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The Jesuit Connection to Japanese Gardens and Tea

Notes on João Rodrigues, S.J.(1561-1633) in Japan

João Rodrigues, born in Portugal in 1561, traveled to Japan at 14, joined the Jesuit order, and through his fifty-six years in Japan and China became a fluent speaker of Japanese. In Japan, this won him the friendship of nobles, merchants, and rulers, including the powerful shoguns Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Due to his language facility and cultural adroitness, Rodrigues took an active role in diplomatic exchanges and in facilitating the silk trade between China and Japan. Formany years he was the most influential European in Japan.

Rodrigues’ account, entitled Historia, remains an invaluable historical source on Japan, recounting encounters between men belonging to two fundamentally different civilizations. One area of fruitful confluence was the Japanese culture of tea and tea gardens, a topic that he devotes four chapters to. The fact that this cultural exchange took place nearly four centuries ago does not diminish its relevance today, for through Rodrigues’ efforts, the tea houses and gardens of medieval Japan became a rich and significant meeting place for medieval Japan and Jesuit Catholicism. If as Jesuit tradition holds, “God can be found in all things,” Rodrigues pointed to the possibility of finding his grace in a Japanese teahouse.

In the Historia, the Jesuit father ranges through various aspects of Japanese life, showing his encyclopedic knowledge of Japan , but he concludes the first volume with extensive information referring to tea drinking and the rich culture surrounding it. Rodrigues appears to have been a tea enthusiast himself, as he talks at length about the healthy properties of the beverage, noting how it improves digestion, stimulates the mind, and reduces fever. He also describes the cultivation of the tea plant, and then goes to write at great length about the actual tea ceremony.

Rodrigues’ description of cha-do, the way of tea, and its creating a moment of shared contemplation, explains it as a simple gathering of friends who assemble in a small rustic shelter to drink tea quietly while savoring the beauty of their surroundings. Not only does he think highly of tea’s health-giving quality, he also praises the culture that surrounds it. He writes: “The purpose of the art of cha, then, is courtesy, good breeding, modesty, and moderation in exterior actions, peace and quiet of body and soul, exterior modesty, without any pride, arrogance, fleeing from all exterior ostentation, pomp, display, and splendor of social life.

As Rodrigues notes, this custom of tea was largely inspired by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the builder of Ginkaku-ji temple in Kyoto , who first laid down the rules for such gatherings and established a certain canon of taste. Rodrigues also stresses the influence of Zen Buddhist monks in this practice and speaks appreciatively of their sincerity in relating their religious practice to everyday life. In small tea buildings separated from normal life, all sorts of people – even warriors – escaped the pressures of social and political life for a few hours and made the time to reflect on philosophical matters, enjoy nature, and savor moments of calm silence. Everything employed in the ceremony is studiously made to appear as natural as possible. The main principle is that by preparing and serving tea in a humble setting, a master highlights a sense of one’s immediate natural surroundings and of the spiritual potential of any moment when hearts are open and minds are still.

The Jesuits came to appreciate the fact that to become an accomplished tea master demanded discipline and training. As Rodrigues writes of the ideal tea master, “He must be of a resolute, firm spirit and withdrawn from trifles and a multitude of things…He must possess great discernment and an eye for proportion in the appearance of things…He must also have knowledge of the natural proportions of both natural and artificial things, and by long experience he should understand their hidden qualities.

Especially prominent in Rodrigues’ appreciation of Japanese culture was the Buddhist-inspired feeling of wabi-sabi. This term suggests a detached, solitary existential completeness, authentically natural, an aesthetic goal paradoxically found in social gatherings, one that still has great spiritual resonance in Japan. This same ideal also influenced a distinctive approach to gardening, flower arranging, ink painting, and music.

The Jesuits in Japan soon came to encourage the practice of tea because it involved no superstitious belief, homage to images, or sectarian religious rites. This allowed Christians to take part in a cultural activity without compromising their religious faith and in fact a number of Japanese converts, all known to Rodrigues, were renowned for their expertise.

Here, then, in the tea houses and gardens of medieval Japan was discovered a rich meeting place for medieval Japanese Buddhism and Jesuit Catholicism. The conversion to Catholicism of subsequent masters in the two great family lineages of tea tradition also demonstrates the naturalness of the proposed modern place of cross-cultural convergence at Holy Cross: a campus tea garden that connects with Jesuit history and opens up a modern cultural space for contemplation and interreligious understanding. – Professor Todd Lewis, College of the Holy Cross


Cooper, Michael, S.J. 1974. Rodrigues the Interpreter: An Early Jesuit in Japan and China. New York: Weatherhill.

Cooper, Michael. 1992. "The First Meeting Between Japan and the West." The Mutual Encounter of East and West, 1492-1992. 3-13. Tokyo: Sophia University.

Keane, Marc P. 1996. Japanese Garden Design. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle.