Thursday, April 11, 2013

Zen and tea share one flavor: 茶禅一味

There is a saying in the tea world which I've heard attributed to tea master Ii Naosuke. Anyway, whatever the provenance, the saying is "Cha zen ichi mi" "茶禅一味": Tea and Zen are one flavor". (I've also heard the alternate version, "Zen cha ichimi" which foregrounds Zen. I suppose the version depends on the speaker!) There can be no question that the impact of Zen Buddhism on tea practice is central to the development of the art. While I think that it's important to recognize that chanoyu (tea practice) also has a strong presence as a secular practice, it seems pointless to discredit the connection between Zen and tea across the board. Zen is an aniconic religion, so it's not surprising that little in the way of Zen iconography makes it way onto tea utensils, but today I came across a rare example where it does! If Zen has a symbol, it very well be the enso (Zen circle). Zen priests often write the enso as an expression of their personal enlightenment. It's much more difficult than it looks to create a perfect circle with brush and ink. Believe me, I've tried! Anyway, while doing some research on 18th-century daimyo chajin (warlord tea man) Matsudaira Fumai today, I came across this beautiful iron tea kettle (kama) with an enso design, currently in the possession of Daitokuji temple in Kyoto. A perfect meeting of Zen aesthics and tea practice, is it not? Image of the enso kama is from Daimyo Chajin Matsudaira Fumai ten. NHK Promotion, 2001.

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