Traditional Culture of Japan - Traditional crafts and culture

The origins of the three Senke schools (Omotesenke, Urasenke and Mushanokōjisenke): Sen no Sōtan


All tea ceremony schools can be traced back to the tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591). Rikyū is the one who perfected the wabi-cha style of tea ceremony, emphasizing simplicity and frugality, that is practiced in contemporary Japan.


However, the supreme ruler of Japan at that time, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ordered that Rikyū be put to death for an offense that was never recorded, and Rikyū's school was later divided into three separate schools.


In Japan there are now three main tea ceremony schools: Omotesenke, Urasenke and Mushanokōjisenke. All three schools are branches formed during the time of Rikyū's great-grandchildren. Let's take a look now at how each of these branches originated.


  Sen no Sōtan's tea ceremony
Sen no Sōtan (1578-1658) was Rikyū’s grandson. In those times, masters of tea ceremony generally served under the patronage of some influential person. Just as people today work for a company in exchange for a salary, in those times masters of tea ceremony found work under the wing of the nation’s rulers.


However, Sōtan's grandfather (Rikyū) had been involved too closely in politics and ended up being sentenced to death. Because of this, Sōtan had no powerful patron.


Without any stable source of income, Sōtan lived a life of poverty. As a result, the form of tea ceremony he practiced was one of utter simplicity and frugality.


Unlike the former style of tea ceremony, which used precious items and lavish decorations, Sōtan performed the simple tea ceremony advocated by Rikyū, eliminating the superfluous. This type of tea ceremony, called “wabi-cha,” was inherited and disseminated by Sōtan.


Wabi-cha had been performed by Rikyū only in the last three years of his life. For this reason, Sōtan is considered to be the person who perfected this simpler form of tea ceremony.


  How three tea ceremony branches originated
Sōtan was having trouble with money and all four of his sons were forced to find employment. The third son inherited the house because the two eldest sons had left home. This third son inherited a tea house called Fushin’an that had been passed down by Rikyū.


The fourth son lived with Sōtan in the retirement residence located behind the house. This tea house is known as Konnichi’an. Eventually, the fourth son also became a master of tea ceremony.


Because this large site was divided between two houses, people referred to “the third son at the front (omote)” and “the fourth son at the back (ura).” This is why the schools are now called “Omotesenke” and “Urasenke.” These names were made by combining the surname Sen belonging to both Sen no Rikyū and Sen no Sōtan with the Japanese characters representing the position of their houses: omote (front) and ura (back).


It was mentioned above that the second son left the home. He was adopted by a family running a lacquer business. However, at the age of about 60, when the lacquer business was well established, he decided that he wanted to return to the world of tea ceremony. That is to say, he embarked on a new life.


At that time, he inherited a tea house that had been owned by Sōtan's father. This tea house, known as Kankyū’an, is located on a street in Kyoto called Mushanokōji. The name of the second son’s school, Mushakōjisenke, is based on the name of that street.


This is how the three major schools of tea ceremony (the three “senke”: Omotesenke, Urasenke, and Mushanokōjisenke) originated. The three schools did not arise from some dispute. As we have seen, there is a rational explanation for their origin.


After the formation of the three branches, it was decided that each branch would nominate just one person to inherit the name “Sen.” Thus, the number of branches named “Sen” was forever limited to three — the branches could not multiply indefinitely. Even today, the three schools retain the brand inherited from the time of Rikyū.

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