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Essays on Tea

The Desert and The Tearoom
by Dr. Sen Genshitsu, Hounsai Daisosho

A conversation between Dr. Sen Genshitsu, fifteenth generation Grand Tea Master of the Urasenke Tradition of Chanoyu, and Hirayama Ikuo, artist, former president of Tokyo University of Fine Arts, and advisor to UNESCO’s panel on the preservation of the world’s cultural assets. This conclusion of the article from March 1997 issue of Tankô chadôshi was translated and adapted by Dale Slusser.

SEN: I was very pleased when earlier, in the tearoom Konnichian, you eloquently spoke of an aesthetic concept you referred to as “to condense.” You indicated that within a boundless space there was a certain aesthetic, what could be called a “philosophy of the void.” In your paintings of the vast desert, I have had a similar sense of this philosophy of the void. Perhaps there is a relationship between this aesthetic to condense, as relates to a vast natural space, and the extremely small space of the tearoom Konnichian.

HIRAYAMA: Just so. You cut bamboo and arrange a single flower. Everything is abbreviated, so that just one point leaps out. In this, it is like the tradition of bird and flower paintings we have in Japanese painting. The foundation of these paintings is the instensification of the living spirit of myriad birds and flowers. I feel the strength of these paintings is that they are reduced to an absolute minimum, only a single bird and flower, where no more could be cut.

SEN: The tearoom Konnichian has certainly been reduced right up to the point where no more could be taken away. Although it is a room of only one and three-quarter tatami mats, from Konnichian there is a relationship out towards the unlimited. I believe this is an extremely important point. There are times I think that in todays world this design should be preferred.

HIRAYAMA: Yes, it is an especially Japanese sensibility towards
beauty to cut away and cut away, abbreviating to the point where nothing more can be removed and thereby creating a thing of great beauty. The exact opposite is the Great Wall, which stretches on for thousands of kilometers. In regards to length, 10,000 kilometers is longer than 5,000 kilometers, however, when you compare objects that have been reduced to absolute minimums, it is not a question of volume or length, but rather of balance. Konnichian and its garden have over a long period of time come to their present state. In Yuinseki as well, when the window in the ceiling is opened the tips of tree branches, the sky, and the play of light and shadow can be seen. An unimaginable space and form is suddenly visible to the guest who has come for tea. In so doing, isnt it true that a person who had been living in an abundantly large space would now gaze in awe at his own footsteps? In Konnichian I thought, “isn’t this spacious, enlivened,” and indeed, isn’t this the spirit of tea? And then right away, “to put this in a painting....”

SEN: Yes, in that way the two are related. Earlier when we
were looking at Konnichian, I was struck by your very keen observations. Not what can be seen, but more an insight into your philosophy. This makes me very happy. I would really like to have you come for a chaji in Konnichian. To see the room with the dogu placed to make tea would give a different impression. When the season has improved I will invite you. Please come.

HIRAYAMA: Thank you very much. In any case, just as the desert is a drifting, boundless realm without focus, when I come into contact with a thing that has been so completely condensed, I think, yes, this is Japanese. Kyoto is a place of beautiful, extreme things. In the desert man is like a drop of dew which has fallen from a leaf; although unpleasant, the desert is a realm where one is conscious of being alive. Tearooms and gardens are truly wonderful things, for there too one has this type of awareness.

SEN: I saw a photo of you sketching in the desert. The desert goes out and out, with you there sketching. In that scene, within the tremendous space of the vast desert, I can sense the limit within the boundless. I hold that impression in just the same way that I believe
Konnichian to be spacious.

HIRAYAMA: Isn’t it so that tearooms as well as such vast spaces share a certain tension. This is something that must be personally felt, and it is truly a wonderful thing to urge someone on to this understanding. Today was my first visit to the Urasenke tearooms, and I felt strongly the concentration of their four-hundred year history.

SEN: Thank you very much. I look forward to serving tea in
Konnichian on your next visit.






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