Green Koans 47: Rikyū’s “Only This”

Clark Strand

CASE #47:    Rikyū’s “Only This”

Sen no Rikyū, the founder of Cha-dō, once wrote the following poem:

Tea is only this:
First you heat the water.
Then you make the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.

 

BACKGROUND:

Sen no Rikyū    
Rikyū (1522-1591) is often called the founder of Cha-dō, the Way of Tea. Although other masters preceded him, it was Rikyū who gave the clearest exposition to the rules of tea, and Rikyū who determined its enduring aesthetic and spiritual philosophy. Although he was a close advisor to the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Hideyoshi ordered Rikyū to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) as the result of a disagreement. Rikyū’s death poem is:

Gratitude to you,
O Sword of Eternity!
Cutting through Buddha,
And through Bodhidharma, too—
You’ve prepared the way for me!

 

Heat the water     In tea ceremony, the water is heated in an iron kettle placed over a charcoal brazier. The artful, economical use of fuel is an important aspect of the Way of Tea.

Make the tea…drink it properly     There are many rules and customs governing the preparation and consumption of tea in Cha-dō. Here, however, Rikyū is referring to the correct attitude toward the ceremony. A guest once asked Rikyū to explain the secret of Cha-dō. Rikyū replied: “In summer, suggest coolness. In winter, a feeling of warmth. Lay the charcoal so that it heats the water, and make a pleasing bowl of tea. That is all.” When his guest expressed disappointment at the stark simplicity of Rikyū’s answer, Rikyū famously replied, “If you can prepare tea this way, I will become your disciple.”

 

COMMENTARY:

These Masters make everything look effortless, leaving the rest of us to fumble about, all thumbs and two left feet. If it’s as easy as they say it is, how come it feels so hard?

Rikyū isn’t talking about tea. The answer is just that simple. He’s talking about everything. Why make a big production out of life when the point is just to live it. There’s a reason Rikyū spent his whole life making one bowl of frothy green tea after another, but it’s not different from that.

VERSE:

Getting its head knocked
Against the bowl, the little
Bamboo tea scooper
Is learning to be simple,
Is learning to be bamboo!

 

Read all the Green Koans here.

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ebland's picture

Very nice. Thanks Clark for the Koan and Jim for your thoughts. It's very helpful to me right now as I endevour to just take the next indicated step - on a work project that has me tied up in knots (with the corresponding hindrance storms).

With aloha and much metta,

Ed --

ClarkStrand's picture

Been there, done that, Ed. Best of luck with it. I know those storms well.

Jim Spencer's picture

I think that this koan is, in part, about overcoming fear of failure. The masters make things look easy because they have done them wrong more times than they can count before they got them right. They had to learn to go fearlessly into the effort, disregarding the lies told by their egos about the consequences of getting things "wrong."

Being "green," being a "newbie" at something is a wonderful opportunity to overcome fear, ego, self, etc., and just simply be.

ClarkStrand's picture

I think you're right, Jim. Overcoming the fear of failure is a really big part of it, tied as it is to notions of gain and loss.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good point, Jim. I would only add that "masters" (of any endeavour in life) are seen as such by the rest of us only when the times they do something "right" begins to outnumber the times they do it "wrong" (or badly). PGA stars, for example.

ClarkStrand's picture

Love it, Dominic. You're right, of course. I never thought of it that way. I'm not sure how many haiku I wrote before I got my first good one, but I'd guess it was at least a few thousand. Soen Roshi once said, "Mastering haiku is easy. You just have to write 10,000 of them." Reminds me a little of Malcolm Gladwell's idea of "logging 10,000 hours" at something to get beyond being merely good at it. He used the Beatles as one example. In the beginning, before they got famous, they played at strip clubs where the sets would go on for many hours.