"Tea as a Philosophy of Life"
Part II: Tea and the Samurai
Most references concur that tea was first brought to
Japan in the eighth century when Japan was eagerly exploring the rich culture of China. This was during
the period of the Japanese imperial government's promotion of Buddhism and the arts of China. At the time,
the central government's influence was substantial, and the imperial court's embrace of tea and Buddhism
assured the widespread acceptance of both. However, imperial authority would eventually yield to the
influences of powerful clans with strong military resources which were engaged to defend their vast
The transition from imperial autonomy to feudal dominance started as early as the
eighth century but not until the ninth century did the power of the feudal estates compete seriously
with the imperial government. In 858 the Fujiwara family, one of the most powerful in Japan, gained
control of the imperial office, which they effectively manipulated until 1160. Chinese influence on
Japanese government and culture further declined as struggles for power and influence increased between
the feudal estates. The Buddhist monasteries continued to preserve the Chinese traditions, including
the ceremonial use of tea, but they also became involved with the conflicts.
The feudal estates became more and more autonomous of the central government. Groupings
of smaller estates into defensive units, each with armed forces, became more powerful over time. The security
of each unit was determined by the effectiveness of the armed warriors who defended the interests of
the estate. From this class of warriors arose a new aristocracy known as the samurai.
Eventually the Minamoto clan, under the military leadership of Yoritomo, mustered
enough military strength to conquer their rivals. In 1185 Yoritomo was appointed first military leader
of Japan, and in 1192 he was given the title of Seii-tai-sh gun (Barbarian-Quelling Generalissimo)*.
For the next several centuries the Sh gunate, office of the Sh gun, would dictate all major governmental policy.
Civil disorder and power struggles would continue in spite of strict military rule.
Samurai loyalties were generally to their feudal lords. The protection of the estate's
interests came above personal interests and life itself. The Sh gunate never gained military control
over all of the samurai, and treachery was not uncommon. The constant threat of death, the absolute
expectation of loyalty, and the preoccupation with martial arts were all part of the samurai's daily
life. It was clearly a time of turmoil. Even within some monasteries there were militants, known as
warrior-monks, who were extremely well versed in martial arts.
Meanwhile, China was reunited and prospering under the Song dynasty (960-1279),
which followed the half century of division and chaos of the post-T'ang era. New achievements in
painting and ceramics, as well as the latest teachings of Buddhism, once again attracted the interests
of Japanese scholars. In 1168 and again in 1187 priest Eisai journeyed to China to study the most
recent teachings of the Zen Buddhists. He returned with a consuming passion for both Zen Buddhism and
the new form of powdered tea, matcha, which was then in vogue in China. Matcha would become the tea of
Eisai believed that the increasing turmoil in Japan could be calmed by a spiritual
renewal. He spent the rest of his life promoting Zen Buddhism and the secular use of tea as a Buddhist
ritual, as well as an elixir capable of curing many ills and even extending life. Many monks joined Eisai
in a crusade to bring the spirit of Zen and tea to the masses.
The samurai were among the most zealous disciples of Zen and tea, as they found both
suitable for their needs. In Zen, the samurai found focus and inspiration to sustain their spartan existence
and constant exposure to injury and death. Tea, on the other hand, was soon divorced from the Buddhist
spirituality. It became a competitive sport (like archery and sake comparison) and a medium for social
activities. When not involved in martial arts and scholarly activities, the samurai were fond of raucous
parties. Tea tastings were used as contests and wagering events, at which anywhere from four to one hundred
teas from various tea gardens would be compared. Participants would wager on which gardens produced the
various teas, and on which teas were "fake." Such contests became very popular among the wealthy and
ultimately became a means of displaying excesses of luxury, including rare Chinese tea equipage and art.
This dissolute use of tea distressed the Buddhist monks, since tea to them was a religious
sacrament. Moreover, the principles of Zen precluded the excesses which were common to the tea contests. To
them, the social use of tea should be symbolic of the ceremonial use of tea and should encourage the spiritual
enlightenment of the individual. Fortunately, the Zen priests were highly respected as spiritual leaders, as
well as for their refined taste in art, literature, and poetry. Their influence was substantial. As a result,
they were able to retain a following for their aesthetic, spiritual tea ceremonies. Eventually, sharing a bowl
of tea became a means for samurai, peasant, and lord to meet on equal terms in good faith, to forget the cares
of the world, and be at peace with the universe.
In the next issue we will see how Teaism became an integral part of Japanese culture.
*Reischauer, Edwin O. and Craig, Albert M. Japan: Transition and Transformation. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Co. 1978. p. 44.
"Upton Tea Imports was founded in 1989 with the objective of providing the North American tea drinker with
the finest teas available. We purchase teas from reputable brokers and estates worldwide, dealing only with
sources who are capable of providing top quality teas. We sell directly to the consumer, thus ensuring the
freshest product and fairest pricing."