Known as Sengoku Jidai, the Warring States Period of Japan saw the low topple the high in bloody military conflict between rival daimyo intent upon expanding their domains and the power associated with them. From its start in the Onin War fought over ten years in the streets of Kyoto, the conflict would spread to the countryside, engulfing generations of Japanese in nearly 150 years of civil war. Yet as the violence and bloodshed spread from the capitol to the entire country, the foundation of cultural arts developed under shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa would thrive, with the highest form of Japanese incense appreciation arising along side the ritual service of tea enjoyed by the warring daimyo.
Thirty years after the death of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa large portions of Japan were embroiled in civil war. The system of shugo, semi-autonomous provincial governors appointed by the shogun, who then relied upon shugodai, deputy governors, to act on their behalf in their absence, was based upon loyalty to a strong central bakufu government, as the hereditary lands of the shugo were awarded by the shogun as a reward for their fealty. As the Onin War raged in the capital and the bakufu of Yoshimasa asserted little to no influence, many shugo and their fighting forces were drawn from their local provinces in the countryside to join the growing conflict in Kyoto. Their skirmishes in the capitol would echo to their home provinces where their shugodai were left to raise taxes to support their lords and defend their territories from rival clans seeking to settle scores or assert advantage. After ten years of fighting, the Onin War left the once beautiful capitol destroyed and in ashes. As the fighting drew to a costly stalemate, the leaders of warring factions succumbed to age and disease, and a reason to continue fighting escaped everyone.
With the end of hostilities achieved by default, shugo returned to their provinces often to find their power usurped by the shugodai they left in charge. In what was known as Gekokujo (the low overthrow the high), through military intimidation or pure force or arms, these lower ranking shugodai would rise to be daimyo in their own right, usurping authority over the clan, and seizing the territories of the shugo they once served. As the influence outside Kyoto of the Ashikaga shogunate continued to decline, these ambitious new daimyo were freed to wage war upon their rivals, both within their own clans and their neighboring clans, as they expanded their regional domains unchecked.
By the time Ashikaga Yoshiharu became the twelfth Ashikaga shogun in 1521, the Ashikaga bakufu was powerless outside of Kyoto. Born during the political exile of his father Shogun Ashikaga Yoshizumi who had been driven out of Kyoto by warring daimyo factions seeking to control him, Yoshiharu was essentially a puppet shogun of the powerful clans that fought for control of the territories surrounding the capitol. Like his father, Yoshiharu would also be driven out of Kyoto only to return under the thumb of the Miyoshi and Hosokawa regents who vied with each other for control over shogunate. As with the Ashikaga shoguns before him, from within his gilded cage Yoshiteru promoted the cultural arts among the daimyo who would seek his favor or offer assistance.
At the center of these cultural arts was chanoyu – the ritualized service of tea. Said to have originated in Japan by Murata Juko who learned about tea from Ashikaga Yoshimasa's famed doboshu Noami, Juko took the Zen teachings of the eccentric Zen monk Ikkyu and wove them into the ritual service of tea. It was Ikkyu's suggestion that Juko hang a scroll of Zen calligraphy in the tea room tokonoma to lead him to enlightenment that led to Juko's insight that the ritualized drinking of tea was no different than sitting in meditation. Juko's inspiration that Zen and tea have the same taste would inspire chanoyu, the tea ceremony. However, chanoyu went well beyond just the service of tea itself, encompassing a wide variety of art forms from the Zen calligraphy, flower arrangement, and wabi ceramics displayed in the tokonoma to architecture and garden of the tea house itself. But always at the heart of Juko's chanoyu was Zen.
Although Zen includes the study of Buddhist texts, it is awareness in each unique moment that is more highly valued, as each moment provides a glimpse of intuition into one’s true nature. In Zen, the enlightenment of satori is capable of arriving as a flash of insight suddenly and intuitively through the practice of any task undertaken with one’s whole being. Walking, sweeping, practicing martial arts, or drinking a cup of tea are all potentially spiritual practices capable of leading to satori, as if done with meditative awareness one's true nature was free to express itself intuitively where nothing else remained.
The ability to keenly focus the mind to the point of achieving a state of “no-mind” where there is no thought or form, only the action required in the moment, appealed greatly to the samurai. The concept of a rider whose mind is so quiet and calm that there is no horse beneath the saddle and no rider upon the horse, but the mind of horse and rider working as one in complete harmony, or the sword as an extension of one’s whole being, acting intuitively without thought or form to delay action, was highly prized by the samurai for whom a fear of death might delay their reaction and hasten a glorious demise. As the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi noted “Getting up, sleeping, and eating your meals are all the practice of swordsmanship.” Sen no Rikyu, the preeminent tea master who would refine Juko's practice to its highest expression, described the ritual service of tea much the same way: “Chanoyu is nothing more than lighting a fire, boiling water, and drinking tea. There should be nothing else. It is just because of this that the Buddha-Mind becomes manifest.”
Promoted vigorously among its vassals by the Ashikaga shogunate, the ritual service of tea became for the samurai a form of meditation capable of training the mind, a high art form used to demonstrate one’s status, wealth, and refinement, and a political setting from which to form alliances and settle disputes. As tea masters and their descendants formed schools (ryu) of Chado 茶道 (The Way of Tea) to pass on their traditions and specific methods (kata), the arts associated most directly with ritual tea service grew into their own independent expressions. The arrangement of flowers displayed in the tea room tokonoma was refined into Kado 華道 (The Way of Flowers). The incense guessing games of the upper classes were combined with the choreography and ritual use of incense in the tea service into Kodo 香道 (The Way of Incense).
Just as with tea, Kado and Kodo sought to empty the mind through meditative focus of one’s whole being upon the moment in the performance of the art, allowing the wisdom of one’s Buddha nature to manifest. More than just the arrangement of flowers, Kado was the contemplative expression of the patterns of life and death, revealing the wisdom of life’s transient nature expressed in both flower arrangement and participant alike. Likewise, Kodo transcended fragrance, inviting participants not to merely use their sense of smell, but through monko to listen to incense deeply using all the senses, emptying their mind to the expression of nature provided by rare and fragrant Aloeswoods. By achieving such emptiness, the senses were free to expand beyond what was accessible in the physical world to the infinite possibilities available in the emptiness of the void, thus allowing “the ears to see and the eyes to hear” as the great Zen teacher Daito Kokushi described such expansion of the senses.
As the warfare of the Sengoku Jidai intensified, over successive generations the schools of Chado, Kado, and Kodo would refine these practices into to their highest expressions. Together they would come to be considered the three main geido (arts of refinement) of the Japanese classical arts. Although many different schools of Chado and Kado arose during the this time, only a handful of schools of Kodo came into being. This may have been due to the availability of tea and flora natively in Japan, whereas Aloeswood at the heart of Kodo was a rare commodity imported from abroad at significant cost. Such cost likely produced a barrier of entry into Kodo, leading to it being practiced primarily by the nobility, samurai, and affluent merchant classes. The oldest schools of Kodo were direct descendants of the Higashiyama culture of Ashikaga Yoshimasa. It would be Sanjonishi Senetaka and Shino Soshin, the two charged by Yoshimasa with cataloging his extensive collection of named Aloeswoods, and the same credited with establishing the Rikkoku Gomi classification of Aloeswood, who would go on to found the two schools of Kodo that have survived over 500 years and still are taught today.
Sanjonishi Sanetaka was the founder of the Oie-ryu school favored by members of the Imperial household and nobility. The son of the Minister of the Interior, Sanetaka was a high-ranking courtier who served under four emperors, a highly accomplished waka poet, and expert in the refined arts of China including the service of tea and blending of incense. He would be influential in the development of the tea ceremony, counting among those receiving his tutelage Takeno Joo, a wealthy Sakai merchant and famous tea master who would go on to teach the tea ceremony to Sen Rikyu. Originally Oie-ryu was a school for the Imperial household and its courtiers. But over time the samurai class seeking refinement and greater status at the Imperial court also studied Oie-ryu and courtiers would study different schools of tea as well. Oie-ryu placed its emphasis on the game playing aspects of Kodo, interweaving literary aspects from incense guessing games of the Heian period nobility with the ritualized choreography of the tea ceremony. The goal of Oie-ryu was to create an enjoyable diversion through the ritualized enjoyment of fragrance in an enlightened atmosphere.
Shino Shoshin was the founder of the Shino-ryu school that spread through the samurai and affluent merchant classes. A loyal samurai vassal to the Ashikaga shogunate, Shoshin served three successive Ashikaga shoguns, and is said to have studied Aloeswood with Ashikaga Yoshimasa. Shino-ryu was founded upon a clearly defined ritual of incense appreciation and the insight achieved through listening to incense. The Shino-ryu school focuses on monko and the exclusive use of Aloeswood, combining the ritual and formalities of the tea ceremony with a codification of rules used in incense appreciation games and the formalized conduct of those participating. The link between incense and tea was emphasized, as Shino-ryu taught Kodo and Chado as a unit until the Meji Restoration, with the third-generation Master Shino Shoha including tea master Sen Rikyu as a pupil. Over three generations, from Shino Shoshin to his grandson Shino Shoha, the ritual for appreciating Aloeswood and the choreography of the various kata would be refined into Shino-ryu's highest expression. Upon Shoha’s retirement, the Shino-ryu tradition would pass to the Hachiya family whose descendants still serve as masters of the school today.
As formal tea gatherings became a significant social occurrence for the Imperial Court, Shogun, and daimyo, they often grew into large cultural affairs that lasted for days or weeks. These events included other arts or refinement such as Noh dramas, Renga linked verse, as well as the practice of Kodo. The unique environment of these tea gatherings allowed the samurai to mix politically with Imperial courtiers, wealthy merchants, Zen monks, and other daimyo, creating opportunities for communication and the formation of alliances - both formal and clandestine. Kodo was prized by the samurai as it allowed them to flaunt their wealth and power through the display of their collection of Aloeswood as much as the meditative retreat from the stress of constant warfare it provided.
As the low continued to topple the high with increasing ferocity, Yoshiharu would see his reign as shogun continually under threat as the rival daimyos of the Miyoshi and Hosokawa battled to control the shogunate. He would repeatedly have to flee Kyoto to avoid their wrath as his efforts to shed their influence ended in failure. In 1546, Yoshiharu would again lose his bid for independence, but this time be forced to both flee Kyoto and retire in favor of his son, Ashikaga Yoshiteru. Soon thereafter, he would return to Kyoto only to be forced into exile again where he would succumb in 1550 of what is believed to be infection.
The three geido of Chado, Kado, and Kodo would go on to outlive the Ashikaga, and continue to grow in esteem among the hegemons who rose above all other daimyo in their quest to rule Japan. But fragrant woods and aromatic ingredients were still luxury items that were rare and imported from outside Japan’s shores. This was especially true of Aloeswood, which was the soul of Kodo.
In Part VI, Japanese pirates, a Chinese trade embargo, and the arrival of southern barbarians would bring guns, Christianity, and a steady supply of of riches - including fragrant woods and aromatic spices - to Japan's shores.
This page is part of Kikoh's Japanese Incense 101 series. This series of posts is intended to help provide greater information and understanding as you progress along this fragrant path. Learn more...