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What Is Chado?

If you were invited to a tea ceremony -- more properly known by its Japanese name of chado or chanoyu, since it's not really a ceremony at all -- what you would see is the host carrying an assortment of objects into the room, arranging and cleaning them very carefully, and whisking a bowl of tea for each guest. Once everyone has had their fill of tea and sweets, the host cleans up and carries the utensils back into the kitchen. Only then would you and the other guests bid farewell and leave.

As you watch the host prepare to make tea, it might seem to you that every move is made deliberately, and that the host pays special attention to each object he or she touches. What might not be obvious at first sight is that every move both host and guests make is strictly choreographed, from the order that the utensils are picked up and put down, to the way they are held, to the spots where those items are placed, usually to within the nearest centimeter. There are dozens of different chado procedures — temae in Japanese — and even the simplest of these takes months for a beginner to learn.

If you're the practical sort, you might ask, "Why all the fuss? Why not just boil some water and mix it up with tea in a bowl? What's the point of having all this ritual?"

If the goal of chado was just to drink tea, there wouldn't be much point to it at all. But chado isn't just about tea; it's about an experience. The place, the people, even the sequence of events are unique. Even if everyone in that room were to come back again the next day at exactly the same time, sit in the same order and watch the host do exactly the same thing, it would still be different. Why? Because the people themselves will be different: they've lived through another day, they're thinking about different things, and the feeling in the room will be subtly different. That's what chado is about -- creating a feeling of beauty and harmony, and an appreciation for the fact that this moment will never come again.



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The experience of tea has many layers, some aesthetic and some spiritual. While some of the nuances will be lost on a person who isn't familiar with chado, everyone in the room should be able to share the experience, even if a person has never been to a tea gathering before.

The aesthetics are seen in the choice of "theme" for a gathering. The host will carefully choose each of the utensils he or she uses, as well as the food that's served and the scroll that is hanging in the room, to reflect an idea that he or she wants to convey. The bowl (chawan), tea scoop (chashaku), the container the tea is held in (natsume or chaire), and the tea itself (matcha) are especially important. There are a number of different factors to consider, including the season, the reason for the gathering (perhaps to celebrate a holiday like the New Year, or to share one last bowl of tea before a friend moves away), and the people who are going to be invited.

So far, Japanese tea is not so different from the rituals surrounding British high tea — both have their own etiquette, a set of rules that includes the proper way of doing everything. Where chado differs is its spiritual element. It's a discipline that can be practiced for a lifetime, not just a process to learn and be done with.

It begins with the interaction between the people in the room, both host and guests. The host strives to get every detail right, focusing on the procedure as well as the guests to ensure that everyone has a good time. Training to do chado, an experienced host will have developed a mental focus that will allow him or her to be aware of everything in the room at once.

For the host, the practice of chado can become a type of meditation. By forcing the mind to focus on what the body is doing rather than just performing a memorized sequence of moves, the host becomes rooted in the present moment, a state of mind that can expand one's perceptions. When making tea for guests, the host tries to communicate that state of mind, bringing everyone into the moment.

The guests, in turn, are very respectful and appreciative of the host and of each other. The conversation is kept light, and at the appropriate times everyone falls silent and enjoys the tea as it unfolds. The guests also have a procedure to follow, and that ensures that they are paying attention even when their full attention is not on the host.

In an ideal gathering, there's an openness between the people in the tearoom that the participants carry out into their everyday lives. Eventually, if people practice tea long enough, they find themselves treating everyone with greater respect, looking past the outer surface to the essential nature beneath. Someone who does this can truly be said to be following the way of tea.

The ultimate goal of a tea gathering is to create an experience that touches all five of the senses, and the heart as well.


Something with this many nuances couldn't have been created overnight, and, in fact, chado as we know it today developed over the course of centuries.

The practice of drinking tea originated in China. The groundwork for chado was laid by the classic Ch'a Ching, or The Classic of Tea, written by a Chinese scholar named Lu Yu in the T'ang Dynasty (618-907 AD). During that period, tea was first introduced to Japan from China to Japan as priests returning from their Buddhist studies brought the practice of brewing tea along with them. Tea then was used primarily for medicinal purposes, and to keep awake during meditation.

It wasn't until a Zen monk named Eisai (1141-1215) began to promote tea drinking that the practice became widespread. He focused on the medical benefits of tea, and even presented some to the emperor of Japan (as the story goes) as a cure for hangovers. After receiving the emperor's official recognition, Eisai began distributing seeds through Japan, and tea drinking was on its way to becoming a common practice.

By 1400, tea had spread from the nobility down through the samurai and Buddhist clergy to the wealthy merchants. Among the samurai and nobility there were contests to see who could distinguish between different types of tea, and increasingly elaborate gatherings designed to show off their rare or expensive utensils, usually Chinese. It was also during this period that tea became more and more systemized, and set procedures began to be established.

As a reaction to the growing flamboyancy of tea, a Zen priest named Murata Shuko (1423-1502) designed a new way of doing tea which he called soan-cha, or grass-hut tea. Rejecting the ostentatious reception rooms of the nobility, Shuko held his gatherings in a simple room the size of 4 1/2 tatami mats, or nine feet square. Although he didn't abandon the elegant Chinese tea utensils, he focused more on simple Japanese items, with the goal of simplifying the practice of tea and adding a Zen element. In fact, the formal rules of chado were based on the guidelines for communal tea ceremonies in Chinese Zen temples.

As Shuko's way of doing tea became more popular, it was formalized into a system; it became a discipline, a way to train the mind, rather than simple entertainment. The way of tea passed from teacher to student, each refining the practice a bit more.

Two generations after Shuko, a merchant named Sen Rikyu (1522-1591) began to study chado. From humble beginnings, he achieved national fame, and virtually all of the tea schools in Japan today trace their lineage to him.

Rikyu's favored style of tea was wabicha, or "tea of quiet taste," because of its aesthetic of subtle beauty and its emphasis on items used in daily life. This style of tea was sometimes called the "tea of the grass hut," a reference to the simple grass hut in which a hermit monk might live. Simple, inexpensive utensils that were flawed or worn from use were elevated to the ideal.


Rikyu was a wealthy member of the merchant class in the independent port city of Sakai, and he pursued the study of chado seriously from a young age. The combination of social status and a natural ability for tea made him one of the city’s most recognized masters. As his fame spread, he became the tea master for shogun Oda Nobunaga, one of Japan’s most famous military rulers, and later for Nobunaga's successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Although Rikyu was highly respected as both a tea master and a political advisor, later in life he was at odds with the hot-tempered Hideyoshi, who eventually ordered him to commit suicide.

After Rikyu's death, his style of tea was continued by his grandson, Sen Sotan. When Sotan died in 1658, his property was divided among his three sons, each of whom established a separate school of tea: Omotosenke, Urasenke, and Mushanokoji-Senke. The Sen schools became allied with the nobility, and were supported by noble patrons until the breakdown of the feudal system in the Meiji era. All three schools are in existence today, with the leadership of the school passed down from father to son.

Among the warrior classes, the tea styles of Furuta Oribe (1544-1615), Kobori Enshu (1579-1647), and Katagiri Sekishu (1605-1673) were favored, and each gave birth to his own school. Another popular movement was developed by Yabunouchi Kenchu Jochi (1536-1627), who advocated a return to the original principles of tea, with the emphasis on simplicity and aesthetics and a refusal to do tea for profit. Many tea schools flourished in the centuries following Rikyu's death, and some of those survive to this day.

When the Meiji period began in 1868, the shogunate lost its power and most of the tea masters of the day lost their support. Chado survived by changing its face: Where before it was practiced primarily by the wealthy and the upper classes, it became an activity that everyone could enjoy. For the first time, that included women, who before had generally been excluded from chado; tea was now taught at women's colleges and high schools.

During the reformation of the Meiji era, it became common practice to sell off old, treasured cultural items like tea utensils, usually to buyers in the West. To preserve what they saw as the deterioration of Japanese culture, wealthy businessmen began buying up those utensils to save them for future generations. Those businessmen also took the place of the nobility in supporting the tea schools, helping them to survive the transitional times.

Chado Today

Modern chado is taught in Japan today for a number of reasons: as a social practice, as a way to discipline the mind and body, and as a way to connect with Japan's cultural history, among others. Although chado remains a widespread practice, not all Japanese study it or are familiar with tea etiquette.

As Japanese culture spread outward, Westerners became intrigued with chado, and began to become tea students themselves. The movement was given a boost by the fourteenth-generation Grand Master of the Urasenke school, Tantansai Sekiso, and his son, Hounsai, who became the fifteenth-generation Grand Master. Starting shortly after World War II, Hounsai traveled extensively to educate the rest of the world about chado, and established branches of the Urasenke school overseas.

Today, there are Urasenke branches in Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Australia, England, France, Germany, Italy, China, and Korea, and chado associations in many other countries. In the United States, there are branches in Hawaii, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., and associations in many other cities. (Our Philadelphia-based group is affiliated with the New York branch.)

In December 2002, Hounsai retired, passing the leadership of the school to his oldest son, Zabosai Soshi Sen, who became the sixteenth person to carry the hereditary family name of Soshitsu Sen. Like many Grand Masters before him, he is an ordained Buddhist monk, serving as the resident abbot of Kyoshin'an, a temple of the Myoshinji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect. In addition to running the Urasenke school and its related organizations, he holds a professorial post at the Kyoto University of Art and Design and is a trustee of the Japan Society for Psychological Research on Emotion and the Kyoto Prefectural International Center.

Now bearing the title of Daisosho (former Grand Master), Hounsai continues to travel around the world, sharing his vision of"peace through a bowl of tea" with heads of state and ordinary folk alike.

All text on this site is copyrighted by Urasenke Philadelphia.
Photos on the upper left-hand corners of each page are copyright 2010 by Dale Rio and have been used with permission.