The Rose.

Tom Cannon, AIA
(adapted from an earlier version)

All mysteries
In this one flower meet
And intertwine
The universal is concrete,
The human and divine,
In one unique and perfect thing, are fused into a unity of love,
This rose as I behold it.

G.A. Studdert-Kennedy


The true mysteries of this world defy stagnation.

They are alive. They constantly move. There are no rules

where these mysteries are concerned. Sometimes there seem to be,

but as soon as you think so . . . well then there is that exception.

The masters have accepted this.

They delight in this. How boring it would be otherwise!

Some might say

that the masters are all a bit "trans-logical"

the Picassos, the Van Goughs, the Lao-Tzus.

In their own ways they all unite the two-s in this world

into one-s.

The painting and I aren't two,

we're one.

The garden and I aren't two, nope . . one.

The truth and I? ... You guessed it,


A group of these unifiers called Zen monks actually made a kind of institution out of their one-ness. Out of their ranks, through the years, have come many profound "answers" to the mysteries . . . many "roses," if you will. One of these delights is the topic of this paper. This beauty came out of Japan around the 16th century. It was called Sukiya-zukuri, a building technique derived from the tea ceremony. It sought to unite many two-s into one-s, for those who were sensitive. Of these two-s were the natural and built environment, man and man, and others.

Please read on for a look at this mysterious dynamic architectural rose, and e-mail us your thoughts (


There is a certain charm of simplicity and refinement associated with the traditional architecture of Japan. The atmosphere created by this characteristic is very comfortable while at the same time subtly stimulating. It is an attribute which took many centuries to develop, being inspired by the minka farm dwellings of ancient times and reaching it's peak of development near the end of the sixteenth century with a style of building called Sukiya.

In spite of the fact that this environmental grace was accomplished not by architects per se but, for the most part, by Zen monks, the style has had a significant effect on modern architecture by influencing such masters as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van Der Rohe. This paper will examine the Sukiya style of building in which this refined simplicity of Japan achieved perfection.

Looking back ...

The architectural history of Japan is divided into three periods. The first is called the "Protohistoric Age." This era stretched from the earliest times of the Japanese nation up until Buddhism first came to Japan from China. No major distinction was made during this period between the style of buildings for commoner's dwellings, palaces and shrines. The second period lasted from when Buddhism entered Japan (552 AD) until 1867, the final year of the Tokugawa Shogunate. As Buddhism came to Japan, so did the influence of "Continental" (Chinese and Korean) architecture. This influence was very strong in earlier centuries of this era and gradually declined as time went on. The third period, which extends from 1868 until the present, is characterized by the construction of western style buildings in Japan. Architecture in Japan has now become international in style, rather than strictly oriental.

Due to the fact that the second period spanned more than 1300 years, it has been subdivided into seven "mini-" periods. Briefly, they were:

  1. The Asuka Period (552-644), when Buddhism came to Japan and the major focus of architecture was on temples. What is particularly noteworthy about this era is the beautiful proportions which were achieved within the temples. An example of this particular beauty is the Koryuji Temple, which still exists today.
  2. The Nara Period (645-783) which was characterized by the predominance of Chinese arts and crafts.
  3. The Heian Period (784-1185) in which communication with China became less frequent; and thereby, Japanese architecture became more native. The "Shinden" style of building was developed during this period, a style which was still predominantly "continental" in character. Gradually the scale of the massive timber buildings was made more human.
  4. The Kamakura Period (1186-1392) during which the Samurai (warrior) class gained considerable power (establishing the Shogunate at Kamakura) and the Zen sect of Buddhism was introduced to Japan re-establishing cultural intercourse with China. The Zen monks brought with them a somber and heavy style which came to be called "Kara-yo" ("foreign-style"). This style had merged with the styles of previous periods by the end of this era.
  5. The Muromachi Period (1393-1572), which was characterized by the continuation of the evolving Kara-yo and Shinden styles. Significant progress was made in skillful workmanship during this time, with an emphasis on ornamentation and the more delicate use of timber. After the civil war of Onin (1460) the Shinden style of construction was used much less and a new refined pattern began to emerge called Shoin.
  6. The Momoyama Period (1573-1614), which saw the perfection of the Shoin style with a mellow grandeur and enrichment of ornamentation indicative of its primary inhabitants, the Samurai. During this period another, even simpler and more native style developed: Sukiya, the primary topic of this paper. With time, as Sukiya evolved out of the Shoin method, it stripped itself of ornamentation and changed from "Shoin-like Sukiya" to "Soan-Sukiya." The Sukiya style was strongly influenced by Zen philosophy as will be discussed later.
  7. The last period of the second major era of Japanese history was the Edo Period (1615- 1867), During this time Japan was ruled by decree, isolated from the outer world. This led to a general apathy in architectural style until 1868, when the third major era began and western buildings came to Japan.

The Chashitsu, A Spot for Tea

The Sukiya style of building thus evolved out of a long history of techniques each of which added something new while discarding what was unwanted. Certain aspects of style remained relatively constant throughout this evolution: the buildings were always made chiefly of wood and great pride was taken in their craftsmanship, and there was always a distinct relationship to the natural environment (perhaps because Japan's natural environment is so beautiful and basically gentle, and because the hot, humid conditions during the summer generally necessitated that the buildings be quite opennable for ventilation). In Sukiya style architecture, these "constant elements" which had persisted through history were brought to an exquisite perfection by sensitive arrangement and simplification. This was accomplished largely because the men who developed Sukiya were Zen monks, whose whole lives were dedicated to the contemplation of the essence of life. Basically, the lives these men lived enabled a few of them to strip away all of the "husks," if you will, which had existed in the previous styles, and get down to the "meat" (the kernel) of just what it was that made wooden construction, in this particular environment, pleasing to the human senses.

Sukiya is a style for designing domestic buildings in general which was derived from a technique for creating a particular type of building: the tea house, or chashitsu. The purpose of the chashitsu was to provide a place to perform the tea ceremony, or cha-no-yu, which was developed in Japan by certain Zen monks from about 1420 on. The form to the chashitsu, which gave rise to the forms of Sukiya, followed directly from its function. This was, on one level, simply to unite a small group of people (five or six at the most) in a relaxed communion over a cup of tea. On another level, the ultimate aim of cha-no-yu was "the attainment of a deep spiritual satisfaction through the drinking of tea and through silent contemplation ". [2]

The ceremony of cha-no-yu was (and is) a unique form of art which combined a highly refined version of the Chinese custom of tea drinking with certain aspects of Zen philosophy. When the social custom of drinking tea first came to Japan, the nobility would hold parties at which a number of different varieties of tea were served. A game came into vogue which consisted of the guests trying to guess where the tea being served originated. As tea drinking became more popular a portion of the host's residence was partitioned off for this activity with ornamental screens. The tea was prepared by servants using lavishly decorated and exquisitely crafted utensils which attested to the high status and good taste of the host.

As time went on, separate buildings were constructed for the sole purpose of drinking tea. Certain Zen monks, who had gained a reputation for their ability to prepare and serve tea, were retained by the wealthy expressly to perform this function. These priests became known as tea masters. One of these masters was Murata Shuko (1422-1502), who has become known as the father of the tea ceremony.

Shuko initiated certain important procedures which differed from what was practiced by other tea masters. Rather than serving tea to large gatherings, Shuko preferred having a group of no more than five or six people in order that the affair would be more intimate and personal. For a similar reason, he would not have servants prepare and serve the tea, but insisted that he himself, as "host" should do this as a gesture of friendship and respect for his guests. These ways of serving tea became fundamental to future tea ceremonies. Shuko was also one of the best designers of the tea room, which he kept a small four-and- a-half mat (about nine square yards) in order to create a more tranquil atmosphere than had hitherto been accomplished with the normal Shoin room. It is said that the size of this (now) orthodox tea room was determined by a passage in Buddhist scripture in which a holy person welcomed 84 thousand disciples of Buddha into a room of this size, -- an allegory based on the theory of non-existence of space to those who have reached enlightenment. [4]

After Shuko, a monk named Jo-o (1505-55) and another called Rikyu (1522-91) added the finishing touches to what is now called cha-no-yu. Rikyu's contribution to the tea ceremony cannot be over-estimated. He is the founder of the ceremony as it is practiced in Japan today. Rikyu made the art of tea much less formal than Shuko. His primary objective was to put all participants in the ceremony at ease. Everything to do with his process had this end as its objective. He taught that the proper spirit which should saturate cha-no-yu consisted of four elements: harmony, reverence, purity, and tranquillity. He believed that, in general, man was too egotistic, too worried about protecting himself from other human beings and the world in general. Rikyu sought to create, through the art of tea, an atmosphere of such tranquillity that men would feel no threat from the world. Out of this tranquillity an individual would achieve an intuitive sense of the harmony which exists within nature, and the purity of heart which an understanding of this harmony nurtures. This purity, Rikyu felt, would give a person such a state of well-being that a reverence for all of nature's creations would follow. The tea ceremony was ideally an escape from the day to day world of anger and jealousy, self-pity and the need for self-defense. Rikyu believed it could aid substantially in man's quest for self-knowledge and self-contentment.

Indeed, to Rikyu, the art of tea and Zen were the same thing. The ceremony performed a similar function to meditation. The only difference was in appearance, in the forms. It is ironical that "while Zen teaching consists in grasping the spirit by transcending form, it unfailingly reminds us of the fact that the world in which we live is a world of particular forms and that the spirit expresses itself only by means of form." [5] The two are actually one. The message is the medium; and it transcends the medium.

Perfection from the Imperfect

Rikyu saw in the form of cha-no-yu and all the tools which were used in its performance (including the tea house, chashitsu) great potential to put men at ease, to open their minds to a peaceful spirit he called wabi. In order to help men achieve an understanding of wabi, the teamaster's job was to put this spirit into every object involved within the tea ceremony. In a sense, wabi means "down to earth" or "natural goodness." It implies a sense of poverty. Because of this, Rikyu taught, the objects of the tea ceremony could not be ornate or ostentatious, but instead had to contain certain natural imperfections; not just any old imperfections, but special "flaws" which subtly showed the spirit or wabi which they embodied. Rikyu invented the technique of making Raku pottery in order to create tea utensils with wabi. The tea houses he designed were derived not from the rich and lavish Shoin style homes and pavilions of the nobles, but from the native working peoples "minka" huts. Their walls were hardened mud. Their wooden members were for the most part rough logs, sometimes with their bark still on. Cut lumber was used sparingly to accentuate the rough logs by contrast. Small bamboo-mullioned shoji (translucent) windows were employed to allow a soft natural light to fill the room. The roof was made of thatch, the underside of which could be plainly viewed from inside the chashitsu. The thatch seen through the rough wooden rafters produced a beautiful texture contrasted against the mud walls.

Tea Room

One's ability to perceive the wabi which was contained within the materials selected for the chashitsu was enhanced by the sensitive arrangement of these materials by the tea house designer. The sensitivity which went into an arrangement intended to heighten the tranquil atmosphere produced by wabi was called sabi. That is to say, sabi is the objective sensitive ability to manipulate certain materials which contain a particular subjective spirit of rustic peacefulness called wabi. Sabi is similar to wabi in that it also insists that perfection be hewn from imperfection (here we see that "trans-logic" of the masters again ...). The perfection of sabi depends on its imperfection or incompleteness, just as the wabi within an object depends on its crudeness or rusticness. To be perfect the materials and the composition must be imperfect. What is accomplished when an environment is created with wabi and sabi is that the inhabitant becomes intimately involved with his surroundings. By a natural process similar to what artists call closure," he will "fill in the gaps" which skillful use of wabi and sabi have left in his environment. He will finish the composition in his mind, and by doing this it will become a part of him and he a part of it (the two are one!). Rikyu discovered this value of suggestion through Zen and implemented it into every aspect of cha-no-yu. A person capable of totally implementing this perfect imperfection had what Rikyu called "chado" or "tea-mind."

The tea hut was set off from the house proper in a wabi natural environment. Half the fun was getting there. Through a mysteriously beautiful garden, designed with sabi, the guests to the tea ceremony would silently follow a trail called a "roji," The roji led to the chashitsu from a roofed arbor from which the guests would be summoned. The purpose of the roji was to break the guests connection with the outside world, physically and spiritually, and to produce a feeling of freshness conducive to the complete aesthetic appreciation of the tea ceremony which was to come (kind of like splashing cool water in your face in the morning to wake up). Roji literally means "dewed ground,” an expression which comes from Buddhist teaching: "One stands on the white-dewed ground after leaving this world of flaming passions. " [6]

The tea masters showed great ingenuity and sabi in designing the roji and garden. Although the site might be in the midst of a large city, and the garden fairly small, it would seem as though you were in a deep mystical forest. Great care was taken to gently awaken all the senses: the sound of water trickling softly, or of small loose pebbles as the guest took a few steps across them; the changes in texture which were seen and felt underfoot as the path went from pebbles to pine needles to fit stone to boulder bridge over a small stream to individual stone pads placed a footstep apart to the tatami (straw mat) floor of the chashitsu; the smell of the pine needles, of the earth freshly sprinkled with water before your arrival, of the incense coming from the tea hut; the taste and feel of the fresh, cool water as you rinsed your mouth and hands at the stone basin before entering the chashitsu. Every detail was considered. The garden and tea house were swept scrupulously before each ceremony, but even then, after the teaching of Rikyu, a branch might be shaken over the roji allowing a few leaves to grace the path with the perfect imperfection of sabi.

Prepared by his refreshing stroll to the hut the guest silently approached, leaving his sword (if he were Samurai) on the rack below the eaves. He would then bend low and creep into the room through a small door, usually about twenty-seven inches in height and about twenty-three inches in width. This coerced bow as the guest entered was intended to instill humility. No matter what your rank or status out in the "real" world, when you were in the chashitsu you were simply a human being.


The layout of the "standard" chashitsu as set forth by Rikyu is shown in the following drawing.

Tea Room

Notice that the floor is raised only in the "tokonoma," or alcove, which contains a scroll. The reason for this was, again, that no show of one-up-manship or status would invade the peaceful atmosphere. On the scroll was a short phrase of wisdom which was appropriate to the season in which the cha-no-yu was taking place and the special meaning of this particular ceremony, with these particular guests, as understood by the chado (tea-mind) of the host. The raised platform indicated that this was what would be honored. There might also be a lone flower in a vase on the platform (placed with sabi, of course) or an arrangement of celebrated tea articles of ancient origin.

The ceiling of the hut was generally kept low to enhance the intimacy of the gathering. But in order to avoid a cramped feeling it was varied in certain places. Over the alcove it was raised to show honor for the scroll and revered articles. Over the host's seat it was lowered to show his humility. The ceiling made by the underside of the naturally sloping roof had the beneficial effect of making the room seem larger than it actually was.

The walls, as mentioned before, were made of mud with logs being used as supporting posts and lintels. These elements produced a soft, warm texture which was accentuated by the soft light coming in through the bamboo-grilled shoji windows. All openings in the walls were intentionally placed off-center and often near the floor to break up any sense of symmetry (in the spirit of sabi) and so that the light and (if the window was open) ventilation and view would be in the appropriate spots.

All other features of the chashitsu -- semi-free standing posts, lintels, frames, ledges -- were designed to be as light and fragile as possible. Extreme care was taken to provide an aesthetic balance between their height and width.

Tea Room

These ideas, inherent in sabi, of asymmetrical design, variety, and aesthetic balance were carried out in every aspect of the chashitsu: the ceiling heights, textures, lighting, sizes of the rectangles made by different shoji grills, arrangement of the tatami floor mats, seating of the host and guests, . . . everything. What was created was a poem of the eternal in building form, a stimulating yet peaceful piece of Haiku, written in mud, logs, straw, paper and tea. "The eternal is to be found only in the spirit which, embodied in these simple surroundings, beautifies them with a subtle light of its refinement." [7]

Achieving Simplicity

During the turbulent time in Japan's history of wars, battles and violent changes of political power, the tranquil spiritual atmosphere of the tea ceremony and tea hut was an extremely welcome change for the military commanders. When peace finally came under the Tokugawa Rule, these men of war turned to the arts of cha-no-yu and the Noh play as essential parts of their education and entertainment. Nearly all of these warriors, even those of lower rank, built tea houses or tea rooms in the style of cha-no-yu, called Sukiya.

Tea Room

The now fashionable ceremony of tea spread even to the common people, and the design sensitivity of Sukiya followed, becoming widely adopted for domestic building. This produced a fresh, lighter and freer form of domestic architecture in contrast with the Shoin style which had been prevalent. Sukiya-zukuri (or the tea house style of building) was especially favored for garden pavilions and villas, two fine examples of which are the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto and the Rinshunkaku building of the Sankeien garden in Yokohama. The simple elegance of these environments is magnificent and timeless; their proportions and use of materials truly inspiring. Sukiya had reached a peak of perfection. But then the ideals of wabi and sabi of the early Sukiya style began to give way to a competitive passion for rare materials and complex craftsmanship. This was especially so in the town houses of the wealthy merchant class, who had been forbidden to build Shoin style residences. Eventually the Shogunate forbade even the construction of tea houses and other Sukiya buildings by the town folks. Only the privileged could inhabit such dwellings. What began from the pure and simple wisdom of the common man had degenerated in the world of "flaming passions" into just another status symbol.

The spirit of cha-no-yu was never lost though. Architecturally it has resurfaced in the twentieth century through men such as Sutemi Horiguchi, the author, and others specializing or experienced in Sukiya-zukuri. Horiguchi's Hotel Hassho-kan, built in 1950 in Nagoya is a building rich in the spirit of Sukiya. In this work "Horiguchi has succeeded in introducing a striking modernity to a structure which is built according to the traditional principles of wooden construction." [8] The tea master would not have it any other way. Surely one cannot capture the spirit of Sukiya by merely copying what has already been done. "The present is the moving infinity, the legitimate sphere of the relative. Relativity seeks adjustment; adjustment is art. The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings." [9]

Thus the study of Sukiya and the state of mind which inspired its birth and development is no less important now than it has ever been. Perhaps it is more important as we now move further and further from the world of wabi into the slick "perfect perfection" of technology. We will always be humans, animals, who must feel our nature every so often to keep our sanity. A rose is a rose is a rose. A human is a human is a human. A human is a rose is a frog ..., sweet prince. What we need to do more of is (ribbit) leap off our lily pads into the cool water of our nature ... to turn full circle and reunite with where we came from. It's in a baby's eyes, in a puppy's bounce, and in the delight of Sukiya. Simplicity.

"If your ears see,
And your eyes hear,
Not a doubt you'll cherish ...
How naturally the rain drips
From the eaves!"

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