For over forty-five years, Sen Soshitsu, the fifteenth head of the
Urasenke Tradition of Tea, has traveled all over the world to spread his
knowledge and love of chado. It is his belief that the study of
this ancient Japanese art has the power to profoundly change the
individual as well as society as a whole. In this interview, he explains
how, through Tea, the true spirit of peace can be fostered.
In recent years, the tea ceremony has attracted much interest among people outside of Japan as a representative form of Japanese traditional culture. Could you tell us about this?
Sen: I am often asked by Japanese people when I return
from abroad how it is that I think non-Japanese people can be interested
in and can learn about the tea ceremony when Japanese people find it so
intimidating. Most Japanese know that the tea ceremony is a traditional
activity with a long history. They also have some superficial knowledge
about it, which leads them to believe that it is difficult to approach.
I answer that because non-Japanese people do not have any preconceived ideas about Japanese traditional culture, including the tea ceremony, they are more open to experiencing things as they are. I always tell non-Japanese people that "tea ceremony" is a mistranslation, because in Japan it is called chado, the "Way of Tea," or chanoyu, "hot water for tea." I also tell them that it is not a ceremony or ritual, but a way of life based on the simple act of serving tea with a pure heart. In some ways, it is easier for them to reach an understanding of the essence of chado.
Pine trees, whether growing here or in another country, need the same things - soil, water, and sunlight. Human beings, whether they are living here or in another country, all have the same basic needs - food, shelter, clothing, and companionship. Beyond that we have spiritual needs, which can be met through the tenets of the Way of Tea. Chado allows us to interact with other people, with nature, and with our immediate environment on a very basic, satisfying level. This is why I believe Tea attracted many people in the past, and why it continues to do so in the present.
In the internationalization process, the spirit of hospitality is very important. What role do you think chado can play, and how do you think it can contribute to the process of internationalization?
Sen: It is ironic that chado - which brings together many
different aspects of traditional culture into a form that seems to be
peculiarly Japanese - could play a role in internationalization, which
involves going beyond the boundaries of our own culture to embrace our
common humanity. Nowadays we are overwhelmed with information from
television, magazines, facsimile machines, and other sources. The plethora
of information deceives us into thinking that we have an understanding of
the world, and that we know about people from other countries.
Understanding cannot be gained by simply reading the newspaper, watching
television, or accumulating information.
To get to know another person, we invite that person to share food and drink with us, something which is a universal act. Heartfelt hospitality is the highest tribute that we can offer our guest, and is something which is recognized in all cultures around the world. In the world of chado, we study and train to be able to welcome our guest to a tea gathering with a pure and open heart. All of our efforts are directed toward ensuring our guest's comfort and pleasure. This spirit of selfless service forms the basis of hospitality, and it is here that chado can provide an example for everyone. In chado, the roles of the host and guest are formalized so that the two people are able to concentrate on creating an atmosphere of complete harmony. Within that tranquil, harmonious, specially-created atmosphere, we can come to know the heart and mind of another human being.
Japanese hospitality is known around the world, but oftentimes I feel that it is actually just hollow formality, the result of dedication to the job. Hospitality should not be confused with efficient service. Also, many Japanese people feel that to be hospitable it is necessary to give guests many gifts and material things, but I think that guests should not be put into a position of indebtedness which they feel they cannot repay.
The essence of true hospitality is opening the doors for heart-to-heart communication and allowing the other person's humanity to touch our own. In Tea, there is an expression "Muhinshu," which means "No guest, no host." In other words, in the tearoom the host and guest strive to become one and to communicate with each other in a true and meaningful way. Chado teaches us, in whatever role we assume, not to draw distinctions between ourselves and others. This is done by recognizing the humanity of all those with whom we come in contact. If we open our hearts and minds to be receptive to others' needs, which is the true meaning of hospitality, then I do not think that we need to worry about internationalization.
In the post-Cold War world, we have seen the outbreak of many regional conflicts around the globe. During these turbulent times, how can chado help to create a feeling of peacefulness and a spirit of sharing in people's hearts?
Sen: Conflict, whether it is between family members, neighbors,
groups, or countries, has sadly always been a part of human history. I
would be naive if I said that chado is able to eliminate all conflicts.
This present period in history, is not at all unusual. When my ancestor,
Sen no Rikyu, was refining the Way of Tea more than 400 years ago, Japan
was going through a very turbulent time in its history. There were many
wars, and the country was divided into many factions. The social system
was breaking down, with vassals rising to rule over their former lords. It
was against this background that Rikyu created a new form of social
interaction where people from all ranks of society, from lords down to
farmers, could come together in a haven of peace. This was something which
was very daring and revolutionary at that time.
It is my sincere belief that in the egalitarian sharing of a bowl of tea with one's guest, a sense of peacefulness is created which can have an effect on the world. If you and your guest share that feeling of peacefulness with two others, then it will have spread to four people. If each of those four people shares it with others, and so on, the number will expand exponentially, like the ripples on the surface of a lake, creating an outflowing of peace,
At first, however, you must experience this peacefulness in yourself. There are many ways to do this, such as meditation, but Tea does not have to be a solitary, inwardly-oriented activity. In fact, tea has special value in that it allows for a shared experience. The essence of the phrase "Peacefulness through a Bowl of Tea" is the spirit of sharing, and it is with this motto that I have made tea for people around the world.
Lately there have been loud cries for traditional Japanese culture, including chado, to cast off its old skin. Could you tell us about how you think traditional culture can be refreshed so that it is relevant to the modern day?
Sen: For one who was born into a hereditary position, who has a
responsibility to uphold a 400-year-old tradition, and who has made it his
lifework to preserve and transmit that tradition, this question is very
Each of the past grand masters of my family adapted chado to reflect the age in which he lived. Since I have lived most of my life in the Showa Period (1926-1989), the Tea that will be associated with me will reflect that period. Each grand master had his own way of refining the original ideals of Tea of Sen no Rikyu. For example, in the late nineteenth century, my ancestor Gengensai, the eleventh grand tea master, created a style using tables and chairs for serving tea to non-Japanese people. Although the lacquered set looks quite modern, since it was created in 1872, this style is already more than 100 years old. At that time, Gengensai was strongly criticized for breaking with tradition and moving the setting off the tatami-matted floor. People were afraid that chado would not survive such radical innovations, but they did not truly understand and appreciate its resilience and its true meaning.
People often ask me how it is possible to be creative within the strict boundaries of tradition. I answer that it is very similar to a musician playing a Mozart sonata and creating something truly unique. People who practice the Way of Tea can do the same thing, by using their creativity to imbue the traditional form with their own spirit. In this way, chado's traditions are refreshed and brought up-to-date.
Tea practitioners are now experimenting with new materials, high-tech objects, innovative architectural designs, and imported objects from around the world which reflect the period in which we live. Whether these all become accepted into the chado tradition remains to be seen; however, I believe that if the essence of the four principles of Tea - harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility - is respected and held inviolate, then appropriate new ideas will find a place in Tea and will be retained over the years. I always wonder what Sen no Rikyu would have done if he were still alive today.
An interesting thing is that after experimenting with new forms, most people eventually return to the basic principles of Tea, because human beings have a desire not only for change, but, as I said in the beginning of this interview, for stability and enduring basic values. Chado has survived for over 400 years exactly because it has been able to absorb all sorts of innovations without changing its essence. The fact that there are now more practitioners of Tea than at any other time in history is proof that it is still relevant to the modern day.