Suigetsu Artist: Sen-no-Rikyu (1570)
Sen-no-Rikyu (1522-1591) was enchanted and intoxicated by the moon, he felt drawn by its beauty: something so defiantly glowing against the deep darkness that spreads in all directions. In many regards this mimics one’s tea. Tea can provide a wonderful place of solace from a cold day outside, a gentle reprieve from the daily workload. Sen-no-Rikyu clearly found escape in art (as seen in his creation) but also in tea.
In the 16th century Sen-no-Rikyu formalized the Japanese tea ceremony, enriching it with integrity and effectively providing a wonderful social ritual, in turn, forever influencing tea drinking. From a young age he studied tea, eventually rising to tea master status and becoming a trusted confidant to Toytomi Hideyoshi, a shogun.
Sen-no-Rikyu was a part of the intellectual class of Japan at the time called the literati. This means he was interested in all forms of culture like art, literature, religion, and tea. This is clearly reflected in the beautiful work of ink calligraphy Sugietsu, translated as Intoxicated by the Moon. We see two large kanji and a smaller illegible character at the right, full of energy in their brushstroke, mirroring the dark depths of the night sky in their color.
Read right to left, the first character (睡) means sleeping, drowsy, or even to die in certain contexts. This first character, in contrast to its meaning, is full of energy, life, and direction. One can clearly see the power and confidence within each stroke. The character is also strong in its color, the black is deep, very few white splotches shine through any of the brush strokes. With this deepness and permanence, my mind goes to the night sky, an everlasting companion of all humans each day.
It watches over us with its impenetrable depths. This character is similar to the night sky in its strength and depth. These qualities of depth and strength directly mirror the meaning of the word: sleep and by extension intoxication or enchantment. This feeling of being drawn by a beautiful entity, a sight that is overwhelming in its complexities and contrasts, is also incredibly strong, It is confident within one’s mind, yet, full of energy like the brushstrokes above.
The next character (月) means moon in this context. This character provides a contrast to the previous in its breathiness. Its line is broken with splotches, little craters of white. This character is still full of energy and direction, but is not as permanent. It even is dwarfed by the size of the other. How can one not feel empathy for the moon in this context. It stands against the large character of sleep, an embodiment of the night sky, with gentleness and a semblance of confidence.
It is also made up of the same inky color as the night sky, but it shines proudly for all to see despite its inconsistent blemishes. The sky may be more permanent and deep than the moon but it is still intoxicated by the moon's beauty, maybe even jealous. After all, who is more enchanted by the night sky than the bright moon?
I look at this work of art and wonder how does this relate to the act of drinking tea? Being intoxicated by the moon is a very similar experience of being intoxicated by the beauty of one’s cup of tea. It sits in front of all of us, sending gentle curling mists upward, displaying rich colors of gold, green, brown, and red. Seeing the tightly rolled pearls unfurl gently over the course of a couple minutes is heartwarming. Watching a small bundle of oolong leaves quadruple in size to release so many unique and complex flavors is nothing short of a miracle.
And aren’t we all intoxicated by the varying levels of caffeine in our tea? The character 睡 meaning sleep or intoxication is embodied within the tea Jasmine Phoenix Pearls, its intoxicating scent and its pearls wonderful journey of unfurling mimic the beauty of the night sky. As for the other character 月 (meaning moon) there is no better tea than the Earl Grey Bella Luna; this tea’s hints of coconut allow for a wonderful smoothness of flavor with delightful craters of citrus throughout. Sen-no-Rikyu acknowledgement of the beauty and power of the moon is something akin to that of what many of us feel when sitting with our cups of tea. I think Sen-no-Rikyu would ask all of us: when is a person not intoxicated by the power of tea?