Monday, March 21, 2016

Tea Combat

Once, hundreds of years ago in Japan, there was a master of the tea ceremony whose reputation was so widespread that he received an invitation from the emperor to visit. The master of the tea ceremony gathered his things and dressed appropriately which meant he had to wear ceremonial swords. He had never used swords, barely knew how to hold them, but was accustomed to having to wear them for the proper occasions. And so he made his way to the capitol. As he entered the bustling city, he was looking around at the crowds and the buildings when he came to a bridge. As he was crossing the bridge and admiring the scenery, a drunken samurai, a ronin or masterless samurai, actually, was stepping onto the bridge from the opposite direction. The master of the tea ceremony did not notice the approaching ronin who took umbrage that this stranger would ignore him. The ronin shouted drunkenly at the master of the tea ceremony saying, “Am I beneath your notice that you do not even acknowledge me with a glance.” The master of the tea ceremony did not know what to do and before he could even utter an apology the ronin challenged him to a duel. The master had no choice but to accept lest he lose honour. He bowed before the ronin and said, “I consent to this duel but have one request. Will you allow me an hour to prepare?” The ronin agreed and the master bowed and hurried across the bridge into the city. He knew there were many martial arts schools in the capitol and he quickly found a dojo where they taught sword fighting. He entered the school and asked the master swordsman if he could ask a favour. The swordmaster listened gravely as the master of the tea ceremony explained his situation and then asked, “but I cannot teach you to fight with a sword in less than an hour.” “No, no,” said the master of the tea ceremony, “I only want you to show me how I am to hold my sword so that I may die with as much dignity and honour as possible.” The swordmaster nodded and said, “then first show me your own practice.” The master of the tea ceremony was dismayed for time was short. But he unpacked his box while the swordmaster went for water. The master of the tea ceremony prepared the brazier to heat the water and with the methodical calm for which he was famous, he prepared tea for the swordmaster. As the swordmaster sipped the tea, he said, “you are, indeed, a master. I have never seen finer. And there is little that I can teach you. I will tell you only this: when you confront the ronin, hold your sword before you and raise it. Then close your eyes and imagine that you are performing the tea ceremony.” The master of the tea ceremony thanked the swordmaster and hurried back to the bridge where the ronin was waiting. The two men faced each other and the master of the tea ceremony did as the swordmaster had instructed: he raised his sword and, holding it steadily before him, closed his eyes and imagined performing the tea ceremony. He waited for the sound of the ronin swinging his blade. He waited for the blow that would end his life. But after some time nothing had happened. He opened his eyes to see the ronin on his knees, his sword laid before him. The ronin bowed and apologized for his arrogance. For what the ronin had seen was the master of the tea ceremony so profoundly centred and balanced that there was no possibility of attack that would not end in his own death.

I have told this story for over 25 years, first learning it from Dan Yashinsky's The Storyteller at Fault, and later coming across many versions in zen literature. The first time I told this story was to a friend and two four-year old boys, one of them my friend's son. It was the only story that came to mind in a pinch and i wasn't at all sure it would hold the attention of two young rambunctious boys. But afterwards, my friend noted with astonishment how deeply the boys had paid attention. And i did feel that, indeed, despite my reservations, they really got the story well. And i wasn't sure at that time if i even got the story that well. But over the years this story has grown in import for me. I recall a story told of the founder of aikido Morihei Ueshiba who once faced an opponent who chose not to attack, for once he had seen the poise of the aikido master he realized that there was no possible entry for attack. The fight was won without a blow being made. Another story of the same master is about his reputed ability to dodge bullets. He once confronted a hunter famous for never missing his target and the two faced each other in a contest. But before the hunter could fire, the aikido master told the master hunter not to shoot for his bullet would, indeed, hit him. The aikido master had seen the perfect mastery of the hunter and knew that he could not win. I've often wondered if these sikido stories are about things that actually happened or if they are versions of the master of the tea ceremony story. Either way, the truth within this story endures.

Lately, i've been thinking of this story apropos of my many years struggle to teach people to facilitate meetings the way i do. There are many things i can tell people about how to facilitate, countless tricks of the trade as well as numerous conceptual frameworks. But i'm always left with feeling that there are only two things that matter - watching what i do (and being critical of it) and finding some way to be centred in themself - connecting with what is most true about themselves, with what they are most passionate about, with their uniqueness as well as their sense of connection with everything around them, and to channel that energy into what they do. Or, possibly, simply reflect on the story of the master of the tea ceremony.

image: Opening the Brazier for Tea Ceremony, Ogata Gekkō 尾形月耕 (1859-1920), Meiji Era, 1909

No comments: