Steeped in Solitude: The Way of Eremitic Arts and Tea

Steeped in Solitude: The Way of Eremitic Arts and Tea

By Frederick R. Dannaway

Published in The Leaf, Issue 8

A place to escape to
When one cannot ease one’s cares in the mountains.
The hut beneath the pine within the city. ~ Toyohara Sumiaki

The universal examples of unique individuals choosing to withdraw from society for internal contemplation range from “desert fathers” to prophets in caves to shamans who retire from the familiar campfires for the wild regions. From Greek philosophers and chthonic mystics to Tibetan Tantriks or Shipibo medicine-men there are those who seclude themselves for lifelong solitude or periods of intensive retreats. It could be argued that most of the world‘s major religions can be traced to the respective founder who was a hermit, or at least engaged in periods of solitude. But it is in the East that the hermit tradition reached its apex with proto-typical yogi’s like Shiva disappearing into the mountains for meditation. Buddha’s withdrawal with a community of hermits and internment alone under the Bodhi tree influenced countless hermits as did Lao-Tzu’s disappearing to the mountains to refine his elixirs. As specific eremitic arts emerged and were refined many disciplines, aesthetics and techniques manifested around the sagacious recluse who, with wine, consoled his heart and mind with tea. Self-realized his art innovates and revitalizes the ancient traditions, yet they are unique and fresh as the hermit, alone, finds his own way: “Hiding his light, he diverges from the tracks of previous wise ones.”

Scholars note that while warriors and ministers appeared earlier in Chinese paintings, “the recluse (yinshi) emerged at the dawn of history side by side with the man of action and has shared in a quiet way prominence with him throughout history. The significance of this fact can not be overemphasized (Chi 1963). The yearning for solitude may have been in protest, to escape turmoil or to gain prestige at court as one who cherished wisdom. For the more practical side of spiritual aspirations such as removed from the temptations of the vulgar and an atmosphere of quiet to still the mind and refine internal elixirs. But it is the fusion of hermit aesthetics/philosophy and their esteem and spiritual use of tea that birthed many of the religious and artistic movements of Asia or sustained and encouraged their transmission around the world.

World-renunciation and ascetic disciplines have a timeless place in the mystic’s attempt to transcend the mundane world and mental patterns. The various philosophies of the East are almost unanimous in acknowledging the imperative in subordinating the passions and disciplining the mind away from relentless mentation. Countless methods or “ways” were revealed or invented to facilitate the transmuting process of “enlightenment” or knowing the Dao. The earliest and most intense methods required aspirants to withdraw their senses inside while often withdrawing to remote regions and mountains to refine their spiritual progress. Yet the social pressures of country, position and family often inflicted upon the time and level of devotion that one could muster in pursuit of “the way.” Many popular faiths emerged promising that if one could, even as a lay person, remain in an internal devotional state that one could be reborn in a more conducive world, or Pure Land, in which to attempt the “great work” of spiritual alchemy.

“Neither a monk, nor of the mundane world” marked a great compromise between the most ancient imperatives towards reclusion with the devout responsibility of filial piety. The tea plant itself was not immune to such pressures after it left the exclusive domain of Buddhist temples. Tea found its way into raucous festivities, feasts of high court and in the golden tea-rooms of warlords. But a subtle tradition of refined gentleman absorbed in the arts preserved a sacramental devotion to tea in the literati studios from China, Korea and Japan. Tea’s association in China with Chan Buddhism (and Zen in Japan) from at least the Tan dynasty (618-907) confirmed its role in mediation while Daoists drunk the beverage for spiritual rejuvenation and greatly acclaimed its medicinal properties which prompted some to include it in their recipes for the great elixir. The notion of isolated sages cultivating the arts and wisdom and the tea-drinking hermit became ideals that shaped the culture of Asia for centuries.

The rise and falls of kingdoms and dynasties, the years of famine and revolt and the inherent temporality of life shaped a distinct hermit tradition. Manifested in solitary eccentrics pursuing the arts or in loose-knit hermit enclaves, the prototypical inspiration were found in the Daoist Isle of Immortals, in the quiet bamboo groves of the Seven Sages or the rocky haunts of the Four Graybeards of Mt. Shang. The aesthete-recluse’s motivations may have been something of a silent protest to worlds insanity, or of similar motivations such as transcendentalists of America in a return to uncontrived simplicity of a life in harmony with nature. Scholars have cynical views on some of the hermit trends in Japan in China, many of which were of worldly motives, and the temporary retirement or feigned aloofness from the world might equal a political fast-track in certain situations. The complex relationship between withdrawal and public-service in the Chinese eremitic tradition has been the subject several monographs (Vervoorn 1990).

This led to the an assumed or feigned or simulated reclusion or “exemplary eremitism” that blurred the lines between religious “men of retirement” or “disengaged scholars” and artists with the self-motivated which highlight some of the paradoxes of the hermit and ruler. The poetic names for such hermits include “men in reclusion” (yinshi), “men of lofty ideals” (gaoshi), “disengaged persons” (yimin), “scholars-at-home” (chushi) or “men of the mountains and forests” (shanlin zhi shi) and “men of cliffs and caves” (yanxue zhi shi) (Berkowitz 1994). The surrendering of self and worldly attachments made one most qualified to be a ruler, but in accepting such a position one inevitably sacrificed one’s integrity. The hermit Hsu-Yu washed his ears in a stream at the request to assume high office while others bragged of their reclusion while being anxious to benefit from the esteem in their worldly ambitions. Others were certainly sincere in escaping the dust of the world eloquently captured in the preface of an old Japanese tea scroll with “He solitarily shuts the brushwood gate; a thousand sages cannot guess who he is.”

Some academics seek to stress that Chinese eremiticism was quite different from the religious concerns of other cultures, and that it was basically a withdrawal from official state office or bureaucratic position (Berkowitz 2000). Certainly this dynamic was ever-present in the contested and heated political and social climates of warring states and shifting powers that shaped ancient China. But certainly there existed a “tea of the sages’ that combined Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian sympathies into a system of devotional ways imitating the immortal hermits and holy simpletons of rustic artisans. By eschewing the rewards of their mundane talents, men of learning often retired to practice ancient arts and crafts, traditional poetry and music, all of which coalesced into an ideology of tea. “People that took Buddhist vows but lived alone to pursue artistic ‘ways’ were called aesthete-recluse suki no tansies portrayed the recluses life in which the pursuit of literary arts and the beauty of nature were presented as legitimate means with which to attain salvation” (Allen 1995)

Such were men such as Lu Yu and Lu Tong, the former writing the famous Classic of Tea, “who were among the elite literati (wenren) of their time who…spent their days in seclusion, gathing together with like-minded friends to drink wine and tea, compose poems, and paint pictures” (Graham 1998). The immortalized hermits of literati paintings and arts was imported into Japan, especially in the Nara period, where the earliest sencha texts echo Lu Tong’s reckoning of the tea-house trail is the “shape of the immortal’s path” (Graham 1998). Expressed in the poetry, drama and tea-culture (textiles, architecture, cuisine, horticulture, incense etc) the Chinese infusion of the hermit ideal penetrated every facet of art and culture. As Kendall Brown writes in his study of the Politics of Reclusion in Japan, “aesthetic reclusion, as expressed in countless Momoyama period hermit paintings and in the ideology of tea, exhibits five primary characteristics: communitas, scholarly pastimes, appreciation of nature, ritual poverty manifest as elegant rusticity, and reference to the Chinese past” (Brown 1997).

In Japan the precarious existence of the daily turmoil of shifting powers and constant warfare saw the demise of ancient clans and the emergence of a increasingly powerful merchant class and warlord upstarts. Boisterous tea gatherings and samurai styles evolved from tea contests and imperial banquets that characterized the use of the beverage in Japan once released from confinement in monasteries. Out of this ostentatious and vulgar drinking of tea various mystical styles began to reassert themselves amongst the intellectual Buddhist, artist and poet circles. The idealized shoin (writing desk) style tea rooms delicately reinstated the old Chinese traditions with a uniquely understated Japanese aesthetics that became the wabicha of “cold and withered” thatched-huts. The shoin style or architecture was the foundation for the appearance of the “mountain village hut” (yamazato-an) (Yasuhiko in Vallery 1989) that was the refuge of urban hermits. A “mountain place within the city” become an expression amongst the suki (a person of devoted love to an art, especially ones related to tea as cha-suki).

Chan and Zen Buddhism arose out of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism that also birthed the ritually elaborate and cosmologically complex schools of Tantra. Tantric worship involved ornate and intense deity worship wherein the senses were exalted to merge and self identify with the god invoked. The sacramental tea and wabi-sabi aesthetic that came to permeate the Way of Tea (chado) distilled doctrines and philosophies into a dynamic if not subtle lifestyle in which one merged the celestial and the everyday into the suprareal. The role of the thatched hut in Pure Land Buddhism (Hirota 1989) contextualizes its use in a mystic tradition emphasizing simplicity, and egalitarian ethics and sincerity in daily life. The hermit’s spirit of “just enough” was the basis of the tea ceremony meal of kaiseki which was from Buddhist ascetic practices of curbing the appetite by putting a hot stone on the stomach. The formulation of something approaching a ritual (chanoyu) of tea might be seen as a Zen counterpart but instead of the theophany induced by deity-yoga the tea drinker participated in the immortal renunciants utopian pure land, right in the bustling city.

Hirota (1995) discusses the preparation of chanoyu “performing in the continuity of spirit” that was a complete “chanoyu-samadi.” The tea of “no guest, no host”, perhaps the secret of Rikyu, united the heavens and earth in a mesocosmic “eternal moment” of the “one chance, one meeting” (ichigo ichie) , brief and yet eternal. The same spirit of fate and chance prompted the famous verse of Jia Dao in the Tang Dynasty to write, “seeking the recluse, but in vain…” in which the hermit is near but unable to be found by the visitor.

Parenthetically, it was the Tantric priest Kukai who is historically linked with first bringing tea to Japan and the hermit-master Eisai certainly hinted at a esoteric (mikkyo) interpretation to the spiritual effects of drinking tea (Ludwig in Vallery 1989). The homa pit of the Tantric rites in the zen is the kindled hearth that heats the water. Immovable tranquility born of realization was a goal of both zen and Tantra. The immortal-hermit (sennin) tradition of Shugendo taught the wild esoteric mountain Buddhism of wizard recluses. Temples of the yamabushi conducted tea services, akin to the Kenchashiki which is a ritual offering of tea to the gods, as well as invoking kami for Pure Land rebirth. These traditions were highly syncretic amalgams of Daoist, Shinto, and Buddhist esoterics with local cults, all of which employed tea to some degree for ritual purposes.

The infusing of the Pure Land ideal in one’s heart became the central philosophy of tea and zen, long accorded the as having the same “taste.” The old master of the forlorn, chilled style of tea, and innovator of thatched hut retreats for tea, was Joo who wrote admonitions to his informal disciples imploring gentleness, cultivating sincerity and stressing the highest ideals that humanity can aspire to while stipulating that the “man of tea” must: “hold the spirit of reclusive life foremost, dwelling in spare and tranquil detachment (wabite); realizing the intent of the Buddhist path…to have the spirit of inner solitariness (sabi) is fitting; it accords with the way of tea.” Such scriptures as the Sutra of Parting from Clamor exemplify the notion of “calm abiding” with insufficiency and emptiness. This is expressed in slightly more positive terms by the Buddhist notion of “With few desires, one knows contentment.” The philosophy of tea is therefore not simply escapism or eccentric flights from reality, but, in its purest form, was a radical acceptance of the fleeting nature of life by steadily disengaging from worldly.

Rikyu’s tea constantly affirmed the humble egalitarian values of wandering monks, unknown craftsmen, and simple farmers, though wealthy himself, and his for his art he untimely paid his life. An earlier chronicler of Rikyu, Nambo Sokei (Nambo means a recluse who boils water for tea) wrote of the master’s “sitting alone in contemplation” and the various forms of linked-verse poetry sought to capture the spirit that permeated the wabi tea rooms.

Deeply forlorn (wabi),
I think I shall leave
Even this world I do not despise.

The days pile up.
To the cliff amid drifting rains
Winter has come

With no place to go,
I seclude myself
Behind a brushword door.

Living in desolation (wabi),
Would there were one
To build a hut alongside.

Living here I’ve turned
Into a man of the woods–
Do not seek me out:

Nameless now,
The grasses and the trees
Under which I’ve taken shelter.

As Chinese influence receded in Japan and indigenous (or certain Korean wares) utensils and customs grew to prominence a new class of literati tea drinkers emerged preferring whole-leaf tea or sencha to the powdered matcha of chanoyu. These men of letters and poets sipped their tea in rooms that were captured in the classical Chinese landscape paintings of immortals at leisure on mountains. They combined the noble ethics and conduct as the neo-Confucians while savoring a spontaneous approach to tea that is markedly Daoist in flavor. Like their much more formal brethren in the traditions of Rikyu and chanoyu they both esteemed the hermit’s solitude, real or imaginary, or in the twilight of what only seems like two extremes. These literati thought to realize the “unity of the three creeds” of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism or to balance the burden of duty with the heart of withdrawal. Sencha drinkers even formed academies and schools teaching moral conduct and classical arts as modes of realization with an aim towards being of service to society. Such traditions merged in the personality of Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) who “aspired to emulate the reclusionist tendencies of ancient Chinese Confucian sages who lived simply in the countryside but server their government in times of need” (Graham 1998). His disciple Dazai Shundai was an “outspoken critic of chanoyu” and drank their leaf tea in the manner of Daoists, who “possessed a spirit of ki (murderousness, strangeness, eccentricity)” (Graham 1998).

This “Way of the sages” of the Japanese literati (bunjin) was from the classical Chinese period still emphasized seclusion but their aesthetic ideals were of an elegant and overt Chinese style. While these same descriptions or elegance and refinement can certainly be applied to the artful thatched huts of unfinished wood and rough edges, the elegance spoken of here is vibrant, colorful yet graceful. The senchado hermits defined their microcosmic studios with the most ornate and cultured items from a Chinese past that they though represented the truest expression of literati arts. The tea of the sages (bunjincha) was of a highly aesthetic tea pursuing classical arts in the hermit’s studio. These scholars wanted to literally inhabit the landscapes of classical Chinese painters and exalting their spirit through aesthetic harmony. The poet Kanematsu (written 1910) demonstrates the persistence of these associations into modern Japan:

The sound and smell of brewing tea linger in the dead of night.
In my small study, alone, I roll up my scrolls.
Through the gauze windows, the moon’s pale shadow starts to rise;
It’s the time that this hermit loves best.

The use of tea (Camellia sinensis) had many pragmatic uses to true hermits, picked from wild trees (as contemporary poems pictured Lu Yu or given as alms from the lay community, in their ascetic practices. The alkaloids and nutritional benefits were stimulating but not enough to perturb or render anxious like other herbs that contain similar ones like caffeine and theobromine. It is interesting to note that one of the most popular theories of the identity of the Indian soma plant is the stimulant (and modern diet herb) Ephedra spp., that certain scholars note was used by mystic ascetics for their fasting and to stay alert for meditation. Tea’s identification with the “herb of immortality” or “dew of heaven” in China may well indicate echoes of spiritual-magical plants that healed the body, calmed the mind and soothed the spirit. It is of comfort that the hermit traditions has persisted and has been documented by such modern literati as Bill Porter (2009) in his Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits who’s writings are laced with connections with tea and hermit. In his search for hermit in vain, like the ancient Tang poet, he writes, “But it was not to be. There was hardly a tree in sight. I reasoned no forest, no deadfall; no deadfall, no firewood; no firewood, no tea; no tea, no meditation; no meditation; no hermits.”