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Samurai in the Tea House: Mindfulness in Japanese Culture

The gentle practice of tea and the way of the warrior.

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu
Source: Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu

At first, I was puzzled by the tea ceremony. When my Japanese grandmother took me I found it hard to really be present in its simplicity and couldn't appreciate its beauty. But I was fascinated when she explained that my great grandfather often participated the tea ceremony. Since I saw him as a role model, I wondered why a samurai would practice such an art.

Grandmother demonstrated how samurai had to bow to enter the short door of the teahouse. This was an act of humility for the proud samurai. They had to remove swords and place them on a rack outside to enter the narrow door of the tea house. This was an act of vulnerability to be without weapons of protection. Inside the small space they sat close together with a few other people, with whom they were equal, in that moment. The only master was the tea master. In the windowless room without external distractions, they sat facing the master, turning their attention inward.

The tea ceremony is often described by the expression Ichi-go, Ichi-e, meaning one moment and one coming together. In English, we could say it means that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will never happen again. This consciousness cultivated in the tea ceremony can be brought to all moments in life, enriching even the most mundane aspects of living.

I gradually came to appreciate the beauty of the tea ceremony and demonstrated the way a samurai experienced it at a conference on Buddhism, Science, and Future conference in Shenzhen, China on June 16, inviting participants to enter the lecture hall space in this manner. I was speaking on "Mastery and Mystery," the place where they co-exist in our efforts to know and control our world and our surrender to what life brings us that we can neither comprehend nor determine. These are the kinds of educational spaces that we can design to create vital connectedness to our common humanity.