The samurai emerged in Japanese history during the twelfth century, and sometime after that formal martial art schools developed. This was during the Warring States period, and there were constant battles. Some warriors repeatedly emerged victorious while their fellow soldiers died or were severely injured. Such efficient warriors began to teach the techniques that allowed them to overcome adversaries, and this instruction began what people today call the old school martial arts, koryu. In time, proficient instructors developed forms (kata) to teach principles, and the schools became stylized. The main goal of all martial arts during this period was battlefield success. Feudal lords hired martial arts instructors to teach their samurai vassals how to survive enemies’ attacks and how to kill.
Practitioners call this type of martial art bujutsu. The Sino-Japanese character for bu can translate to “martial,” but the original ideograph depicts a sword clashing with a spear. Beneath it is the ideograph for tomeru, the verb “to stop.” Therefore, this character has a sense of ending violence. Jutsu just translates to “art.” For several hundred years, the focus of martial arts in Japan was the perfection of killing techniques, but this changed after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, when Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) emerged victorious and united the country, thus ushering in an age of peace.
Although the change was gradual, martial arts transformed. Since there were no longer incessant battles, the need to perfect one’s killing techniques gradually waned. However, the schools were an integral part of each domain’s cultural heritage, and people held them in high esteem. For this reason, they did not disappear. In fact, they grew even more popular as their ultimate goals changed. Some people even connected them to popular religions. Most of the samurai were Shinto or adherents of Shinto-based religions, while a minority studied Zen or some other Buddhist sects. They began to perceive that the physical techniques of the martial arts could lead to spiritual awareness, just like meditation, prayer, and the performance of austerities in both Buddhist and Shinto-based religions could open the door to spiritual dimensions. When this change occurred, people began to call the arts Budo: the Way of the Martial Arts. As previously explained, since the character for bu already contained the meaning of stopping violence, it was akin to peace. In addition, substituting the character for “art” with that of “way” highlighted the pursuit of spiritual understanding accessed through the performance of physical techniques.
People who trained in Budo developed discipline, coordination of mind and body, and wisdom. Others looked up to them, and many of their lifestyles were comparable to those who had entered religious orders. They embraced asceticism, and strove to perfect themselves through such difficult practices. Since the martial arts became a path that could lead practitioners to higher mental states and enlightenment, there was no reason why other arts could not do the same thing. For this reason, martial arts practitioners also began training in other arts. They studied ikebana, the art of flower arranging, and sado, the Way of Tea. Historical accounts are replete with stories about the martial prowess and unfettered intensity of tea masters, those individuals who seemingly devoted their entire lives to the perfection of the tea ceremony.
One story involves Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), a powerful feudal lord who studied the tea ceremony during his free time. His teacher was the famous Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), and Hideyoshi revered him. He treated him as a martial arts student would traditionally treat his instructor. One of Hideyoshi’s generals did not understand why he was devoting so much time learning how to serve tea, a servant’s art. He mentioned this to Hideyoshi several times in a roundabout way, but it was clear that his lord was not going to stop on his own. The general thought it was unseemly for someone as important as Hideyoshi to train in such an art, so he decided to kill the tea master. He attended the ceremony, having decided to strike the master with his short sword as soon as he dropped his guard. However, from start to finish in the lengthy tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu never provided an opening. He was completely engaged in the task, devoting all of his attention and energy to it, yet he was constantly aware of everything else around him. The general understood why Hideyoshi trained with the man, as this is the same mental attitude that warriors strive to cultivate. In other words, by training in the tea ceremony, his mental conditioning and therefore his martial prowess were increasing, hence the expression chazen ichimi: tea and Zen have the same flavor.
Another story also highlights how one can attain mental imperturbability through the study of something like making and serving tea, if one approaches it in the correct manner. At the end of the seventeenth century the Shogun sent a message to Yamanouchi, the feudal lord of Tosa Province, ordering him to come to Edo, and Yamanouchi invited his tea instructor to join him and his retinue. The tea master had heard about the rough individuals in Edo, so he tried to back out of it, but his master was insistent, so he finally relented. He dressed as a normal retainer, with a kimono brandishing the clan’s insignia and the two swords customarily worn by samurai, despite the fact that he did not know how to use them. He spent some days at his lord’s private residence, but one day he decided to go sightseeing. He headed toward the Ueno district, and there a thug accosted him and said, “I can see you are a Tosa warrior. I would like to challenge you.”
The tea master, thinking that this man was a samurai from a different domain, told the truth. He said, “Despite my appearances, I am not a samurai. I am only a tea instructor. I teach Lord Yamanouchi how to make and serve the drink and how to properly conduct the ritual, so I am sorry, but I do not have the skills to accept your challenge.”
In truth, the rogue was not a samurai representing a domain; he was a thief, and he wanted to slay the tea master and take his money. Now that he knew the man could not defend himself, he was even more eager to go through with this bout, and he prodded him more forcefully. The tea master could find no way out of the situation, and he knew that he would lose the fight, so he determined to die an honorable death, which would reflect highly upon his domain. However, he did not know how a samurai should die. While he was walking toward Ueno, he passed a sword school, and he thought that if he could return there, seeking instruction to die properly, then he would not let down his lord and Tosa. Seeking to delay the bout, he explained, “I will fight you, but I am currently running an errand for my lord. Let me complete it, and I will return to face you.” The masterless warrior nodded in agreement and said he would wait, and the tea master headed to the dojo, seeking instruction in how to die an honorable death.
Appearing before the instructor, the tea master explained what had occurred and the sword instructor said, “Most people come to me trying to avoid death. They wish to gain skill with the sword to stay alive, as they fear death. This is the first time someone has appeared here asking for dying instructions. I will teach you the proper way to die honorably. First, please make tea for me. Please perform the tea ceremony.”
The tea master consented, and he began preparations for the ritual. Meanwhile, the martial arts instructor knelt on the straw dojo mats and watched him intently. When the tea teacher was preparing the water, the leaves, and other utensils, he had no thought whatsoever of his impending death. He was completely absorbed in the task, and he was unperturbed. Throughout the entire ceremony, his mindset did not falter. He treated every movement as though it were the most important thing in the entire world, as though there were nothing else. At the end, the sword instructor thanked him and said, “You do not need any instruction from me. Your mental control is precisely what we strive to acquire through the study of swordsmanship, and for this reason, you will certainly die well. When you return to face the ronin, treat him as you have just treaded me, as a guest who has arrived in your teahouse. Be nice, and even go so far as to apologize for arriving late. State that you are prepared to accept his challenge, and then take off your overcoat and fold it, exactly as you did before preparing tea here today. Place your fan on top of it, wrap a cloth around your head, tie up your kimono sleeves, and then pull up your hakama. Face him, draw your sword, and raise it up over your head. Once in this position, wait. Relax. Breathe in and then exhale. When you see your opponent begin to move and you hear him shout, cut down with all of your energy. Do not hesitate. Be decisive. It is likely that this will cause aiuchi, or mutual death: an honorable way to go.”
The tea master returned to the thief, having mentally accepted his own death. He completely focused on the present moment, and he followed the sword instructor’s advice. After preparing his clothing for combat, he raised his sword and waited for the inevitable. The warrior looked at him, and he saw a different person than who he had seen before. He was no longer a weak-looking passerby, but a fearless warrior who would gladly die in combat. Scanning the tea master’s defenses for an opening, he realized that he was resolute, displaying the sense of sereneness and concentration rarely seen among warriors, never mind human beings in general. Realizing that the bout would likely end with his own death, he sheathed his sword, bowed to the tea master, and apologized for his brashness. He actually begged the tea master to spare his life. The master lowered his blade into a less offensive position, and the thief fled. The skills he had attained while training in the Way of Tea were effective in other fields, once he realized that he could apply them everywhere.
This is the spiritual pursuit of any art form, and it does not matter what one studies to gain similar results. The only thing that matters is that people begin the study and then maintain it with wholehearted devotion. When one looks at tea masters, it may seem that they devoted their entire lives to perfecting the ceremony itself, but that is not what is really occurring. The tea ceremony and its proper performance is not the goal, but the path. Learning how to train and focus the mind and how to coordinate the mind with the movements of the body so that there are no gaps is the ultimate goal. To fulfill this objective, students begin by learning from books and accomplished teachers. They start by learning about the instruments, the tea whisk, the ladle, the proper temperature of the water, and more. They learn about the proper time to pick tea leaves, and how to grind them into the perfect powder. In time, they learn to move properly, and they spend years learning how to hone and perfect their concentration. Once they have this initial mental control, they can attain higher levels of awareness. In time, they begin to see things in a different way, and their studies open the door into the spiritual dimension.
This Budo path was not limited to martial arts and the Way of Tea. It was in many disciplines, including both art and writing. For the Japanese (and Chinese) art and writing are the same, as their languages use Sino-Japanese characters that originated as pictures. Early pictographs for mountain and forest and stream, for example, were illustrations of these natural things. In time, the characters became more abstract, but they did not completely deviate from depictions of things seen. People added abstract ideas to the written language, and ideographs developed, expressing things like above, below, and other basic concepts, as well as things like makoto: oneness in word and deed, or sincerity, which makes use of various pictographs assembled to form one complex ideograph representing the concept. When people train in Japanese calligraphy, they combine artistic skills with prose, and when they approach it in a spiritual way, they combine images, prose, mind, and body. All of these things unified can lead to a positive outlook on life, more skill in all endeavors, and more.