Centuries ago in Japan, a tea master worked in the service of the great Lord Yamanouchi. None else could perform the way of the tea to such perfection. The timing and the grace of his every move, from the unfurling of the mat, the setting out of the cups, to the sifting of the green leaves, was beauty itself. His master was so pleased, he bestowed upon him the rank and robes of a samurai warrior.
Once, Lord Yamanouchi went on business to Edo, now known as Tokyo. When evening fell, the tea master and his friends set out to explore the great city.
Suddenly, they found themselves face to face with two samurais. The tea master bowed, then politely stepped into the gutter to let them pass. One warrior went by, but the other stood and stared. He did not know what to make of the fellow dressed like a fellow samurai, who willingly steps aside into a gutter. What kind of a warrior was this? Surely this was no soldier, but an impostor donning the robe of a samurai!
“Tell me, oh strange one, where are you from and what is your rank?”
The tea master bowed: “It is my honour to serve Lord Yamanouchi. I am his tea master.”
“A tea-sprout who dares to wear the robes of samurai?” exclaimed the warrior.
The tea master’s lip trembled: “My lord has honoured me with the rank of a samurai and requires me to wear these robes.”
“He who wears the robes of a samurai must fight like one. I challenge you to a duel. If you die with dignity, you will bring honour to your ancestors. And if you die like a dog, at least you will be no longer insult the rank of the samurai!”, raged the warrior.
The samurai’s compatriot then spoke to the tea master’s friends, giving them the time and place for the mortal contest. After they left, the tea master’s friends assured him he need not fear for his life. They would all raise money to bribe the warrior and make him waive off the duel.
But now the tea master thought of his family, his ancestors, and of Lord Yamanouchi. He knew that he must not give them any reason to be ashamed of him.
“No,” he said firmly, “I still have one day and one night to learn how to die with honour.” So saying, he went and sought out the fencing master in Lord Yamanouchi’s court.
“Master,” he said, after finishing his tale, “Teach me to die like a samurai.”
But the fencing master was a wise man, and had high regard for the tea master, so he said, “I will teach you all you need, but first, I ask that you perform the way of the tea for me one last time.”
As he performed the ceremony, all trace of fear left the tea master’s face. He was calmly concentrated on the simple but beautiful cups and pots, the delicate aroma of the tea leaves. There was no room in his mind for anxiety. His thoughts were focused on the ritual.
When the ceremony was complete, the fencing master exclaimed with pleasure: “There you have it! No need to learn anything of the way of death. Your state of mind when you perform the tea ceremony is all that is required.
“When you see your challenger tomorrow, imagine that you are about to serve tea for him. Salute him courteously, take off your coat and fold it as you did just now. Wrap your head in a silken scarf and and do it with the same serenity as you dress for the tea ritual. Draw your sword, hold it high above your head, then ready yourself for combat.”
And that is exactly what the tea master did next day. At the crack of dawn, he met his opponent, who was expecting a quivering wreck. Instead, the samurai saw a different man, preparing himself for combat with serene presence of mind.
Now it was the samurai who feared for his life. The warrior bowed, asked to be excused for his rude behavior, and left the place of combat with as much speed and dignity as he could muster.
After all, he would have to be a far better samurai to rule over his mind as well, as over his body. When faced with death itself, his mind would be perfectly still. The odds, the dangers and the enemies may be massively against him, and yet his concentration, as sharp as his sword, would cut through them all.
And this was what the samurai saw in the tea master.