Tea with the Enemy

Another example of the power of the nonviolent way is expressed in the Japanese story of the tea master. The tea master was traveling with his Lord to visit the Shogun, the military commander of all Japan. In order to enter the court to perform the tea ceremony, he was required to wear the swords of a samurai. So, although he had never used a sword, he was wearing them after he left the palace. As he was walking over a bridge, a ronin, a local mercenary, knocked him over and tried picked a fight with him. When he explained he was not a warrior, the mercenary claimed he was a coward for not fighting.

The tea master did not wish any dishonor to come to his Lord, so he felt obliged to face this ruffian. But he asked leave to do an errand first. The mercenary suspected he might be going for a bribe, so he let him go. The tea master went to the school of a renowned sword master, and asked for his advice on how to hold a sword, so that he might die with dignity. The sword master was astonished, and said, “Most people come to me to ask how to bring death to an enemy, not to face it themselves. You are the first! But before I teach you my art, would you show me yours?”

Tea Ceremony Tools Wiki Commons Photo

Tea Ceremony Tools
Wiki Commons Photo

Knowing this might be the last time he would practice his art, the tea master carefully assembled the elements and utensils of the tea ceremony: the tea, the water, the whisk, the tea scoop, the clay tea bowl, and the iron pot for holding the fire to heat the water. Then he prepared himself. When all was ready, with a peaceful spirit he prepared the tea and served it to the sword master.

The sword master observed the tea master carefully. After he had sipped from the bowl of tea, he said, “I can see you are already a master. I have nothing to teach you that you do not know. All I would say is to approach the mercenary as if he were an honored guest at a tea ceremony. Then, take off your jacket and fold it neatly, draw your sword and hold it up over your head, and let him know you are ready. Then close your eyes. When your opponent yells, bring the sword down.”

When the tea master returned to the bridge, he prepared himself all along the way, not as if for a fight, but for a tea ceremony. He let go of his fears and his hopes, and imagined the ruffian as an honored guest. When he reached the bridge, there was a crowd gathered. He did everything as the sword master had instructed. But after closing his eyes, he heard nothing. When he opened them, he was astonished to see that the ruffian had dropped his own sword and was running away. When the ruffian had looked at the face of the tea master, standing calmly in front of him, he lost his nerve. He did not know how to fight such an enemy.

The Tea Master is a traditional Japanese story.  I’ve adapted it here from the version by Dan Yashinsky, in Suddenly They Heard Footsteps


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