Natural Health

Healthy living, herbal remedies and DIY natural beauty.

Add to My MSN

Wabi-Sabi Wednesday: Simple Is the Ultimate Luxury

6/1/2011 11:12:58 AM

Tags: wabi-sabi, Tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu, Raku, Zen Buddhism, tea in Japan, Japanese Tea ceremony, Murata Shuko, Jo-o, Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailOn Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my upcoming book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, which was released last month. Wabi-sabi practices and traditions are based on Japanese Tea ceremony. 

Wabi-sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, brought from China to Japan by 12th-century traveling monk Esai, who also picked up a few tea seeds while he was there. Zen, with its principles of “vast emptiness and nothing holy,” stresses austerity, communion with nature, and reverence for everyday life and everyday mind as the path to enlightenment. Zen monks lived ascetic, often isolated, lives and sat for long periods of concentrated meditation. To help his fellow monks stay awake during these sessions, Eisai taught them how to process tea leaves into a hot drink. Tea had arrived in Japan.

Once it left the monk’s hands, tea took on a life of its own. Around the 14th century, the ruling classes developed elaborate rituals that took place in large tea rooms built in a gaudy style known as shoin, with imported hanging scrolls and formally arranged tables for vases and incense burners. Tea practitioners proved their wealth and status through their collections of elegant tea utensils and lacquered serving ware during three-day weekends where up to 100 cups of tea—as well as food and sake—were served. All of the day’s revered Tea masters pushed the opulent style, to the delight of the Chinese merchants and importers.

In the 15th century, influential Tea master and Zen monk Murata Shuko began placing humble, understated utensils made by local artisans next to his finest Chinese porcelain. Saying “It is good to tie a praised horse to a straw-thatched house,” he showed the consuming classes that marrying rough with brilliant made both more interesting, and the market for simple bamboo tea servers and hand-shaped tea bowls blossomed. Shuko’s successor as Japan’s elite Tea master, Jo-o, took his master’s criticism for rarefied displays a step further by using everyday items such as the mentsu, a wooden pilgrim’s eating bowl, as a waste-water container, and a Shigaraki onioke, a stoneware bucket used in silk dyeing, as a water jar. Jo-o also brought inexpensive unadorned celadon and peasant wares from nearby Korea into the tea room, making the once-uppercrust ceremony accessible to the middle classes.

Jo-o’s disciple, Sen no Rikyu, is widely credited with creating the quiet, simple ceremony that made it possible for everyone—not just the wealthy—to practice Tea. In the 16th century, at the end of several centuries of war and an age of extravagant consumerism, Rikyu’s Tea ceremony provided a simple, unpretentious oasis that society craved. He served tea in bowls made by anonymous Korean potters and indigenous Japanese craftsmen, and he commissioned pottery from the Raku family, in a style that endures to this day. Rikyu made some of his own utensils out of unlacquered bamboo (as common as crabgrass in Japan, but nowadays a Rikyu original is worth as much as a Leonardo da Vinci painting), and he arranged flowers simply and naturally in bamboo vases i and common fishermen’s baskets. His tiny Tea huts (one-and-a-half-tatami-mats, as opposed to the four-and-a-half- to eighteen-mat room norm), based on the traditional farmer’s hut of rough mud walls, a thatched roof, and organically shaped exposed wood, included  a low entryway that forced guests to bow and experience humility as they entered. Rikyu held Tea gatherings by dim sunlight, filtered through bamboo lattice screens, or moonlight.

For wealthy merchants and shoguns, this simple, unembellished atmosphere felt like the ultimate luxury—the epitome of high art. For peasants and commoners, it made the Art of Tea accessible. Through Rikyu’s simple ceremony—known as wabichado (chado means “the way of Tea”)—everyone, from warlord to peasant, could experience Tea. Wabisuki (“a taste for all things wabi”) took hold of Japan and seeded a revolt against the ruling classes’ gaud. Rikyu’s “aesthetic of the people” made Tea available to even the everyday samurai, who had little in the way of material comforts. Preparing and serving the bitter green leaf became a means for ordinary people to escape for a moment and share a ritual. Tea ceremony became a venue for Japan’s finest poets and artists and an important piece of most Zen Buddhists’ practice. Wabichado endures in Japan to this day. 

raku bowl 

For his simple, unpretentious Tea ceremony, Tea master Sen no Rikyu commissioned pottery from the Raku family, in a style that endures to this day. Photo by Doug Udell/via Flickr  

Related Content

Wabi-Sabi Wednesday: How Tea Brews Harmony

The four principles of Tea ceremony—harmony, respect, purity and tranquility—are the means to a good...

Wabi-Sabi Wednesday: 7 Wabi Gardens

In a wabi-sabi garden, plants are chosen because they belong in that garden and in that climate, and...

Go Granny Go: Europeans Design Pensioner Playgrounds

In an effort to keep aging populations active, some European countries are installing playground equ...

What is Wabi-Sabi? Pictures Tell the Story

Wabi-sabi is wildflowers, not roses; weathered wood, not plastic laminate; native landscaping, not K...

Content Tools

Post a comment below.


Robyn Griggs Lawrence
6/8/2011 12:34:50 PM
Tony, isn't it great when you finally find the all-encompassing words for who you are? I have a most non-wabi ex as well, and he erased every old and weathered thing I left behind as soon as I left the house. The great news is, he no longer has to live miserably with my rust, and now I arrange my ditch weeds in peace. (Check out today's post on wabi-sabi flower arranging...I think you'll like it!)

tony deckard
6/8/2011 11:53:13 AM
Wabi-Sabi. So THAT's what my lifestyle is. It actually has a name. I've been living that for many years. My ex-wife gave me so much sh-t when I put flowers in a piston.

Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 66% Off the Cover Price

First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Lighten the Strain on the Earth and Your Budget

MOTHER EARTH NEWS is the guide to living — as one reader stated — “with little money and abundant happiness.” Every issue is an invaluable guide to leading a more sustainable life, covering ideas from fighting rising energy costs and protecting the environment to avoiding unnecessary spending on processed food. You’ll find tips for slashing heating bills; growing fresh, natural produce at home; and more. MOTHER EARTH NEWS helps you cut costs without sacrificing modern luxuries.

At MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet’s natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. That’s why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.00 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.00 for 6 issues.