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The centuries-old traditional Japanese arts illustrate the way in which we can set out on the road and ...
2021-02-13 09:00:00

Dō, or the Way
The Traditional Japanese Arts

“Chanoyu to Ikebana” (Flower Arranging and Tea Ceremony), Toyohara Chikanobu, 1895
Dō, or the Way
Dō, or the Way

Harmony, respect, purity and calm. These four principles lie at the foundations of traditional Japanese arts: brewing tea, flower arranging and calligraphy. These ceremonies not only express a certain aesthetic concept, but are also connected with a certain defined vision of the world.

Read in 13 minutes

Harmony means balance between the external and internal worlds, and also within the confines of each of these worlds. It manifests itself in mildness – of light, smells, movements, mood. Respect allows you to perceive the value of other people, as well as nature and objects. Purity refers to purity of both heart and mind, and the body and its surroundings, and calm is the ability to find balance and contentment in the present – in other words, internal quiet.

The authorship of these four principles is attributed to one of the great masters of chadō (also known as sadō or chanoyu) – the Japanese art of brewing tea. Because every art must have its master, and even several masters, as the process of improvement never ends. For chanoyu it was the creator of these principles, Sen-no Rikyū.

Tea and Zen

The tea plant – in the form of leaves that were scalded, crushed and formed into balls – was brought to Japan from China by monks and ambassadors during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). Already at that time, drinking brewed tea was a custom in China, and the higher circles connected it not only with practical properties, ‘cleansing’ the mind and improving the mood, but also with beauty, which the ceremony was connected with. In Japan, at first it was primarily Buddhist monks who used the hot brew as a stimulant. It helped them maintain mindfulness and alertness during long sessions of meditation. In 805, the famous monk Saichō brought tea seeds from the continent. Japan’s adventure with tea on a grand scale began somewhat later, with another Buddhist bonze named Eisai, who in 1191 planted seeds in shrines and started to cultivate tea on plantations. But the ceremonies in which it was used still had primarily a religious character: it was offered not only to the monks, but also to the Buddha.

It was only around the 14th century that contests began in which the participants tried to identify the types of tea they were served – along with a snack – and the Japanese aristocracy developed an interest in the herb from overseas. At that time, both in the higher strata and in the lower, people began to drink powdered matcha tea, and tea houses appeared on the streets of the largest cities. The contest organizers presented participants with their own collections of tea utensils and showed them around their estates. The brew was tested in palaces’ richly decorated and equipped pavilions and residences. That’s how the start of the tea ceremony looked. With time, so-called aesthetes – dōbōshū – became the judges in the competitions. They were usually monks or representatives of the aristocracy (mostly the lower ranks), whose everyday occupation was one of the popular fields of art: they arranged verses or flowers, wrote calligraphy, led discussions according to established rules.

One of them was Murata Mokichi, later known as Jukō (1422–1502), who coined the term chazen ichimi – roughly, “tea and Zen have the same taste”. It’s he who is recognized as the creator of the Japanese tea ceremony; since then, the ceremony became a way to ensure spiritual experiences. Participation ceased to be treated exclusively as recreation, and became a way to practice concentration and mindfulness; an opportunity to delve into oneself, seeking the internal I, the internal truth. According to Murata’s recommendations, the settings in which tea was brewed and served changed: the space where the participants met was to be the size of 4.5 mats (three square meters), and the lower number of decorations allowed greater concentration on seeking calm and spiritual fulfilment. In the tea meetings, it was no longer just about the joy that entertainment and time spent together bring; aesthetic feelings became important.

Murata Mokichi’s student was Takeno Jōō, a rich merchant who went through monk’s training and became a master of chanoyu. He simplified the ritual even further, abandoning expensive, often continental utensils in favour of simple but not primitive ceramics. In turn, his student was Sen-no Rikyū, who completed the threesome acknowledged as the creators of the wabi-cha style – the muted tea ceremony, stripped of unnecessary decorations, ostentation and distractions. The ceremony that still delights us today.

Sen-no Rikyū (1522–1591) developed the philosophy and aesthetics of his masters. Some even say he brought it to perfection. After many years of studies, at the age of 58 he was named master of the tea ceremony in the court of Oda Nobunaga, and later his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi – magnates who started the process of uniting Japan after its division into warring clans. According to the philosophy of master Rikyū, the ceremony should flow in harmony with nature and be characterized by a severe simplicity. Participation would be a spiritual experience on the path of self-perfection, while the material objects – modest and simple – were to help in overcoming materialism, which they represented. Participants in the ritual started to turn their attention inward – there they were to find true riches. “[B]oth master and visitors are expected to be on terms of absolute sincerity,” writes Nanbō Sōkei, a student of Rikyū, in the treatise Nanpōroku, the most famous of the tea way guides (as cited by Daisetz T. Suzuki in Zen and Japanese Culture). The principles of wa, kei, sei and jaku (harmony, respect, purity and calm) practised every day by Zen Buddhist monks were transferred to the tea ceremony, which entered its golden age. The ceremony also expressed another aesthetic category known in Japan: wabi, or the awareness of beauty contained in simplicity and naturality, and the resulting reflection on the world and life, tinged with a feeling of melancholy.

These four principles, together with the aesthetic of wabi, have been handed down from generation to generation for 500 years in the three still-operating tea schools that derive from Rikyū: Omotesenke, Urasenke and Mushakōjisenke. They are led respectively by: 15th master Sōsa, 16th master Genmoku Sōshitsu and 14th master Sen Sōshu. Just as in Buddhist monasteries dharma is passed down from master to student, so in Japan knowledge of arts and crafts is handed down.

The tea ceremony practised today usually lasts no more than four hours, and participants take part in a seemingly simple ritual, but one in which almost every gesture has its deep meaning. For the duration of the meeting they let go of their daily, care- and duty-filled reality, immersing themselves in the world found inside of them. The awareness that we’re participating in a ceremony that’s 500 years old and only slightly deviates from the initial ritual can be stunning, but at the same time it gives you wings and energy to set out on a journey into yourself.

The four principles that lie at the foundation of the tea ceremony have application in all Japanese arts. And there are many of them. To name just a few: kadō, or flower arranging; shodō, calligraphy; kodō, the art of spices; and budō, the martial arts.

More than decoration

Kadō, ‘the way of flowers’, is also known as ikebana, meaning roughly ‘living flowers’. Though the two names are used interchangeably, they differ slightly. Using the former stresses the aesthetic and philosophical accents of the art of flower arranging. The second, meanwhile, is more associated with technical and artistic skills, with what we see. Ikebana derives from the tradition of decorating altars in Buddhist shrines, which – like almost all Japanese arts – has its source in China. It used not just flowers but also the branches of trees (particularly pines), shrubs, grasses, herbs and mosses. It quickly became a part of high culture. Already in the Heian period (794–1185), the literati sang of floral compositions in their works. Not long after, they also became the subject of competitions in the imperial court.

The forerunner of kadō is acknowledged to be the monk Ikenobō Senkei, creator of a renowned floral decoration from 1462, in which he placed the flowers and other elements in long vessels rather than simply putting them in vases, as was done on the continent. This composition was meant to present an entire garden. It delighted the laity to such a degree that they wanted to decorate the interiors of their homes with similar arrangements. But only the representatives of the aristocracy could allow themselves to do so, if only because the works of the masters of the time had huge dimensions and required space, as well as deep pockets, which ordinary Japanese people didn’t have. The founding father of the Ikenobō school, still operating today, is recognized as the monk Senkō I, who lived at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, who specified and formalized the rikka style – ‘standing flowers’. His successor Senkō II worked at the imperial court as a kadō master. They determined, among other things, that a composition should be made up of seven (later nine) elements placed in an oblong dish, and developed specific principles for ‘putting up’ flowers. Their ideas have lasted until today: 450 years later, the Ikenobō school is led by 45th master, Ikenobō Sen’ei.

A century after Ikenobō Senkei’s famous composition, a new style appeared: nageirebana, or ‘thrown-in flowers’ – less formal, more spontaneous, designated for people with lower financial means, to be applied in small spaces, and thus ideal for Japan’s bourgeoisie, which was growing in strength at that time. From it evolved further styles (seika or shōka – ‘natural flowers’; moribana – ‘piled-up flowers’, etc.). There also appeared new schools, such as Ohara-ryū, Sōgetsu-ryū, Enshū-ryū, Mishō-ryū and many, many more, which differ in their approach to the technical and philosophical aspects of ‘the way of flowers’. At that time, the number of elements of a composition was reduced to three. In those days, it was accepted that compositions were to reflect the Confucian cosmic order tenchijin: heaven (the longest element, ten), earth (the shortest element, chi) and the human, found between them (the middle element, jin). Together with the inflow of modernist ideas, another style was formed: jiyūka, ‘free flowers’, which removes many restrictions and allows its adherents significantly more artistic freedom, though still within certain boundaries.

Today ikebana has been democratized. It’s practised by representatives of all classes and social groups, and representatives of the schools of flower arranging are found in every city. You can even develop your skills in specialized ikebana schools: Ikenobō Tanki-daigaku in Kyoto and the Kōryū Academy in Tokyo.

Brushstrokes and the cosmic order

It was a similar story with Japanese calligraphy, or, in fact, ‘the way of writing’, shodō. Though the first Chinese books arrived in Japan from the Middle Kingdom already at the end of the 4th century, it’s accepted that the art of ‘beautiful writing’ made it to Japan around the 7th or 8th century. Including the continental experiences, the tradition of calligraphy is already about 3000 years old. Initially masters from the continent were admired in the Japanese archipelago, particularly the legendary 4th-century figure Wang Xizhi, who became famous for his unsurpassed works in the xíngshū (Japanese c) style, meaning writing in a semi-cursive style. For a long time, calligraphy on the Japanese archipelago was practised by monks, who copied the texts of Buddhist sutras, and the well-born, who took lessons in ‘beautiful writing’, copying well-known Chinese poems and treatises. One of the most outstanding calligraphers of that period was the famous monk Kūkai (774–835). At the turn of the 7th and 8th centuries, as the original Japanese kana phonetic writing was emerging, a distinct Japanese style known as wayō began to take shape. It was characterized by energy and freedom, theretofore unknown to either the Chinese masters or the Japanese calligraphers who worked a style taken from the continent. Official and poet Ono no Michikaze, also known as Ono no Tōfū (894–966), is recognized as the precursor of wayō calligraphy. Michikaze in a sense opened the door and blazed the trail that his successors followed. Two later great artists, Fujiwara no Sukemasa (944–998) and Fujiwara no Yukinari (972–1027) perfected his achievements.

A particularly strong bond links Japanese calligraphy and Zen Buddhism. Each stroke of the brush is a one-time act, and thus sincere. All doubts, hesitations, uncertainty or fears are reflected in the shape and appearance of the written characters. The ideal state is mushin, a state ‘without mind’, in which the artist sheds the thoughts and feelings that accompany daily existence. Japanese calligraphy brings together an artistic aspect, which takes it close to painting, with a spiritual one, which in turn makes this art similar to the practice of meditation. In the case of Zen Buddhist adepts, it actually becomes a part of such practice and is meant to help on the path to satori, a state of enlightenment. Until today, the calligraphy of two great masters is admired in Japan: the Zen monks Eisai (1141–1215) and Ryōkan (1758–1831).

The stroke of a brush on a piece of paper is not only a physical action: this is the way the calligrapher expresses the cosmic order. The viewer, meanwhile, admiring the work, is to rise to a higher level of existence, freeing themselves from limitations, and leave behind their daily lives, full of worries and longings. By its nature, calligraphy brings together several fields of art – literature, painting and graphics – giving its practitioners broad scope for artistic expression and the opportunity for individual expression, which is harder to achieve in other ‘way arts’.

For centuries, the masters and founders of calligraphy schools were also masters of the tea ceremony and the ‘flower way’ (and vice versa); all of these arts were practised in parallel. One of the points of the tea ceremony was admiring the floral compositions specially prepared for the occasion, and beautiful calligraphy, which was to guide participants into the proper mood. Participating in a chanoyu ceremony today, we also have the opportunity to delight in shodō and ikebana, but the professionalization of these arts has meant that combining mastery in both fields is now more rare. But the practice of kadō, chadō and shodō is still meant to facilitate the search for internal balance in a world full of opposites: life and death, visible and invisible, eternity and passing away. Here, nothing has changed. Contemporary ikebana master Toshiro Kawase encourages people to perceive the entire universe in a single flower, to experience transcendence. For that you need discipline, patience and concentration. If you manage, you become a master. After the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Kawase started his One Day, One Flower project. Each day he creates a new single-flower composition, in which the entire world is contained. Nature is his ally; his tool – its seasonality.

Swallow the universe

All of these arts are bound together by several common attributes. First of all, the same lineage – they migrated from China, where they have their roots, and in Japan they were polished and brought to perfection. One can even say they were brought to the highest level: the level of art. They have ceased to be recreation or craft and have started to represent aesthetic and philosophical values, and also to create them.

Second, they are connected by an appeal to values that have their sources in Zen: the most modest school of Buddhism, which is most oriented toward practice. “What is common to Zen and the art of tea is the constant attempt both make at simplification. The elimination of the unnecessary is achieved by Zen in its intuitive grasp of final reality: by the art of tea, in the way of living typified by serving tea in the tearoom,” Suzuki, one of the greatest contemporary experts on Zen, writes in his book, adding: “Zen also aims at stripping off all the artificial wrappings humanity has devised, supposedly for its own solemnization.”

Third, in each of the arts there are numerous codified styles characterized by separation and internal norms, with their fans, masters and students, and in each of the styles we can distinguish three categories, the so-called shin-gyō-sō. The official style (shin) is also known as ‘standing’; the semi-official (gyō), ‘crawling’; and the unofficial (), ‘running’. The first is the most classical (in calligraphy it’s similar to printing, in ikebana it manifests itself in simple and stable compositions, and in chanoyu, a formalized ceremony). The semi-official style is somewhat freer and fuller (e.g. the calligraphy characters don’t have to have the same proportions, the flower compositions are more varied, the tea ceremony is slightly less formalized). The third style is marked by the greatest freedom and lightness: the calligraphic styles recall cursive (it’s called the ‘grass’ style), the ikebana is a dynamic, free composition, and the tea meeting is conducted without certain etiquette requirements.

Fourth, these arts, like every ritual, have their rules and ceremonies. Dress. Surroundings. Time. Utensils. So they’re codified, and the purity of the principles is maintained by centuries-old organizations, which offer training to those who are interested, and certify future masters.

And finally, fifth: in their names, all of them contain the word , meaning ‘way’. Because in Japan, practising art means moving along a certain path, an unending process of learning, self-perfection and, understandably, change. The only norms that describe the way a master of ceremonies can and should move are fixed points of reference. Hence the ritualization of the arts. But the most important is practice. You can’t fathom them theoretically, by reading or observation. Sooner or later, the adept will have to take the bull by the horns and ‘set out on the road’.

Can they also be of use to a Western person as a model of the practice of mindfulness and affirmation of ordinary daily actions? The monk Suzuki’s words can serve as an answer: “Who would then deny that when I am sipping tea in my tearoom I am swallowing the whole universe with it and that this very moment of my lifting the bowl to my lips is eternity itself transcending time and space? The art of tea really teaches us far more than the harmony of things, or keeping them free from contamination, or just sinking down into a state of contemplative tranquillity.”

If you feel the same, you can ‘set out on the road’, and with the appropriate patience and endurance, you will approach the goal.


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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