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A Japan tea master's wish for peace (Pt. 3): Spreading the ritual's spirit of humility

Sen Genshitsu, former grand master of the Urasenke tea school, is seen receiving flowers from a high school student after giving a lecture in Kyoto's Shimogyo Ward on Aug. 3, 2021. (Mainichi/Kazuki Yamazaki)

Sen Genshitsu, 98, former grand master of the Urasenke tea school, lived to see the Pacific War's end in 1945 despite assignment to a suicide attack unit. Overcome with guilt and shame at outliving his comrades in not being able to join the suicide mission, a demobilized Dr. Sen returned to his hometown of Kyoto. He could not help loathing the United States and its people.

    One day, he saw a U.S. military officer from the Allied powers' General Headquarters (GHQ) taking a tea ceremony lesson from his father in an Urasenke tearoom. Though one was from a victorious country and the other a defeated one, there appeared to be no difference in their standing when they performed the ritual. The two sat in the traditional "seiza" position and sipped tea, while excusing themselves for eating and drinking before the other. Though it must have been part of U.S. occupation policies, Sen felt the officer was trying to absorb Japanese culture. His father explained the ritual's spirit of "wakeiseijyaku" in English as the four principles of "harmony," "respect," "purity," and "keeping your mind."

    Wakeiseijyaku is tea ceremony's core philosophy and the legacy of Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), who had a profound impact on the tradition. "Harmony" is the spirit of offering each other tea, "respect" the principle of treating one another with respect regardless of social status, "purity" the spirit of engaging in ritual with a cleansed mind, and "keeping your mind" meaning to reach a state of peace in which the mind is unshaken.

    As Sen watched the peculiar scene in the tearoom, it dawned on him that the spirit of tea ceremony could foster understanding between people around the world and bring them together to achieve a world without conflict. This was the moment that Sen came upon the idea of spending his lifetime on efforts contributing to peace.

    Another significant turning point was the tea master's experience of training at the Sen family's ancestral temple of Daitokuji. One day, the superintendent priest suddenly approached him and said his eyes looked lifeless, like he was still in the war. They added, "Come back after ridding yourself of that mindset." When Sen was weeding the garden, the priest caught him off guard with a question: "What are you thinking as you pull those weeds?" He was at a loss for an answer, and the priest remarked, "The weeds pulled are also living things. Aren't they being removed to let other weeds live?" Sen understood that the superintendent priest wished to use this example to imply lives that survived should live for lives lost.

    Going about his days only feeling shame would not let the souls of his suicide unit comrades rest in peace. Even now, many years on, Sen's determination to put into action his aim of achieving world peace through tea ceremony is unshakeable.

    Following his father's death, a 41-year-old Sen succeeded the tea school in 1964 to become the 15th generation grand master. Though the Urasenke custom is that the grand master goes by the name Soshitsu until death, Sen rescinded his position at the end of 2002 and offered it to his eldest son, while declaring himself "Genshitsu."

    Sen has obtained PhDs and honorary degrees in tea culture at universities in and outside Japan. He has held over 100 titles, including UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and the head of the U.N. Association of Japan. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, he would travel overseas for a total of 100 days per year. The tea master has conducted tea offering ceremonies the world over, while praying for one without conflict. However, it was only around age 60 that he began talking about his own war experiences.

    "From the period of rapid economic growth, Japanese people began to lead a life of luxury, and that the country was at war is now a far-off reality. Under such circumstances, I couldn't help putting my experiences into speech. We need to convey how repulsive it is, and ask why Japan engaged in a futile war. Why did the country make suicide units throw away their lives? We must never treat conversation on war as taboo."

    On Aug. 3, Sen held a lecture for high school students in Kyoto's Shimogyo Ward. About 40 people, including online participants, listened attentively to the tea master's memories of suicide missions during the Pacific War. "For me, the war won't end until my death. It's you, young people, who hold the key and power to create a world where humans across the planet join hands and appreciate each other," he told them.

    Misaki Kuribayashi, 16, a second-year student at Ryukoku University-affiliated Heian high school, commented, "It was very tough listening to his experiences in the suicide attack unit. But to bring about a future where we won't repeat those mistakes, I thought we who heard Dr. Sen's talk must relay this to as many people as possible."

    2022 marks 500 years since Rikyu's birth. When asked his thoughts ahead of this special occasion, Sen said, "Once you step into the tearoom, there are no differences in social standing. Samurai were also not allowed to wear katana. The most important thing Rikyu taught through tea ceremony was a mindset compassionate and caring of others. War was the extreme example where this was lost. If people do not have the heart to be thoughtful toward one another, the Earth's environment, a great issue today, will also be ruined. I feel like such a time is not far off, and am very worried."

    The tea master added, "I'm not afraid of death right now. I'm prepared to die at any time. I'd like the world to become a tranquil place where we won't have to use the term 'peace.' This is the last message I wish to impart."

    (This is the final part of a three-part series.)

    (Japanese original by Takuto Imanishi, Osaka Regional News Department)

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    Sen Genshitsu was the 15th generation head, or "iemoto," of Kyoto's Urasenke tea school until the end of 2002. He has obtained PhDs and honorary degrees in tea culture at universities in and outside Japan. He has held over 100 titles, including UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and the president of the U.N. Association of Japan. He served in the air force division of the Imperial Japanese Navy during the Pacific War, and subsequently joined a suicide mission squad. From this experience, he has dedicated himself to attaining peace through the philosophy of tea ceremony.

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