Samurai and The Way of Tea

March 06, 2017

Samurai and The Way of Tea

What's not to love about Samurai culture? Swords, armor, honor and tea!

I wasn't surprised to learn Samurai shared a strong, Zen-like relationship with tea. When I did my research I discovered tea was an extension of the warrior arts. The mind played an important role in battle and tea preparation was a way for Samurai to improve their mental fortitude off the battlefield.

A Short History

Tea has been a mainstay of Eastern civilizations for centuries. In 2016 materials used to prepare tea were discovered in the mausoleum of Emperor Jing of Han in Xi'an proving tea was consumed as early as the second century BC.

In the 8th and 9th century tea was introduced to the Japanese culture via special envoys visiting from China for the first time. It wasn't until the 12th and 13th centuries that tea became widely available to the masses and associated with artforms such as philosophy, poetry, painting and calligraphy.

It wasn't long after that the Samurai adopted the tea ceremony as their own. Tea preparation was an art form unto itself. The forms, shapes and mental discipline associated with a proper tea ceremony was to become revered by the Samurai class.

Chado The Way of Tea

I was quick to assume tea was just a way for battle weary samurai to wind down after a long day. Just as you might crack open a Pilsner or uncork a Malbec after a busy day at the office, I imagined Samurai kicking back with a cup of Sencha after a gruelling day defending the castle.

While I believe this is partially true, it was the ritual of brewing tea that the samurai held with such high regard.

Chado or the Way of Tea is an intricate ceremony where every motion is measured carefully. Tea was battle for Samurai without all the bloodshed. Samurai spent countless hours honing their skills with the blade so why wouldn't they treat the tea ceremony with an equal amount of respect?

For Samurai the ceremony had more to do with the disciplined mind than it did with the resulting cup of tea.

Sen Rikyu

The development and spread of the traditional tea ceremony we know today is contributed to a scholar named Sen Rikyū (1522–1591).

While little evidence suggests he was himself a Samurai, he was known to teach and inform many great Samurai leaders including the great Oda Nobunaga.

I like to think of Rikyu as an esteemed Samurai groupie.

Rikyu's philosophies about tea complimented the Samurai's philosophies about war. He is quoted as saying "Ichi go, ichi e" or “One encounter; one chance.” On the battlefield, one mistake could mean certain death. Each movement was carefully measured and each moment, carefully planned.

The connection between tea and Samurai seem obvious to me.

Sen no Rikyu was a champion of both the Samurai culture and the long-standing traditions of Japanese tea.

For me, tea and the Samurai culture will forever be intertwined. The next time I prepare a cup of green tea I will think back to the Samurai traditions of Chado and contemplate life's great mysteries on and off the battlefield.

Image: The Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa.

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