Of all the aspects of contemporary Japanese culture, the one which is most directly an expression of Zen ideals is cha-no-yu, or the tea ceremony, as it is known in the West. Originally practiced by monks in Zen temples, it has become for the most part a polite accomplishment for well-brought-up, traditional girls, but it still retains much of the Zen spirit, although those practicing it may be completely unaware of this debt. In fact the spirit of chano-yu, referred to as teaism by the late-nineteenth-century author Okakura in his Book of Tea, has so permeated the aesthetic culture of Japan that hardly any phase of Japanese life is unaffected by the peculiar kind of sensibility which is embodied in its tradition. Simplicity, restraint, and naturalness, combined with a love for the rustic and the homely, have become so integral a part of their heritage that the Japanese no longer think of these qualities as being especially Zen or specifically associated with the tea ceremony.
Although cha-no-yu as it exists today was developed by the Japanese, the habit of drinking tea was introduced from China by Zen monks who used it during their meditation as a stimulant to help keep them awake. The ritual drinking of tea, forgotten today in China, not only persists as cha-no-yu in Japan but shows an unexpected vitality in face of the Western that has made such inroads on Japanese culture. In fact, it might be said that as a counterreaction to the Westernization of the postwar period, cha-no-yu has had a certain revival both as a protest against foreign influence and as a reaffirmation of the national heritage.
Although the earliest record of tea drinking in Japan goes back to the Nara period in the eighth century, when the Emperor Shomu invited one hundred Buddhist monks to take tea in his palace, it was not until the Kamakura period that it became at all widespread. The monks of the Five Great Temples of the Zen sect brought tea seeds back from China, and growing tea plants became popular in the Uji district not far from Kyoto, a region which to this day is famous for the quality of its tea. The Zen teacher Eisai ( 1141-1215) is said to have been responsible for making tea popular in Japan by pointing out its beneficial effects in curing a variety of diseases.
The ritual drinking of tea, introduced by the Zen priest Dai-o in 1267, did not become important in Japanese culture until the Muromachi period when, under the Zen master Ikkyu ( 1394-1481) and especially his pupil Shuko ( 1422-1502), tea drinking was developed into an elaborate cult. Shuko taught the art of tea to the Ashikaga shogun Yoshimasa ( 1435-90), who became an enthusiastic chajin, or tea man. To this day the villa (known as the Togudo) in which he celebrated cha-no-yu is preserved on the grounds of the Ginkaku-ji, or Silver Pavilion, in the northeastern outskirts of Kyoto, where Yoshimasa lived. Its tearoom (called the Dojinsai), which was the model for all later tearooms or chashitsu, was designed during the late fifteenth century by Shuko for Yoshimasa to practice cha-no-yu with his friends. So popular did the ceremony become that cha-no-yu parties were held at all hours of the day and night, and the taste of the tea devotees became so influential that the whole period might be said to reflect the spirit of cha-no-yu.
If Shuko was the founder of cha-no-yu, it was Rikyu, another Zen priest, who brought the ceremony to perfection. While the cha-no-yu parties of the Ashikaga shoguns had reflected the court life of the period, Sen-no-Rikyu ( 1521-91) emphasized simplicity and economy. A thatched hut in a garden seemed to him a more desirable setting than a palace, and ordinary utensils, often of a kind used by peasants, appealed to him more than the splendid porcelains and lacquers used by the Ashikaga rulers. To this day tea masters are influenced by Rikyu, and it is his teaching which is considered the orthodox one. The most important modern schools, such as the Omote-Senke-ryu and the Ura-Senke-ryu, were found by his great-grandsons and are based on the canons he taught. Rikyu prescribed not just the form of the ceremony itself but the kind of utensil to be used, the design of the tearoom, and the type of garden surrounding the teahouse. To say that Rikyu was the most influential Japanese tea master is to understate his importance, for his ideas left a permanent mark on Japanese culture.