The classic Japanese art in which Zen style is most fully evident is chanoyu—the tea ceremony. This evolved from the Chinese monastic practice, carried over to Japan, of serving tea to visitors. The secular ceremony in Japan is traced back to a student of Ikkyu Sojun, Murata Shuko, who once declared that the taste of tea and the taste of Zen were the same. Ikkyu taught his disciple that by paying appropriate attention to the homely activity of steeping and serving tea he could bring the act to sacramental status. This awareness or mindfulness, however, cannot be forced; one cannot be truly aware if one makes an effort to be aware.
The ceremony Shuko developed was both formal and aesthetic. A special tea-house was designed and kept deliberately small. Indoor space was measured by the size of tatami mats, which were slightly less than 3’ x 6’. A tea house was traditionally four and a half mats, or approximately 9 foot square. The doorway was low, so that all who entered had to bow in order to do so. The interior space was sparsely decorated, with perhaps a painting or an example of calligraphy on the wall, and a small alcove in which a simple floral arrangement—the predecessor of the art of ikebana—was displayed.
Shuko explained the atmosphere he sought to achieve by relating the story of a Chinese poet who had described the vivid contrast between blossoms on a plum tree in early spring against the woods still covered with snow. A friend of the poet suggested the poem would be more effective if only a single flower had bloomed against the white background. The starkness of that contrast is what Shuko achieved by placing just one flower in a vase within the austere tea shed.
The implements are chosen for their beauty as much as for their function. And in this highly stylized environment the tea master prepares and serves the beverage for a group of no more than four guests. Etiquette limits conversation to a discussion of the artistic merits of the wall hanging or the utensils. Affairs of state or other matters were proscribed. The tea house, thus, became a refuge from daily cares and concerns, and, as such, became popular with both military leaders and the nobility.
[Murata Shuko – Zen Masters of Japan: 149-51]