The Spartan yet ascetic culture of the samurai is beautifully summed up in the tea ceremony, one of the most meaningful expressions of the Zen philosophy. A major influence in codifying the ritual was Sen no Rikyū, tea master for the great samurai leader Oda Nobunaga, and later for the taiko Toyotomi Hideyoshi, under whom it flourished greatly among the samurai.
The rules derive from the Chinese culture and the Buddhist monasteries (originally, the drink was used by the monks to avoid drowsing during meditation) and require extreme sobriety in every act and in the setting, which must be specially created for the purpose. Thus, every detail takes on an aesthetic value of its own.
Preparation of the tea follows an exact ritual. The cup is often a family treasure for its antiquity and simplicity (the antique Chinese porcelain was spurned in favor of greater austerity). The interior setting changes with the season and is entered by bowing through a low door. Inside are a tatami mat and a single flower. The master of the home prepares the tea according to rigorous rules and serves it to the guests.
This ceremony reflects a precise aesthetic known as wabi-sabi. This pair of words implies the harmonious union of two concepts that only together can fully express a feeling of unadorned simplicity, peace, silence, above all understated elegance, as well as antique beauty yet steeped in melancholy. These qualities can be found just about anywhere for the samurai, but even more so where there is a feeling of solitude, which in Buddhism has no negative connotations. Thus, the venue for the tea ceremony becomes a home for the soul: the material void should be matched by a state of mental absence.
Director Kei Kumai tells the story of Sen no Rikyu in his film Death of a Tea Master, which won the Silver Lion at the 1989 Venice Biennale.