Translation and further thoughts
by Adam Sōmu Wojciński
The ‘Letter of the Heart’ is the earliest known document on chanoyu as a spiritual art. It was written by Murata Shukō (1421(?)-1502), regarded as the person who transformed tea drinking from an aristocratic pastime to a Way for spiritual attainment. This document by the ‘Godfather of Wabi’ endures with timeless guidance for all who come into contact with the Way of Tea. In the letter, Shukō illuminates chanoyu as a sensually lived expression of the inner life of Buddhist practice; asserts that we can grasp aesthetic and moral ideas with striking vivacity through objects; encourages the pursuit of beauty in one’s immediate surrounds and harmonising this beauty with that found in foreign lands; notes that spiritual transformation works ‘at the heart’s ground’ beyond the ego/self; and compels a balance of humility, critical self-reflection and poise at all stages of the tea person’s development.
The letter is addressed to Furuichi Harima Hōshi (1452(?)-1508), a Buddhist priest and minor daimyō. Furuichi became a monk at Nara’s Kōfuku-ji temple before succeeding his elder brother as daimyō and head of the Furuichi family in the outskirts of Nara city. He was a keen patron and practitioner of the arts, particularly renga poetry, noh theatre, shakuhachi and chanoyu. In 1488, Furuichi requested detailed instruction in renga from the poet Kensai (1452-1510). Kensai responded by expanding notes he had made from the words of his teacher Shinkei (1406-1475). There are striking similarities in expression and content between this letter of Kensai’s and Shukō’s own letter to Furuichi. It is entirely possible that Furuichi showed Kensai’s letter to Shukō when asking him for like instruction on the deeper praxis of chanoyu. Upon reading Kensai’s letter on the essence of renga, we can imagine Shukō finding the words to illuminate what was in his heart regarding the Way of Tea.
The aesthetic and moral posture described in both Kensai and Shukō’s letters reflect the ideals of beauty of their time, ideas that seek beauty in the pathos of things and the sublime, while grounding morality in a deep listening to Nature. The unique move of Shukō is to articulate that a state of mind can be grasped in the material constitution of objects and that such objects can work on the spirit. This work happens at ‘the heart’s ground’ beyond the ego/self where the human being is connected to the ultimate reality of things. As one reaches maturity of insight across one’s art objects, self and source, the ‘chill and lean’ beauty of the Void unfolds throughout one’s practice. ‘It is here that one truly uncovers beauty that moves.’
The reader of this translation is directed to the masterful translation by Dennis Hirota included in volume 22 of the Chanoyu Quarterly (1979). Hirota preserves the terse tone of the original letter (whereas I prefer to unpack the dense kanji compounds with a more poetic style). Hirota’s supporting essay and notes are essential reading. Following his comprehensive research is the gift of translated sections of the ‘Shinkei Sozu Teikin’, Kensai’s original letter to Furuichi on the spiritual posture of renga. Hirota’s work explores the historical context of Shukō’s letter. My point of departure is the enduring meaning of the Letter of the Heart for both contemporary and future practice.
Through the translation process, inspiration came to attempt a modern day letter from the heart. The hope was to highlight the enduring relevance and evolution of the meaning of the original through poetry rather than prose. Talk about ‘immodesty’! Over 500 years have passed since Shukō inked his brush to write the original letter. The timeless themes he articulated are now pursued by tea people world-wide. As we welcome the year 2020, we are reminded that before long, chanoyu may have more practitioners outside than inside Japan. At this juncture, one is compelled to review the core teachings in Shukō’s letter while advancing and deepening the original insights for our time.
- Adam Sōmu Wojciński, 2020
Furuichi Harima Hōshi,
In the Way of Tea, nothing will hinder you more than immodesty(1) and the heart’s attachment to self(2). Begrudging masters of the Way and looking down on beginners is superficial and wasteful. One should rather seek the least word of those wise in the Way and endeavour to guide beginners as far as possible.
Of the utmost importance for this Way is dissolving the boundaries between Japanese and foreign art objects. One must attend to this with care.
Further, these days those inexperienced in the Way are quick to take up Bizen and Shigaraki wares, claiming an advanced and deepened understanding of the ‘chilled and withered’ aesthetics they embody. All the while the elite Tea community mocks these eager yet presumptuous hopefuls, creating a disgraceful state of affairs.
An aesthetic sensibility for the ‘chill and withered’ means acquiring fine pieces with view to knowing their savour in the marrow-bone. Then from the heart’s ground one advances and deepens so that all after becomes chill and lean. It is here that one truly uncovers beauty that moves.
When one does not yet fully understand the beauty of things(3), it is crucial that one does not adopt commonly held views without scrutiny. However cultivated one's manner, a painful self-awareness of one's shortcomings is crucial. Remember that self-assertion and attachment are obstructions. Yet the Way is unattainable if there is no self-esteem at all. A dictum of the Way states: “Become heart's master, not heart-mastered”.
(1) 我慢 gaman, or ahaṃkāra in Sanskrit and Pali, means ‘conception of I’, ‘egotism’ or ‘arrogance’.
(2) 我執 gashū, or ātmagraha in Sanskrit, is the ‘clinging to self’ or ‘conception of self’. Attachment to a separate self is considered the fundamental ignorance, the root cause of suffering.
(3) The word used is ‘dōgu 道具’. Therefore Shukō is therefore talking about utensils/art objects for tea.
The Way of Tea is an aesthetic and moral path. Our ego can be wrong and be reborn. This implies there is something beyond the ego that can guide transformation. The everyday ritual of tea drinking is a meditation on this beyond, the source of our being. Immodesty and the attachment to self are best left at the tea pavilion door.
It is important to cultivate an eye for tea wares that give a shape to our lofty aesthetic ideals. Beginners are quick to take up worn, damaged and copied wares, claiming an understanding of the ‘sabi’ and ‘wabi’ aesthetics they purport to embody. The elite Tea community mocks these would-be fellows of the Way, hiding behind a thin understanding of classical ideas. All the while, the spirit of renga and the quest to evoke yūgen seem to have disappeared entirely.
As more and more people practice this Way, it is vital that we stay connected to its roots. ‘Suki’ is a term that aestheticises the pathos of things. By finding beauty in our fated sorrow, Tea becomes an affirmation of worldly life. Such affirmation allows us to experience eternity in a single encounter. ‘Suki’ also implies a ‘crack’ through which the ground of Being erupts. ‘Chanoyu’ is the living expression of suki: ‘hot water for tea’ hisses from the kettle while vast silence rings in our bellies(1).
An aesthetic sensibility for ‘sabi’, ‘wabi’ and ‘yūgen’ means acquiring a few, fine pieces that enable a deep listening to the Tea. By attuning oneself to the Tea and the modes of beauty in one’s utensils and praxis, an aesthetic and moral path opens up. From the heart’s ground one advances and deepens so that all after becomes truth and beauty. Here at the heart level, love is unconditional and fearless; chanoyu, the cup of humanity.
Regardless of where one is along this Way, a painful self-awareness of one’s shortcomings is crucial. Remember that self-assertion and attachment are obstructions. Yet the Way is unattainable if there is no self-esteem at all. A dictum of the Way states: “Become heart-mastered, not heart’s master”.
(1) Though established as a core principle of the Way much later than Shukō’s time, an understanding of Wa Kei Sei Jaku in light of these two letters is offered:
Harmony - is the capacity to listen to the tea and see past one’s art objects to the ideas they embody
Respect - is allowing for the possibility of experiencing eternity in a single encounter
Purity - is opening the heart
Tranquility - is hearing the vast silence that flows through us all
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