Learning From the Great Tea Sage, Sen-No-Rikyu

Sen No Rikyu
Sen No Rikyu
Rikyu's Resting Place
Rikyu's Resting Place

When you hear the splash
Of the water drops that fall Into the stone bowl
You will feel that all the dust Of your mind is washed away.


When we hear our kettle squealing, our boiler jumping with delight, the pitter patter of water hitting the bottom of our mug we anticipate the beautiful cup of tea being created. Sen-No-Rikyu (1522-1591), arguably the greatest tea master of all time, is a wonderful sage for us tea drinkers to come closer to in thought, action, and consumption. Sen-No-Rikyu was the greatest influence to Japanese tea philosophy, but he was also vital in bringing tea to its height by infusing it with the political sphere and the common people of Japan. Luckily for us, Sen-No-Rikyu left tea drinkers with his four great virtues - Harmony, Reverence, Purity, and Calm - to help attain the greatest amount of taste in our personal adventure with tea.

Now, how could a man accomplish this? His goal was not to make tea even more complicated but to simplify, coalesce the ritual of tea. Rikyu lived in a time of great political turbulence and sought to provide solace for all in the art of tea. it is with this sentiment that he established the four virtues of tea. We as tea drinkers can still strive to learn from his philosophy. We can recognize the inner harmony in Rikyu’s teaching to benefit our intimate (maybe for some almost romantic) relationship with tea.

Sharing is caring. One of the pillars of tea consumption is sharing with loved ones and friends or in Rikyu’s words: Harmony. Rikyu sought to achieve friendliness between multiple people, encouraging harmony between the host and the guest. We as tea drinkers could not be harmed by sharing our interest in this wonderful world that we all enjoy. You never know, we may even gain some new friends, bring a new aspect to a previous relationship, or join a blog about tea. Rikyu also sought harmony with humanity and nature. As many know the conditions on tea plantations across the world can be appalling. This highlights our responsibility as tea connoisseurs to be aware of where tea is sourced and each company’s treatment of their employees.

In thinking about the farmers, the people who take the time to hand roll our dear jasmine pearl or create the finest ceremonial grade uji matcha, there is a sense of gratitude. With this acknowledgement of their sacrifice we as western consumers should be humble and appreciate this great gift of tea. Not only is tea frequently sourced from eastern countries but the very concept is eastern. Western Civilization only came to know tea through its trade with China. Once aware of tea’s value, they were able to export tea through horrible abuse of the people in India and China. It is our job to be humble, Reverence being Rikyu’s second virtue; to acknowledge the past and do our best to stop any abuses from continuing.

Though invisible
There’s a thing that should be swept with our busy broom.
‘It is the dirt that ever clings
To the impure human heart.

These lines demonstrate Rikyu striving for his third virtue: Purity. When taking those first sips of tea Rikyu encourages one to “empty one’s mind” and simply be in the present: admire the amazing fragrance, relish in the robust mouthfeel, and acknowledge the astringency.

Most tea drinkers can agree that there is an exquisite calm that comes with the ritual of preparing tea. Measuring your desired amount, making sure the water is the right temperature and pouring. This ritual allows for Rikyu’s fourth virtue to take hold: Calm. Rikyu encouraged a new simplicity in his time, making the tea ceremony significantly more simple in comparison to Japan’s previous history of lavish events involving tea. Rikyu used the tea ritual to bestow a sense of calm, to help prepare those of us partaking in the creation of tea to handle any trials that may lie in the oncoming day, month, or year. Rikyu’s simplicity and wisdom still contains valuable lessons that even the beginner, the experienced, or the crankiest morning tea drinker can benefit from. With this being said I leave you with a beautiful quote from our dear sage.

"Tea is not but this.
First you make the water boil,

Then infuse the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.”

“All that I know already,” replied the other with an air of disgust.

“Well, if there is any one who knows it already, I shall be very pleased to become his pupil,” returned Rikyu.