CASE #47: Rikyū’s “Only This”
Sen no Rikyū, the founder of Cha-dō, once wrote the following poem:
Tea is only this:
First you heat the water.
Then you make the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.
Sen no Rikyū Rikyū (1522-1591) is often called the founder of Cha-dō, the Way of Tea. Although other masters preceded him, it was Rikyū who gave the clearest exposition to the rules of tea, and Rikyū who determined its enduring aesthetic and spiritual philosophy. Although he was a close advisor to the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Hideyoshi ordered Rikyū to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) as the result of a disagreement. Rikyū’s death poem is:
Gratitude to you,
O Sword of Eternity!
Cutting through Buddha,
And through Bodhidharma, too—
You’ve prepared the way for me!
Heat the water In tea ceremony, the water is heated in an iron kettle placed over a charcoal brazier. The artful, economical use of fuel is an important aspect of the Way of Tea.
Make the tea…drink it properly There are many rules and customs governing the preparation and consumption of tea in Cha-dō. Here, however, Rikyū is referring to the correct attitude toward the ceremony. A guest once asked Rikyū to explain the secret of Cha-dō. Rikyū replied: “In summer, suggest coolness. In winter, a feeling of warmth. Lay the charcoal so that it heats the water, and make a pleasing bowl of tea. That is all.” When his guest expressed disappointment at the stark simplicity of Rikyū’s answer, Rikyū famously replied, “If you can prepare tea this way, I will become your disciple.”
These Masters make everything look effortless, leaving the rest of us to fumble about, all thumbs and two left feet. If it’s as easy as they say it is, how come it feels so hard?
Rikyū isn’t talking about tea. The answer is just that simple. He’s talking about everything. Why make a big production out of life when the point is just to live it. There’s a reason Rikyū spent his whole life making one bowl of frothy green tea after another, but it’s not different from that.
Getting its head knocked
Against the bowl, the little
Bamboo tea scooper
Is learning to be simple,
Is learning to be bamboo!
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.