Understanding Zen

Understanding Zen through the tale of the Samurai and the Tea Master

A guide to understanding Zen Buddhism and Zen Meditation or Zazen as told in the tale of the Samurai and the Tea Master, which expresses the essence of Zen in the act of perfection

Trying to explain or define Zen nature, by reducing it to a history lesson, and a few definitions is impossible. So instead I have chosen to share the story of the “The Samurai and the Tea Master”, which expresses the essence of Zen in the act of perfection.

“Zen is the essence of all that is of value, all that is worthy of being worshiped and as such should be smashed if we get the slightest chance.” This statement is understood if we understand that Zen is purely subjective, and dangerous, and indeed variable, Zen instructs us to have courage, and say again and again, “All that can be shaken shall be shaken!” and if nothing remains, let it be so.

So what does Zen mean? Zen means doing anything in perfect harmony, even making perfect mistakes, being defeated perfectly, and succeeding perfectly. It means that one is mindful of their full actions, you detach from the emotion of the moment and become aware or mindful of your actions. Zen is also about letting go, but letting go in perfection, if you know you are going to fail then fail perfectly. This is expressed in the Zen parable of “The Samurai and the Tea Master”.

The Samurai and the Tea Master

This traditional story from Japan is about the time a Samurai warrior challenged a tea master to a duel. It shows how if you are the master of yourself, you can be the master of anything.

Several centuries ago, a tea master worked in the service of Lord Yamanouchi. No one else performed the way of the tea to such perfection. The timing and the grace of his every move; from the unfurling of the mat, to the setting out of the cups, and the sifting of the green leaves, was beauty itself. His master was so pleased with his servant, that he bestowed upon him the rank and robes of a samurai warrior.

When Lord Yamanouchi travelled, he always took his tea master with him, so that others could appreciate the perfection of his art. On one occasion, he went on business to the great city of Edo, which we now know as Tokyo.

When evening fell, the tea master and his friends set out to explore the pleasure district, known as the floating world. As they turned the corner of a wooden pavement, they found themselves face to face with two samurai warriors.

The tea master bowed, and politely step into the gutter to let the fearsome ones pass. Although one warrior went by, the other remained rooted to the spot. He stroked a long black whisker that decorated his face, gnarled by the sun, and scarred by the sword. His eyes pierced through the tea maker’s heart like an arrow.

He did not quite know what to make of the fellow who dressed like a fellow samurai, yet who would willingly step aside into a gutter. What kind of warrior was this? He looked him up and down. Where were the broad shoulders and the thick neck of a man of force and muscle? Instinct told him that this was no soldier. He was an impostor who by ignorance or impudence had donned the uniform of a samurai. He snarled, “Tell me, oh strange one, where are you from and what is your rank?”

The tea master bowed once more. “It is my honor to serve Lord Yamanouchi and I am his master of the way of the tea.”

“A tea-sprout who dares to wear the robes of samurai?” Exclaimed the rough warrior.

The tea master’s lip trembled. He pressed his hands together and said, “My lord has honored me with the rank of a samurai and he requires me to wear these robes.”

The warrior stamped the ground like a raging a bull and exclaimed, “He who wears the robes of a samurai must fight like a samurai. I challenge you to a duel. If you die with dignity, you will bring honor to your ancestors. And if you die like a dog, at least you will no longer be an insult to the rank of the samurai!”

By now, the hairs on the tea master’s neck were standing on end like the feet of a helpless centipede that has been turned upside down. He imagined he could feel that edge of the samurai blade against his skin. He thought that his last second on earth had come.

The corner of the street was no place for a duel with honor, however. Death is a serious matter, and everything has to be arranged just so. The samurai’s friend spoke to the tea master’s friends, and gave them the time and the place for the mortal contest.

When the fierce warriors had departed, the tea master’s friends fanned his face and treated his faint nerves with smelling salts. They steadied him as they took him into a nearby place of rest and refreshment. There they assured him that there was no need to fear for his life. Each one of them would give freely of money from his own purse, and they would collect a handsome enough sum to buy the warrior off and make him forget his desire to fight a duel. If by chance the warrior was not satisfied with the bribe, then surely Lord Yamanouchi would give generously to save his much prized master of the way of the tea.

These generous words brought no cheer to the tea master. He thought of his family, and his ancestors, and of Lord Yamanouchi himself, and he knew that he must not bring them any reason to be ashamed of him.

“No,” he said with a firmness that surprised his friends. “I have one day and one night to learn how to die with honor, and I will do so.”

So speaking, he got up and returned alone to the court of Lord Yamanouchi. There he found his equal in rank, the master of fencing, he was skilled as no other in the art of fighting with a sword.

“Master,” he said, when he had explained his tale, “Teach me to die like a samurai.”

But the master of fencing was a wise man, and he had a great respect for the master of the tea ceremony, so he said, “I will teach you all you require, but first, I ask that you perform the way of the Tea for me one last time.”

The tea master could not refuse this request. As he performed the ceremony, all trace of fear seemed to leave his face. He was serenely concentrated on the simple but beautiful cups and pots, and the delicate aroma of the 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 slapped his thigh and 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, express regret that you could not meet him sooner, take off your coat and fold it as you did just now. Wrap your head in a silken scarf and do it with the same serenity as you dress for the tea ritual. Draw your sword, and hold it high above your head. Then close your eyes and ready yourself for combat.”

That is exactly what the tea master did when, the following morning, at the crack of dawn he met his opponent. The samurai warrior had been expecting a quivering wreck and he was amazed by the tea master’s presence of mind as he prepared himself for combat. The samurai’s eyes were opened and he saw a different man altogether. He thought he must have fallen victim to some kind of trick or deception, and now it was he 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.

That is the way of Zen, succeeding perfectly even in the face of failure. This is mindfulness, this is Zen. If you want to understand more on mindfulness and the practice of Zen (called Zazen) then follow the mindfulness, Zazen Instructions, Zazen Posture an Act of Impeccability and Samadhi a 3 Step Processlinks.

Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty as Chan Buddhism. It was strongly influenced by Taoism and developed as a distinguished school of Chinese Buddhism. From China, Chan Buddhism spread south to Vietnam, northeast to Korea and east to Japan, where it became known as Japanese Zen. Although both Zen and Taoism obviously lead to a similar goal, their methods for getting there are quite different.

But it should also be noted that Zen in China shared much with the Taoism of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, so much that it is difficult to determine how much of Zen has Buddhist origins, how much Taoist. Yet it is also important to remember, that in this connection, we are speaking of the “philosophical” Taoism and Zen, as opposed to the “institutionalized Taoism and Zen” and even this idea that Taoism and Chan (Zen) were cross-fertilized is disputed as a modern misunderstanding perpetuated by Western scholars.

Zen’s major emphasis:

Denouncing importance on scriptural authority and places more importance on the act of mind, body and the spoken word to convey religious truth. To the enlightened Zen Master Scriptures are useless, ritual leads nowhere. Enlightenment is possible for everyone: the illiterate can achieve the same experience as the learned scholar. Eternity is here and now. One need not seek to learn something new, just realize what is already present.

Holds Buddha as a spiritual model to obtain and that Enlightenment consists in realizing that Buddha-nature exists in everything and everyone. “See into your own mind” and you will find the Buddha-nature that has been there all along. The historical Buddha is no greater or less than the lowest sentient being–all share in Buddha-nature.

Expresses its religious practice through the act of specific physical actions.

  • Simplicity or elimination of clutter – Kanso (簡素),
  • Asymmetry or Irregularity – Fukinsei (不均整),
  • Naturalness – Shizen (自然), Subtlety – Yugen (幽玄),
  • Break from routine – Datsuzoku (脱俗),
  • Stillness, Tranquility – Seijaku (静寂),
  • Austerity – Shibui/Shibumi (渋味).

Zen’s over riding principal is to obtain a harmony of mind, both physical and mental, not to rash or not too calm, not too emotional or unsympathetic not to stressed or relaxed but to balance equal both the mind and body combined. Suzuki has said: “Before Zen men are men and mountains are mountains; during Zen study things become confused; after enlightenment men are men and mountains are mountains, only one’s feet are a little off the ground. Other scholars hold that there is nothing at all: we have always been enlightened, and will forever be deluded; Zen enlightenment consists only in this realization.

Of course there is more to Zen than this, but these few ideas should suffice as background for the understanding of Zen.


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