SBP Blog

Stone Bridge Cafe: "The Tea Master"

Thomas Joel - Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Stone Bridge Cafe is a bi-weekly online series from Stone Bridge Press devoted to bringing readers short stories, poems, non-fiction pieces, photographs, and artwork from and/or about East Asia. For submission guidelines and info, follow the link at the bottom of this post.

On the menu this week is a simple yet poetic historical short story by Lynn B. Connor about Japanese aesthetics, the beauty of nature's imperfections, and the relationship between a father and son. The story is inspired by and expands upon a legend (that has several versions) about the Japanese tea master and philosopher Sen no Rikyu (1522-1592), who understood the role of a cup of tea in a wise and calm life. Shoan (1546-1614), the adopted son of Rikyu, also became a tea master. 
Rikyu, the tea master, was a fortunate man. He had a small house just for serving tea to his friends. It sat at the end of a path that wound through a small, peaceful garden. Added to this good fortune, he had a son, Shoan, who wanted to be a tea master, too. Together they prepared for guests.
Rikyu chose a scroll to hang—a painting of grasses with a poem:
in the mid-day heat
silence—not even a breeze
the garden naps
Beneath it, he placed a single blossom in a vase. Next he chose a simple kettle, water jar, and tea bowls. Each different, but still in harmony with the others.
As Rikyu prepared things in the teahouse, Shoan readied the garden. He picked up the dead leaves that had fallen on the moss. He plucked brown leaves from the trees and bushes, then swept the stepping stone path.
Rikyu went out to inspect the garden, shook his head no, and went back inside.
Shoan did not know what to do. He looked to see if he had missed a brown leaf or a twig on the path. There were none. Perhaps there were too many bright pink flowers on the camellia bush and it disturbed the harmony and quiet of the garden. He carefully removed some of the blossoms, so the bush did not shout with color and the beauty of each blossom could be enjoyed. Shoan looked again at the garden, sure his father would now be pleased, and called him to come inspect the garden.
Rikyu came out and walked along the path. Again he shook his head no and turned to go in.
Disappointed and confused, Shoan asked, “Father, what is wrong with the garden? I have done everything you have taught me.”
“There is still something for you to learn,” Rikyu replied and walked over to a brilliant red maple shimmering in the cool fall breeze. He shook it gently. A few red leaves floated down to the sunlit green moss. Rikyu turned to his son, “You cleaned the garden too well. It doesn’t look natural,” and went inside.
Rikyu looked around the tearoom, just as he had the garden. Something seemed wrong. He called to Shoan, “Come check my preparations.” Shoan was pleased to be asked. He looked carefully around the room: “Father, the scroll does not seem right. It does not have the feeling of an autumn day.” Rikyu chose another scroll—dry leaves falling from a bare branch with a poem:
the chill of autumn air
a cup of tea
warms friendships
Shoan returned to the garden and sprinkled the stepping stone path with water. Now all was ready for guests.
Rikyu smiled and thought, “My son will be a good tea master.”

The Tea Master

(Sen no Rikyu)

With undergraduate and graduate degrees in East Asian history, Lynn B. Connor planned to be an academic. However, that idea was short-lived. There was not much of a demand for someone who enjoyed translating classical Chinese poetry. Finally, she realized that sharing stories that explore other times and places with children (and grownups, too) is what she really wanted to do. Visit her website here: Head photo courtesy of 

Ed McVicker.  


Subscribe to our mailing list to be automatically entered to win a copy of Japaneseness: A Guide to Values and Virtues, a little book that offers readers a provocative tour through seventy-six core life concepts that are at the foundation of Japanese behavior, belief, and beauty. Throughout the book, author Yoji Yamakuse raises an intriguing question: Can traditional Japanese values—like loyalty, meticulousness, sensitivity, reverence, hierarchy, trust, and harmony—make sense in modern Western societies? Definitely worth a read—good luck!

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