Sen no Rikyu

From New World Encyclopedia

Sen no Rikyū by Hasegawa Tōhaku

Sen no Rikyu (千利休; 1522 - April 21, 1591) is the historical figure considered to have had the most profound influence on the Japanese tea ceremony. Rikyu was also a member of the inner circles of the powerful Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. A man of simple taste, he lived a cultivated and disciplined lifestyle and defined the term wabi cha by emphasizing simple, rustic, humble qualities in the tea ceremony, which had been revolutionized by Ikkyu and his disciple Murata Shuko a century earlier. Sen no Rikyu’s first documented name was Yoshiro, later changed to Soueki. In 1585 a special tea ceremony was held to celebrate the inauguration of Toyotomi Hideyoshi as Kanpaku. On this occasion, Rikyu was given the special Buddhist name “Rikyu kojigou” by Emperor Ogimachi, and eventually became the supreme tea master. Three of the best-known schools of tea ceremony—the Urasenke, Omotesenke and Mushanokōjisenke—originated from Sen no Rikyu and his descendants via his second wife. A fourth school is called Sakaisenke.


Rikyu was born in Sakai in 1522. His father, Tanaka Yōhei (田中与 兵衛 / 田中 與兵衞) was a wealthy warehouse owner in the fish wholesale business, and his mother was Tomomi Tayuki (宝心 妙樹). His childhood name, as the eldest son, was Yoshiro (later Rikyu). Sakai is located on the edge of Osaka Bay at the mouth of the Yamato River, which connected the Yamato region (now Nara Prefecture) to the sea. Sakai thus became a link between foreign trade and inland trade, and merchant citizens ran the city. In those days it was said that the richest cities were Umi Sakai, Riku Imai (tr. "along the sea, Sakai, inlands Imai").

The famous Zen Buddhist priest Ikkyu (一休宗純 Ikkyū Sōjun) (1394-1481) chose to live in Sakai because of its free atmosphere. Ikkyu was an eccentric, iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist priest and poet. He was also one of the creators of the formal Japanese tea ceremony. Because of the close relationship between the tea ceremony and Zen Buddhism, and because of the prosperity of its citizens, Sakai became one of the main centers for the tea ceremony in Japan.

In 1538, at an early age, Yoshiro began his study of tea. His first teacher was Kitamuki Dochin (北向道陳) who taught tea in the traditional style suited to the shoin (a drawing room in the traditional Japanese architecture) reception room. In 1540 Rikyu started to learn from Takeno Jo-o (武野紹鴎), who is associated with the development of the wabi aesthetic in tea ceremony, a new style featuring a small, thatched tea house. Kitamuki Dochin (北向道陳) and Takeno Jo-o(武野紹鴎)were both famous tea masters and wealthy merchants in Sakai. Takeno Jo-o developed Wabi-cha, which had been begun by Murata Shuko (村田珠光)、and initiated Rikyu in the new tradition.

Rikyu, like Shuko and Jo-o, also underwent Zen training at Daitoku-ji, a temple in northwest Kyoto that had a long tradition of the tea ceremony. Thereafter, he changed his name to Sen Soueki, taking the family name of Sen from his grandfather's name, Sen-ami.

It was then that Rikyu composed the poem that dates from that time: "Though many people drink tea, if you do not know the Way of Tea, tea will drink you up." The meaning is that without any spiritual training, you think you are drinking tea, but actually tea drinks you up.

Rikyu synthesized a unique way of life, combining the everyday aspects of living with the highest spiritual and philosophical tenets. This has been passed down to the present as the “Way of Tea.”

At the end of sixteenth century the tea ceremony was prevalent, centering on Sakai. The important merchants of Sakai were collecting prestigious tea implements and enjoying new styles of the tea ceremony. At that time Oda Nobunaga banished the Murimachi shogunate of Ashikaga Yoshimasa from Kyoto. This was the era in which Oda Nobunaga’s political and military power was unifying the nation. Nobunaga recognized the popularity of the tea ceremony, and he also began to study and participate in the tea ceremony. It is thought that around 1573 Rikyu was invited to be the Master of Tea Ceremony for Nobunaga. Nobunaga allowed his followers to do the tea ceremony, and it became a rite of the Samurai (warriors). Nobunaga’s political strategy was named ochanoyu goseido (the tea ceremony policy). Nobunaga also emphasized the collection of special tea implements; if his followers rendered distinguished services they received these valuable items as rewards. Receiving such a gift was considered as honorable as being named a feudal lord.

In 1578 Rikyu’s wife, Houshin Myoujyu, died; he later married a second wife, Shushin. The Incident at Honnōji (本能寺の変Honnōji-no-hen), on June 21, 1582, resulted in the forced suicide of Oda Nobunaga at the hands of his samurai general Akechi Mitsuhide. This occurred in Honnoji, a temple in Kyoto, ending Nobunaga's quest to consolidate centralized power in Japan under his authority. After the death of Nobunaga, Rikyu became the head tea master of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the de facto successor of Nobunaga. Hideyoshi continued Nobunaga's policy and unified Japan after several years of civil war.

Ostensibly in charge of tea, Rikyu wielded great influence over Hideyoshi in other matters as well. When Hideyoshi hosted a tea at the Imperial Palace in 1585, Rikyu received the Buddhist title of koji from the Emperor Ogimachi, thus establishing his prominence among the practitioners of tea in Japan. We can understand Rikyu’s position from a letter written by Otomo Sorin, who was a powerful feudal lord at that time. Sorin wrote, “Hideyoshi’s private secretary at the window was Rikyu and Hideyoshi’s official secretary at the window was the general Hidenaga (Hideyoshi’s step brother).” This means that Rikyu occupied the position closest to Hideyoshi and controlled who had access to him, while Hideyoshi’s brother-in-law only acted in an official capacity. From this we can appreciate the magnitude of the political power held by Rikyu in Hideyoshi’s administration.

Around this period Rikyu moved his residence from Sakai to Kyoto, lived on the premises in front of Daitoku-ji temple and set up a tea room named Fushinan, which became the base for his tea ceremony activities and for the schools he established.

In 1585 a special tea ceremony was held to celebrate the inauguration of Toyotomi Hideyoshi as Kanpaku (the regent or the chief adviser to the Emperor). Hideyoshi performed the tea ceremony for Emperor Ogimachi, with Rikyu as his on-stage assistant. On this occasion Rikyu was given the special Buddhist name “Rikyu kojigou” by Emperor Ogimachi and, in both name and reality, Rikyu became the supreme tea master.

In 1587 when Hideyoshi attacked Shimazu, the feudal lord in Kyushu (southern part of Japan), Rikyu accompanied him. He held several tea ceremonies in Kyushu and worked to establish a cultural and political exchange with the wealthy and powerful business people of Kyushu, such as Kamiya Sotan and Shimai Soshitsu.

Then a lavish palace called the Jurakudai or Jurakutei (聚楽第) was constructed in Kyoto by the order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Construction began in 1586, when Hideyoshi had taken the post of Kanpaku, and required 19 months for completion. The location is in present-day Kamigyō, on the site where the Imperial palace had stood during the Heian period. Rikyu was also given a residence nearby. Hideyoshi hosted a large tea ceremony party at the precinct of Kitano Tenman-gū (北野天満宮), a Shinto shrine in Kyoto.

During this time, Chanoyu (tea ceremony) came into contact with Christianity. Many missionaries came to Sakai and Kyoto, where they befriended Rikyu and the other teachers of tea. Among the seven principle students of Rikyu were three devout Christians: Furuta Oribe, Takayama Ukon, and Gamou Ujisato.

It was during his later years that Rikyu began to use very tiny, rustic tearooms, such as the two-tatami (Japanese mat) tearoom named Taian, which can be seen today at Myokian temple in Yamazaki, a suburb of Kyoto. This tea room has been declared a national treasure. He also developed many implements for tea ceremony, including flower containers, tea scoops, and lid rests made of bamboo, and also used everyday objects for the tea ceremony, often in novel ways. In addition, he pioneered the use of Raku tea bowls and had a preference for simple, rustic items made in Japan, rather than the expensive Chinese-made items that were fashionable at the time.

Although Rikyu had once been one of Hideyoshi's closest confidants, for reasons which remain unknown, Hideyoshi ordered him to commit ritual suicide, which he did at his Jurakudai residence in Kyoto on February 28, 1591, at the age of seventy. Rikyu's grave is located at Jukoin temple in the Daitokuji compound in Kyoto; his posthumous Buddhist name is Fushin'an Rikyu Soeki Koji.

Memorials for Rikyu are observed annually by many schools of Japanese tea ceremony. The Urasenke School’s memorial takes place each year on March 28.

Meaning of the Tea Ceremony

Zen and the Spirit of the Tea

Many tea masters were Zen monks because both the Zen and tea ceremony traditions have simplicity as their guiding principle. The main purpose of Zen is to eliminate the unnecessary. The tea culture grew from the preparation and serving of tea in a tiny tearoom. Rikyu explained, “the art of tea consists in nothing else but in boiling water, making tea, and sipping it.” If we reflect on our human lives, so many unnecessary and irrelevant thoughts confuse our minds. Rikyu composed the following poems as he was looking out quietly from his tea room:

The court is left covered
With the fallen leaves
Of the pine tree;
No dust is stirred,
And calm is my mind!
The moonlight
Far up in the sky,
Looking through the eaves,
Shines on a mind
Undisturbed with remorse.
The snow-covered mountain path
Winding through the rocks
Has come to its ends;
Here stands a hut,
The master is all alone;
No visitors he has,
Nor are any expected.”

The book Nanbo-roku was the most important tea textbook. This book explained that the ideal of the art of tea is to realize a Buddhist Land of Purity, however small in scale.

Rikyu made the tea room (“cha-shitsu”) smaller than usual. His special invention was “nijiri guchi” which was a very tiny entrance to the tea room. The height and width were both about 60 centimeters (about 24 inches). Even if famous Samurai warriors wanted to enter the tea room through this entrance, they could not enter with their swords and without bending their heads (in the style of a bow). He designed this small entrance to suggest humility to the guests. Rikyu’s aim was to create a democratic spirit in the tea room. At the time Japanese society had a rigorous feudal hierarchy. However in the tiny square of the tea room, participants enjoyed the tea ceremony with their knees touching, regardless of their social status.

Japanese historians have always wondered why Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered Rikyu to commit ritual suicide. There are many conjectures; Rikyu refused to allow Hideyoshi to take his daughter as a concubine; Rikyu’s ideas for the tea room differed from Hideyoshi’s; Rikyu was dragged into political strife; Rikyu was critical to Hideyoshi and angered him. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a great patron of the art of tea and admired Rikyu very much. Many modern books have been written about the relationship between Hideyoshi and Rikyu. Strangely, both characters were completely opposite. Hideyoshi was born with no traceable samurai lineage and hence without a surname, while Rikyu’s father was a wealthy owner of a warehouse in the fish wholesale business. We can imagine that Hideyoshi might have had a sense of the inferiority in his cultural background compared to Rikyu. Although Hideyoshi was a cruel and barbarious dictator, he seems to have understood something of the spirit of the art of tea.


The spirit of the art of tea consists of four qualities: harmony (wa), reverence or respect (kei), purity or cleanliness (sei) and tranquillity (jaku). Jaku is sabi (rust), but sabi means much more than tranquillity. Sabi, when used in the context of the tea world, evokes a sense of poverty, simplicity and aloneness, and the meaning of sabi becomes the same as the meaning of wabi. In wabi lies the principle of aestheticism.

Murata Shuko (村田珠光), a disciple of Ikkyu, developed a theory of the art of tea which greatly influenced Rikyu. When Shuko taught the spirit of tea to his disciples, he often quoted some Zen words “to fill a monk’s tattered robe with a cool refreshing breeze,” or that “it was good to see a fine steed tied in a straw-roofed shed.” Wabi can be described as a treasured joy deeply hidden under sheer poverty.

According to Leonard Koren in his book Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, it is a concept derived from the Buddhist assertion of the first noble truth—Dukkha, or in Japanese, mujyou (無常, impermanence). According to Koren, wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty and it "…occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West." Andrew Juniper claims, "if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi." Richard R. Powell summarizes by saying "It (wabi-sabi) nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."

Examining the meanings of the component words wabi and sabi, we find sentiments of desolation and solitude. In the Mahayana Buddhist view of the universe, these may be viewed as positive characteristics, representing liberation from a material world and transcendence to a simpler life. Mahayana philosophy itself, however, warns that genuine understanding cannot be achieved through words or language, so accepting wabi-sabi on nonverbal terms may be the most appropriate approach.


Wabi-cha (わび茶、侘茶、侘び茶)is a style of Japanese tea ceremony , particularly associated with Sen no Rikyu and Takeno Jōō, that emphasises simplicity. The term came into use during the Edo era, prior to which it was known as wabi-suki (侘数寄).

In Azuchi-Momoyama period (Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s era which spans the years from approximately 1568 to 1600) two new forms of architecture were developed in response to the militaristic climate of the times: the castle, a defensive structure built to house a feudal lord and his soldiers in times of trouble; and the shoin, a reception hall and private study area designed to reflect the relationships of lord and vassal within a feudal society.

Another major development of the period was the tea ceremony and the house in which it was held. The purpose of the ceremony is to spend time with friends who enjoy the arts, to cleanse the mind of the concerns of daily life, and to receive a bowl of tea served in a gracious and tasteful manner. The rustic style of a rural cottage was adopted for the tea house, emphasizing such natural materials as bark-covered logs and woven straw. During the Muromachi period (1338-1560), tea ceremonies were prevalent among the common people (especially in the latter part)—but for official tea ceremonies highly-valued tea implements and expensive wares of Chinese origin (known as karamono) were used. It was said that Murata Shuko (村田珠光) started to use coarse pottery and porcelain for the tea ceremony in contradiction to what was in vogue. This was the beginning of Wabi-cha. After Shuko, his disciple Takeno Jōō developed the Wabi-cha, and finally Rikyu perfected it.

Rikyu began designing his own tea ware, sometimes having them made by local craftsmen. Rikyu had a preference for the rustic simplicity of raku ware, and even created his own objects to use in the tea room, including bamboo he cut himself. Rikyu also refined the art of tea house design, with a preference for very simple and very small tea rooms, often the size of only two tatami mats, and natural building materials, with little decoration.

See Also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Crowley, James and Sandra. Wabi Sabi Style. Gibbs Smith, 2001. ISBN 1586857533
  • Juniper, Andrew. Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence Tuttle Publishing, 2003. ISBN 0804834822
  • Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press, 1994. ISBN 1880656124.
  • Morgan Pitelka, ed. Japanese Tea Culture: Art, History, and Practice. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.
  • Okakura Kakuzo. The Book of Tea. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1977.
  • Plutschow, Herbert. Rediscovering Rikyu: And the Beginnings of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Global Oriental, 2003.
  • Powell, Richard. Wabi Sabi Simple: Create beauty. Value imperfection. Live deeply. Adams Media, 2004. ISBN 1593371780
  • Sadler, A.L. Cha-No-Yu: The Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1962.
  • Soshitsu, Sen. The Japanese Way of Tea: From Its Origins in China to Sen Rikyu. Hawaii Press, 1998.
  • Tanaka, S. The Tea Ceremony. New York: Harmony Books, 1977.


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