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The Shogun and the Tea Master

Imagine fifteenth century Japan.  A time of dirt roads and samurai and a crumbling and corrupt Shogunate.  Into this time was born Tokugawa Ieyasu.  He was the son of an indebted retainer and one of the greatest military minds Japan has ever known.  He rose to power and swept all of Japan up in a series of wars that eventually unified Japan and made that poor retainer’s son into the most powerful man in Japan: Shogun.

Tokugawa didn’t want the established nobility to think their newest Shogun had just ridden into town on the back of a turnip cart so he hired tutors to train out his country accent, correct his inelegant walk and he hired a man, the expert Sen Rikyuu, to teach him the tea ceremony.

I imagine Sen Rikyuu looked upon his appointment as Shogun’s Tea Master as a mixed blessing.  Tokugawa was the most powerful man in the country, a self-made man more deeply concerned with people acknowledging his status than studying the art of tea.  He was also a man of quick temper, with a disdain for life that comes to those weaned on war.  Sen Rikyuu’s appointment was the best PR a man could hope for, and a probably death sentence.  Not, it seems, a very enviable position.

The problems with tutoring the Shogun in chado, or the way of tea, began at once.  Sen Rikyuu’s pupil arrived for his first lesson and walked right into the tea house without bowing.  Because the tea ceremony included a bow at the door, it was impossible for Sen Rikyuu to continue the lesson.  He adjourned the class and sat down to worry a little.

It would be impossible to request the new Shogun bow at the entrance to the tea house.  Vital though the bow might be to the ceremony itself, Rikyuu knew the reputation of the Shogun well enough.  He also knew his place.  The idea of he, a mere artisan, ranked infinitely below the Shogun, asking for anything, was beyond imagining.

If the Shogun would not bow, he could not move on to the next part of the ceremony.  If he could not move on to the next part of the ceremony, he was likely to become irritated with Rikyuu.  So Rikyuu was faced with a dilemma:  He would either have to change the carefully choreographed and  traditional movements of the tea ceremony or get the Shogun to bow.  Both were impossible.

Facing death, Rikyuu devised a third option.  If the practitioner could not change his behaviour, and the ceremony could not be altered, there was only one thing left to do.  He drew up plans, had the carpenters set to work at once.  Rikyuu would not ask the Shogun to do anything.  He would not alter the generations of work that had gone into the tea ceremony.  He’d wait.

When the Shogun arrived for his next lesson, he was confronted by a door no bigger than a man kneeling.  He knelt down and crawled through the door, into the tea house.  The student, having knelt and placed his hands on the tatami, could continue his study of chado.

The first time I heard this story, I admired Rikyuu’s cleverness.  The second time I realized how much Rikyuu’s predicament can be like a karate ka’s.  Though we’re not likely to be disembowelled by our sensei, it is extremely rude to correct a sensei (or any higher rank) on their behaviour, be it bowing at the door or technique in a kata.  Yes, the higher rank could well be doing the wrong kata, incorrect technique or failing basic etiquette.  And yes, the lower ranking student might know the right kata, the technique or the etiquette, but it’s not for them to say.  They can find themselves in a position not unlike Rikyuu’s, where they know there is an issue but they do not control the parameters.

At first I thought the rule about never corrected a higher rank was a bit odd.  After all, we spend a lot of time in Wa Ki Ryu encouraging humility and encouraging practitioners to give and take feedback.  And then I heard the story of Rikyuu and Tokugawa and something clicked.

If lower ranking student correct mistakes, they risk losing the ability to react to unfamiliar circumstances.  This might sound like a total load of bull secretions, but bear with me.  Here’s how I see it:  If a sensei calls out one kata and starts on another, surprise!  Though the student might know it’s not the kata that was called out, the point is not matching kata movements to names.  The point is to do a technique completely and decisively, even if startled by an unforeseen or unfamiliar circumstance.

Being surprised also helps maintain creativity in combat.  If someone behaves in an unexpected way and the uke is unable to counter their attack, it’s a fairly good indicator that more training is needed.  If a someone does the wrong kick or punch, it doesn’t matter.  What matters is if the strike was, or would have, damaged the uke and if the uke did, or could have, blocked the strike.

Dealing creatively with surprises, with situations where the practitioner is not in control of the circumstances is an important skill, not only for a martial artist, but also, it would seem, for the student of tea.

Categories: Drop in the Bucket
  1. thr33n0r
    March 17, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    Nicely put and very true….

    The traditions that many of us of Western Mind see as repressive or needlessly formal can often be of great benefit to our training for many reasons, not the least of which is the continual undermining of the ego. After all that’s probably our most dangerous opponent…

  1. August 17, 2008 at 6:11 am

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