Peace Through a Cup of Tea: Genshitsu Sen, Zen, and the Way of Tea

Peace Through a Cup of Tea: Genshitsu Sen, Zen, and the Way of Tea September 20, 2018






A talk delivered on the 19th of September, 2018

at the first
Annual Dr Genshitsu Sen Lecture Series
at the Huntington Library

Glenn Taylor Webb

(Professor Webb is both an ordained Obaku Zen priest and professor emeritus  of Japanese culture at Pepperdine University, where he served as director of the Institute for the Study of Asian Cultures. He is a recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun for his contributions to cross-cultural understanding between Japan and the United States)

Good evening, and thank you for coming.  I feel truly honored to be giving this year’s first lecture in a series of lectures on the Huntington’s East Asian Gardens.  I hope you know from the title of my lecture, however, that I will not be saying much about gardens.To be sure, my subject is directly connected to the Huntington’s new Japanese garden and teahouse, in terms of Japan’s cultural history.  And you probably even know that I will be talking specifically about what is generally known as the Japanese Tea Ceremony, as well as the patriarch of one branch of the illustrious Sen family of tea masters.

I’ve been asked to share my thoughts on “Peace Through a Bowl of Tea,” which is an expression created by Dr. Genshitsu Sen, the most famous Japanese tea master of our time.  My friend Robert Hori (who happens to be the cultural curator of the Huntington’s gardens) is the person who asked me to speak on the subject.

You should know that Robert is a skilled tea master himself and could give this lecture if he wanted to.  He also is Japanese. I’m Welsh. In my defense, at 83, I’m a bit older, and I have more experience with actual Zen practice.  That’s important because I maintain that the words Peace and Bowl, referred to in the title, are code words for Zen Buddhism and the Tea Ceremony, respectively.

I’ve written three versions of this lecture, but I’ve decided not to use them.  I sent copies of the last one to selected Zen priests and Tea Ceremony teachers, asking them to critique it.  They did. And I have used their suggestions to significantly rewrite my lecture, hoping the result may inspire you to talk to me a bit after I’m done.

I want to start by examining the title chosen for this lecture. It is enigmatic at best, even nonsensical.  Dr. Sen, its author, is not just a descendant in a cultural tradition that has become identified with Japan.  His philanthropy and humanitarian efforts have benefitted the world.  It seems fitting to ask,

What kind of “peace” does Dr. Sen have in mind?

(I am now going to share with you his answers, as though this were my first interview with him. In fact, they are based on his writings and also on the talks I’ve had with him over the years, but I am relating it as a kind of interview.)

First I asked him if he had in mind the peace of God that Jews, Christians and Muslims learn about, viz., the peace that goes beyond human understanding, the peace between God and man, and the peace that God’s followers receive and share.  Answer:  YES  (That is not really a surprise, since Dr. Sen graduated from Doshisha University, which was established in Kyoto in 1875, by a young samurai convert who studied in America.)

Then, I asked if he had in mind the peace between warring nations, Answer:  YES (especially the peace between the U.S. and Japan in the Pacific War, or what we call World War II.)

In my third question, I asked Dr. Sen if he might just be referring to ordinary peace of mind:  is he referring to that in his statement about peace through a bowl of tea?  Answer: YES

My final question was leading because I knew Dr. Sen had trained in the great Zen temple of Daitoku-ji near the family estate, and even had been given a priest-name 安名(anmyo) – which literally identifies Buddhist priests as “people of peace.”   He also knew that I had trained under several Zen Buddhist priests in Kyoto. So I asked if he had in mind the peace that Zen talks about.  Answer: YES, absolutely.

He went on to say that this was the main thing he had in mind when talking about peace through a bowl of tea.  To him, he said, both the Japanese and English word for peace are in his heart (in Japanese) as the state of concentration known as sanmai 三昧, which literally means   “the three delusions” or “dark places” in the human condition.

This, of course, is very serious stuff.  This means that anyone who has confronted and overcome the worst obstructions to human fulfilment, could be said to be “in” deep meditation.   I’m embarrassed to say, that in current Japanese, the word zanmaiis used, frequently in jest, to refer to someone completely absorbed in what they are doing, like using a cell phone, or so oblivious to reality that they could run into a wall.

The word in Sanskrit is Samadhi, which refers to the deep meditative state in which you perceive a reality that is larger than your own birth, life, and death. When I asked Dr. Sen if he thought the “delusion” translation was sufficient in English, Dr. Sen said he would use the word “foolish” instead.  “It is foolish to see myself as separate from other beings,” he said. “When I do not, I am alert, and in deep meditation.”

But how does one talk about peace as a perceptionthat makes us larger than ourselves? What, then, is Zen peace?  Sounds like a Zen koan. (I’ll talk about what a koan is a bit later.)  But if I must give you a working answer (or any kind of answer), I would say that Buddhism (like Hinduism before it) is rooted on the ancient Vedic teaching of “thou art that” (Tat Tvam Asi), which was embraced in India some 1500 years before the historical Buddha was born.

To quote Wikipedia, “The meaning of [this Vedic teaching] is that the Self – in its original, pure, primordial state – is wholly or partially identifiable or identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the ground and origin of all phenomena.”

In other words, WE ARE IT.  To make a bad joke about St. Peter, and Catholics everywhere, I think of it this way: You are me, and upon on that rock I stand. 

In short, there is no Creator God in Buddhism.  Instead, it says that all of us have within ourselves a little spark of Buddhahood (or Godhood?) that we can get in touch with.  Buddhists call that spark Buddha Nature.  The great Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki, wrote the following in a book that got me interested in Japan when I was ten years old:

“The function of human consciousness, as I see it, is to dive deeper and deeper into its sources, the unconscious.  And the unconscious has its strata of variable depths:  biological, psychological, and metaphysical.  One thread runs through them, and Zen discipline consists in taking hold of that thread in its entirety.”

It is in that realm of the unconscious, he maintained, that we humans learn how much we have in common with each other, and in fact, with everything. In the teahouse, the other guests, sitting next to me, are for all intents and purposes, me.  That may be another way of reaching the Samadhi peace that Dr. Sen believes is found in Zen practice.

What is a Bowl of Tea?

At this point in our quest to understand how peace can come through a bowl of tea, we can say that the Peace that comes with a new perception of the self in Samadhi, can also be found in tea practice.  “A bowl of tea,” as a phrase, has a 400-year history in Japanese society in general, and a longer history than that in Chinese and Japanese Zen temples. There it refers to the rules governing the eating of temple meals. Priests eat each meal, according to strict rules, as though it was their last.

Here I would like to pick up on my earlier mention of Zen koans. You may know that Buddhism had already existed in India for 500 years, before it was brought to China in the 1st century of the Christian (or common) era.

Meditation (which is what the word Zen means) was always an important part of Buddhism.  But the Zen (meditative) denomination of Buddhism did not develop in China until the 8thcentury. The activities of Chinese Zen priests during that time became legendary.  By the 13thcentury, stories about them, known as koans, began to be published and used in Zen temples.

A koan公案is literally a “ruler’s plan” or edict so bewildering that his poor subjects just throw up their hands and say, “OK, that’s beyond us, but our ruler knows best.”  Today, thanks to “koan practice” introduced  by some denominations of Japanese Zen priests to Westerners, the term has been interpreted as a puzzle to be solved, like a legalistic brief.

We don’t know exactly how koans were used in China.  We know that those young men who had passed the rigorous Chinese exams to be “gentlemen” were like lawyers today.  They were in charge, and their proclamations (the word koan in Japanese is pronounced gong-an in Mandarin) were the law.  But in Japan, where they were published and in use at least by the 16thcentury, they were given to novice Zen priests as tests, primarily as a challenge to normal dualistic reasoning.

To over simplify, going beyond dualisms while living in them, is the goal of Buddhist practice generally.  One of the many koans used today involves meals that one particular Chinese Zen master shared with his students and guests alike. This very famous priest, named Joshu 趙州(in Chinese, Zhaozhou), died in 835.  The full koan in question goes like this:

People who came to Joshu’s Temple of Compassion for a visit had to wait at the gate until he was notified.  If the visitor was a high official, Joshu would send an attendant to escort the visitor to Joshu’s quarters.  If a fellow priest from another temple called on him, he walked out to meet him halfway, at a middle gate.  But if it was the neighborhood rag picker, Joshu would rush out to meet him at the gate and personally escort him all the way back to his quarters.

In all three cases, Joshu would prepare and serve tea and a light meal to his guests and escort them back to the outer gate, saying, “We’ve had tea,nowleave.”  In Japanese this expression about “having tea and leaving” 喫茶去is called “Kissa-ko!”(As an aside here, if you’ve spent time in Japan, you may know that the old word for coffee houses is  kissaten.)

His disciples were puzzled. Why did Joshu show more respect to a rag picker than to a high official?  More importantly, what did his strange goodbye mean?  What is the meaning of Joshu’s ‘Kissa-ko’?

Rather than put my understanding of this koan in your minds, I must ask you to decide for yourself.  The point of any of the dozens of koans used in Zen is this:  you must realize the answer yourself.  You must make it real in your every thought and action. But what does it mean to “make it real”?

I will tell you that the word for “leave” is a euphemism for the death of our self-concerns.  It is our ability to experience what is known in Zen as the compassion, or “great grief” (daihi 大悲in Japanese) that we can feel for others when we let go of our self-concerns.

Young Japanese priests in training must demonstrate – with or without words – that they can live in a crazy world of class distinctions – while treating others as themselves.  If they choose to throw class rules upside down, as Joshu did, that’s fine, so long as they truly know “great grief.”As morbid as it may sound, in Japanese Zen temples it is common for teachers to tell disciples that they should “die” on their meditation cushions!  In more poetic terms, I would say this means dying to the conscious self and returning to the source of all life.

Likewise, in a full four-hour Tea Ceremony as it exists today, there is a part towards the end, when guests signal with a head-to-the-ground bow, that they are ready to die to their self-concerns.

 Dr. Sen and his forebears.

I’ve never asked Dr. Sen if he received this “Kissa-ko” koan in his training at Daitoku-ji.  Nor do I know if any of his forebears worked on it. But he is the descendant of a man who, in the 16thcentury, took a Zen Buddhist sacramental meal out of temples and made it part of the everyday lives of all classes of people in Japan.

That man is famous as Sen no Rikyu 千利休, who died in 1591, at about the time that Shakespeare was writing his first plays. His name may reference his merchant-class heritage, as “the man from the Sen family who turned his back on profits.”

A more Buddhist reading would have him “turning resting into a skill.” But “resting” in this case means something special. It is one of several Chinese characters that stand in for the notion of Samadhi, or even Enlightenment.  Resting 休, experiencing ease 楽, entering emptiness 無心, or even embodying reverence 易(used in Rikyu’s official priest-name, Soeki) —   all of these are virtually interchangeable in Zen literature with the notion of fully perceiving things as they are.

Rikyu was from Japan’s merchant class, but his interests lay elsewhere, namely, in these secrets that Zen priests seemed to have discovered.  While still in his teens, Rikyu studied under Zen masters, receiving his priest name Soeki in the Rinzai lineage. In temples he learned to live simply, while making even the most common activity an important event, pointing to ultimate enlightenment.

That way of living is very popular, even outside of Japan today, as wabi侘(lit., lonely.) It is a Buddhist term that alludes to the impermanence of life, and the sense of loneliness that comes (in Samadhi) when we realize that we are much more than we think we are. The Chinese character itself consists of a person, a roof, and a spoon.  Simplicity.

The young men Rikyu trained with may not have been allowed to marry, unlike Japanese Buddhist priests since medieval times. First sons of priests today follow their fathers into the priesthood, making it basically an inherited position. Celibate or not, Zen priests, then and now, follow a daily routine of countless rules featuring seated meditation (zazen), and doing everything together.

They explore the limits of the conscious mind, where they may perceive their oneness with other beings. Temples are training grounds for being useful.  Up until the Meiji Restoration, in 1868, Buddhist priests of all denominations were responsible for the education of every Japanese child.  They also took charge of all funerals, a service that is still today very much in Buddhist hands in Japan.

The full Japanese Tea Ceremony, while never part of the Japanese priest class, every temple meal was the model for it.  I would say that some form of today’s Tea Ceremony used to be a part of virtually every Japanese person’s life.  Even small children learned to practice serving others, and receiving food and tea offerings themselves, just as soon as they could walk.  Today, sadly, many Japanese regard it as a relic of the past.  And of course it is.

Every attempt has been made to preserve the Tea Ceremony as a model of Japanese culture.  The language, dress, food, art, and spiritual understanding of it have become requisites for practitioners.  Any Japanese person who has learned all the rules of the ceremony and does them perfectly, represents what many Japanese still consider to be the perfect human being.

But what about people who were notborn in Japan?  Can they learn to be perfect beings, too?  Dr. Sen believes they can.  More than anyone else in the tea community, he has reached out to foreigners.

In 1970, this 15th-generation head of the Urasenke organization, the former Sen Soshitsu XV, was responsible for thousands of tea teachers in cities and towns throughout Japan, plus their tens of thousands of students.  In addition to that vast educational enterprise, Dr. Sen established an official program on the family estate in Kyoto, for non-Japanese students.

He named the program Midorikai (lit., the Green Group), which he sees as a group of young foreigners who will bring fresh air into the Tea Ceremony universe. Today their number is lower than it once was, but there still are some 500 Midorikai graduates spread throughout the world today.

Dr. Sen supported many of them for the years of training they required, even supporting graduates who left Kyoto to become masters of Urasenke tea practice in other parts of Asia, North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and even Africa. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s back up and ask the big question:

Who is Dr. Sen?

Who is this man who has tirelessly tried to help the whole world find peace through a bowl of tea?  I’ve alluded to a few anecdotes about him, but let’s take a closer look.

Dr. Sen is just over ten years older than I am, so WWII is still fresh on his mind, as it is on mine (more about that later.) Dr. Sen tells the story of how, despite the fact that he was from a famous family, he, like most young Japanese men, was trained to defend Japan during the years of the war.  He was a naval pilot, who was spared only because the war was over just before his last mission.

When he returned to the family estate in Kyoto, he found that his father (the 14th-generation grand master, Tantansai) was already making peace with American officers by preparing traditional bowls of tea for them in one of the family’s most sacred tearooms.

At that moment, after seeing his own father embodythe peace of Zen and tea, Dr. Sen resolved to finish his education and then undertake Zen training intensively. In the 1950s, he spent time in Hawaii and Los Angeles, visiting Japanese and Japanese-American communities where the Tea Ceremony was being practiced.

In 1964, Dr. Sen officially succeeded his father as grand master of Urasenke.  He began lecturing widely, both in and outside of Japan. By the 1970s he had become something of an international celebrity, and the Midorikai program was well underway.  Lecture classes for these foreign students were held in English, but the bulk of each day was spent in learning the hundreds of different procedures a tea student must learn.

Those procedures, from the simplest to the terribly complicated, were taught by Japanese master-teachers who demonstrated each procedure to the next, and students simply did their best to repeat what they saw. Key Japanese words were of course learned.  Three years, was considered normal, for the time required for foreign beginners.

After that, if they had learned enough Japanese and tea procedures, foreign students could matriculate into the gakuen, for up to four years of training to become advanced students of tea.  I can attest that many Kyoto citizens did not know what to make of all these young foreign men and women dressed like 16th-century Japanese, walking to their classes in formal kimono.

For all students in the Urasenke programs on Horikawa Street in Kyoto, their Buddhist training is also provided for. A bona-fide Zen priest is on hand to oversee their training in a Zendo on the top floor of a building that houses a research library, museum, and offices.

I think Dr. Genshitsu Sen is something of a miracle-worker.  Over the years I’ve known him, I have seen him keep a level head, amidst all the adulation he has received from adoring fans in Japan, as well as academic degrees and accolades from prestigious universities all over the world.

Maybe you wonder why I feel entitled to add my praise.

How do I know all this?

I should tell you that Japan has been a big part of my life almost from birth. As a kid born on a military base in Oklahoma, in 1935, I was petrified of all things Japanese.  Relief finally came in 1945, when my feelings towards Japan went from absolute terror (before Japan’s surrender), to pity (at the atomic bombings), and to love (after being inspired by D. T. Suzuki’s book on Japanese culture.)

From that moment in my ten-year-old mind onwards, my interest in Japan has never diminished.   Carol St. John and I met and married in college.  She followed me to Chicago where I was a grad student for seven years in the Art and East Asian departments at the University of Chicago.

Along the way, Carol became a student of Japan, too, following me to Kyoto University on a Fulbright grant for two years beginning in 1964, (the year of the Tokyo Olympics, and the same year Dr. Sen took over the leadership of his family.  I should add, simply because I don’t know how we did it, that our son Burke, then 3 years old, was with us during our first years in Japan.) A year before D. T. Suzuki died, he was one of my advisors at the University of Kyoto.  To me he was Daisetsu Sensei, the dear Dr. Suzuki whose book on Zen and Japanese culture had inspired me after the war. My doctoral research was on hundreds of Zen temples built in Kyoto between 1550 and 1610.  So at his insistence I began sitting zazen in Zen temples, and found great value in that for the rest of my life.

I met Dr. Sen briefly before we left Kyoto during that time. Later, after  taking a post at the University of Washington teaching Japanese art history, I saw him several times. I became the co-director of the UW Center for Asian Art, which took me back to Kyoto almost yearly for several months in the 70s and 80s. I also established the Seattle Zen Center on campus, which has developed into an actual Zen temple:  Chobozen-ji.

In 1980, Dr. Sen graciously agreed to rebuild a teahouse in the Seattle Japanese Garden if I would teach a lecture course in the history and philosophy of the Way of Tea at the university.  He also promised to send a teacher to teach the practice of the Tea Ceremony in the new teahouse. (As it turns out, he sent Bonnie Mitchell, a former UW student who spent 7 years studying tea in the Urasenke schools in Kyoto.)

Carol and I, along with our son Reg (who was then 13) had taken some private classes in tea procedures in Seattle, but Dr. Sen wanted us to have more experience. So he enrolled us in Midorikai for two summer intensive sessions in 1981.  They were grueling, but nothing as severe as my introduction to Zen intensives (sesshin), which, as the term implies, students “confront the heart-mind.”

During one class, I was called out unexpectedly. Dr. Sen’s wife, the late Tomiko Sen, had me called out of class to give me a small book she had edited, entitled “Byways of the Heart” (Mune no Komichi ).  It contained thoughts on life and poetry by Dr. Sen’s mother, Kayoko Sen, who had passed away the year before.

Mrs. Sen apologized in hushed tones for pulling me away from practice, saying that she was sorry Carol and I would not have the chance of knowing her beloved mother-in-law. But at least, she said, I could appreciate her mother-in-law’s words because I could read Japanese.In addition, Mrs. Sen had taken the time to write a beautiful hand-calligraphed note to me, in Japanese, on a sheet of fine kaishipaper, asking my forgiveness for interrupting my okeiko practice.

In October Dr. and Mrs. Sen came to Seattle for the opening of the new teahouse, Shosei-an (“Cottage of Whispering Pines”). At dinner Mrs. Sen stood up and recited a poem from her book:

Furusato no/ hana saku haru mo/ chiru hagi no/ aki no komichi mo/ mune ni yume miru.

“In our village the flowers that bloom in the spring, and the bush-clover petals that scatter over the roads there in fall, are the dreams I see, in my heart.”

After she sat down, Mrs. Sen leaned over and said something to me I never forgot.  She said, “Students of Zen and tea ceremony receive a precious gift. They know that remembering things – like the flowers in this poem – are not just memories.  They come to know that those images are the people who remember them.”

The classes at the University of Washington were offered in the School of Art’s Japanese art history course schedule, as Chado, The Way of Tea. Bonnie taught the course, assisted by Tim Olson and Masaye Nakagawa, both of whom have their teaching credentials (and, are former students of ours at the UW so many years ago.)

There is an update, in that the UW recently discontinued the Chado course in the art history curriculum, for lack of funding. The good news is that the course is now scheduled to be taught in the East Asian Languages and Literature department.

The Future of Peace Through a Bowl of Tea.

In Dr. Sen’s quest to bring the Japanese Tea Ceremony to people outside of Japan, I agreed (and still agree), that bringing it into university communities, all over the world, was a good plan.  It had never been considered an academic subject in Japan, but it has worked well here.

Much the same thing has happened in terms of bringing Zen Buddhism to the modern world, often through departments of religion. But there are laws that prohibit proselytizing in American schools.  So Zen’s history is a bit different.

Here are my reservations, based on problems I’ve seen in both areas.  To begin with, Zen and Tea have remained pretty much “Japanese” in any place where attempts have been made to introduce them to Westerners.

Tea and Zen students in America, have adopted Japanese clothing (robes and kimonos) that set them apart, and use Japanese language to keep their training programs “pure.”  To some degree, even Japanese cuisine is used in teahouses and temples alike.

There are perfectly good reasons for all of the above. Reasons that have to do with very practical considerations as to why dress, language, and food should remain Japanese.  Above all, as an art historian, I believe that just the beauty of the artof Tea and Zen, should be enough to make everyone praise and protect Japan’s cultural legacy.

A museum in Massachusetts, I understand from today’s news, has a collection of Asian cultural artifacts, and the curator is “looking to overhaul the way it presents the past in an effort to stay relevant to a 21st-century audience.”

I’ve been personally struggling with that question in Zen and Tea for a very long time.  I have answers, but the answers I come up with seem to be counterintuitive in the extreme, because of what I personally would be willing to do, which is to dispense with much of the Japanese-ness that has fascinated me all my life, and still does.  I like the beauty of Japan with all my heart.

Zen and Tea “taste the same” – Zen cha ichimi禅茶一味.  Many priests and tea teachers repeat this all the time.  Japanese school children find it in their dictionaries.  But what does it mean?  That Zen discipline and Tea practice have similar rules?  Many rules?  And that those rules take years and years to learn, and to put into effect?

For me the point of those rules, and the reason why they exist at all, has been obscured somewhat by the layers of cultural features coming from Japan. If we strip them away and look at the pointof Zen, and of its companion, Tea, we arrive at an ancient Asian wisdom about what life is all about.

I’ve said that Tea and Zen are practices that do indeed teach us how to reach Peace Through a Bowl of Tea.  That peace, I’ve suggested, is found to be in our commonality.

If so, that commonality is transcendental in nature, and utterly transforming. It is coming to find relief in the space between knowing and not knowing. Many religions have names for that.

I do know this, we can experience others as ourselves, in ways that only each of us can do.

Thank you.



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