separate chashitsu, one that remained intact and in his family until just after the end of the Second World War. (Ironically, the hut survived earthquakes, all the bombings of wartime Japan, all the ravages of time and weather—only to burn to the ground when the trash fire of a neighbour got out of control on a windy, desiccated autumn day.) His home was large enough to allow indoor training in swordsmanship, comparatively rare in that age. Matsuda had several students in my teacher’s lineage of the Shinkage–ryū and he wrote a letter to a carpenter, still extant, advising about reinforcing the floor of the room to allow for training, which the carpenter returned, making his own notes and suggestions.
We know Matsuda participated in duels. Evidently successfully. He was an enthusiastic chajin, of course, which explains his tea hut. It is likely that the scroll referred to the name of the hut. It makes sense. We know too, from some letters he left, that he saw the principles of chadō to be inherent and fundamental in the art of swordsmanship and vice versa. In one letter he wrote, rather cryptically, this advice to one of his Shinkage–ryū students: “Drink tea from the bowl balanced on the sword’s edge.”
So, this is the man who wrote the scroll that reads shin jyo an: “A place for true feelings.” Such a man, knowing what we do about him, leads us to think about why he chose these characters.
On one level, shin jyo an indicates that within the tea hut, we can dispense with pretense. We must be ourselves, who we really are. It’s a sentiment consistent with chadō. The tea hut was one of the very few places in feudal Japan where rank and class were largely leveled. The notion of anti-egalitarianism, as much as it could have existed then and there, was at least a goal. Daimyo and merchant, warrior and commoner, all met on the level surface of the hut’s tatami.
On another level, though, to be in a “place for true feelings” means you cannot escape yourself. Your pretense, your ego, your sense of superiority or grievance, pettiness, envy, your pride in what you think you have accomplished, none of those can withstand the brutal honesty almost deliberately designed to expose emotional and spiritual weaknesses that characterize a study of chadō. It promises, frustrates, flatters, and disappoints. The ‘way of tea’ and the ‘martial ways,’ in this regard, are absolutely in concert. The same notes are played, over and over again. To be sure, the instruments differ. There is no true physical danger in the chashitsu as there is in the serious dōjō, just as there is less catholicity in the curricula of the martial ryū-ha than in the various attached, subsidiary arts (pottery, flower arranging, calligraphy, etc.) of chadō. Even so there is, with them both, nothing unique about the symphony: only the players change.
It is therefore quite possible Matsuda hung what is now my scroll within his tea hut. I wonder, however, if he did not display it in the room where he taught the martial strategies of the Shinkage-ryū. I have many times paused to reflect that it would have been perfectly appropriate there.
That troublesome character, an! I have never been happy with the standard translations I noted. ‘Hermitage.’ ‘Refuge.’ A ‘sanctuary’ or ‘retreat.’ These various translations offer only one perspective when referring to a tea hut. The meaning is incomplete. To enter the tea hut, like entering the dōjō, is not an escape from the rigours and challenges of daily life. Not if the practitioner is serious. When we apply ourselves to the way—of tea or of martial art—we cannot be content to think of them as a haven. They are instead dangerous ground.
It is hyperbole—but not a lot—to compare the confines of the chashitsu or the dōjō to the Roman arenas, with their spread sand surfaces to soak up the blood. One must be willing to put all on the line. Any commitment of less seriousness is an agreement to dabble, nothing more.
One comes to chashitsu or dōjō with the same spirit. The recognition must always be there that on any given day, the confines of these extraordinary spaces may be hellish or frigid. Both intense and monotonous. There is nothing to hide one’s nature and character, not from others and particularly not from oneself. The spirit is refined, a process that is inevitably eliminative and painful.
Shin jyo an. “A place where to truly be onself.” Three characters that can be both an invitation and a curse.