I have written about these ‘Three Obligations’ in a previous post that delved into the meaning of ‘Moshi-Iwake-gozaimasen’. After a number of personal events were endured, felt that it was necessary to revisit this subject in a more personal manner.
There are three ‘obligations’ in Japanese traditional culture that are deeply embedded in their society. Most Westerners are unaware of these Confucian cornerstones that are foundations of this ancient and venerable people. They will be discussed and this Author will give his opinions and on how they affect our modern notions of these important concepts. These three obligations permeate the culture of Cha no Yu, and shall be brought to bare using My own experiences as examples as to their influence in my own life. You, the reader, may take what you wish from this; but rest assured that when observing how Japanese society works- these three principle obligations should not be overlooked.
I will examine the axis point of these three ‘Ons’; That axis point being that even though one should strive endlessly to repay the debt owed to these three entities, one could never balance the scales fully. It is understood that the sacrifice, dedication, knowledge, compassion, support, and suffering given by the upper to the lower was always greater than the lower could ever repay. But the lower should always commit to try to balance this lopsided gift; even if it meant sacrificing ones’ life to do so.
1. The Obligation to the Nation and Emperor.
This First ‘On’ (pronounced ‘own’) is the responsibility of the citizen to the state/nation. One strives to be a model participant in the political structure by deferring and paying deep respect to the head of the nation; in this case- the Emperor. In Confucian terms, he is the spear head who leads his people to prosperity and peace. In traditional China, this was called the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ bestowed upon the Emperor whose job it was to carry out the admonitions of ‘Heaven’ to bring the people to more harmonious lives with little crime and abundant wealth. If the Chinese Emperor fell short of this mandate, or the subjected people suffered, economies fell, or political strife led to war, then a new ‘chosen one’ was picked by “Heaven’ to lead the nation back on track. Thus it was part of the obligations of the people to follow the Emperor as a son or daughter would follow the directions of the Father in a large family.
In Japan, Confucian ideals were adopted by the ruling elite and even though the Emperor held no political power or military advantage since the Heian period (794 AD to 1185 AD), the Shogun still paid respect and obligation to him by being seen to be taking care of such matters on his behalf. That way this ex-halted ‘Grandson of Heaven’ would not be worried or bothered by such trivial matters such as state craft, or political intrigue. The responsibility of the citizen to the state was a one way power gifting; with younger respecting and learning from the older, Son deferring to Father, employee obeying employer, and citizen doing ones best- including giving one’s life in order to preserve the ‘State’. The Forty Seven Samurai is a breath-taking example of this commitment in trying to repay ones’ debt to ones’ superior. Volumes, Kabuki plays, and films ex-halt the ultimate sacrifice for this ‘On’ in beautiful imagery. Shrines have been built in order to remember this heroic act.
But in this day and age, we find ourselves in very different circumstances. Nixon, G.W. Bush, and countless other politicians in America as well as Japan find themselves being caught in the harsh spotlight of scrutiny as they wield power on behalf of the rich 1%. The history of America is littered with such horrible examples. The history of Japan most likely reveals the same; even though I am not current on that subject. I will not go into the examples that are disappointingly fresh in all of our minds concerning the ineptitude of these representatives of the State. This first Confucian ideal falls short and seems unrealistic in today’s world. But we do hold deep affection for and reverence to the Kings, Queens, and Imperial families of this modern era. Royal watchers both in Japan, and England have created an industry as the public scrambles for titbits on the comings and goings of the Royals. In Japan, the current Grand Tea Master of Urasenke has married into the Imperial family; and is just as influential in the promotion of Peace and international understanding. This first ‘On’ has found a place to reside in our psyche; just not in the way that might be as traditional as it was before.
2. The Obligation to Ones’ Teachers
As I grew up, my Mother taught spacial education to kids with learning disabilities. Later she taught grade school. Countless times she dragged herself through our door; exhausted, worn, and needing to decompress. A few times she came in late due to the fact that she had been stabbed with a pencil by a student whose disability occasionally expressed itself in violent behavior. Her lateness was due to a hospital visit. The next day she tried her best to teach that same student- with no sharp objects in the room this time. She sacrificed much of her health and well-being for her students. Her commitment was undaunted; her dedication was heroic.
The teachers who made a lasting impact on my life can never be repaid except for me being the best that I can be in upholding their standards, knowledge, and ethics that they instilled in me. The best teachers are the ones who want their students to surpass them. They strive and work toward the goal of one of their students doing so well, learning so much, and working so hard, that they excel past the talents and abilities of the teacher. There is no ego involved; in fact they are proud of what their former student has accomplished. Teachers can take any form, have endless patience, inject humour and acknowledgement for a job well done, encourage with a smile, and try to bring out the best in you.
I have been extremely lucky to have met a few of these rare and wonderful beings. The debt that I owe them is immeasurable. Some of them have been teachers of Cha no Yu. I could write page after page of their glowing talents and the techniques that they used to ignite that spark inside me. We all hopefully have encountered such super beings and if we are lucky, our lives have been made better.
I have also had the misfortune of meeting some of the worst ‘teachers’ ever to walk the earth…and some of them have been Tea teachers as well. Remember that just because a person has a ‘Cha-mie’ (Tea ‘name’ awarded by the school to those who have advanced enough to earn the teaching position), does not necessitate them as being a good teacher of the Way. Infact it has been known that such certification can be bought for a hefty price. I met one such person while in Kyoto who possessed a ‘chamei’ and had never hosted a chaji, practised temae, or knew much about Tea in general. Sadly, he was ordered to participate in a demonstration viewed by the Grand Tea Master himself. He failed so miserably that his license was revoked, and he was sent packing back to Osaka.
Bad teachers take many forms. One who comes to mind uses ‘The Way of Tea’ as a front for scalping their unsuspecting student’s hard earned money. This teacher even stole money from me for goods as yet to be delivered. It has been a long time, and I doubt I will ever see that package in the mailbox. I was accused of being too boisterous, enthusiastic, and too generous. I was instructed to practice ‘Enryo’ (reserve, reticence). “The High Nail get the Hammer” was to be my motto. Yet this teacher said and did two different things. It was more of a “Do as I say- not as I do” mentality. I knew that there was no harmony to be accorded , no respect to be exchanged, no purity of heart to be shared, and no tranquillity to be found in the mind of this troubled soul. Their life was a cautionary tale; a glaring example of how not to practice the Way of Tea, or live your life.
There are those who will scam you, lie to you, tell you what you want to hear, and rip you off… all in the name of ‘Tea’. I know of one teacher who has a pernicious habit of abusing their students to the point of tears on a regular basis. There aren’t many students who stay; and those that do seem to enjoy abuse on a level inappropriate for mention in this article.
This is not unique to the world of Cha no Yu and such devious examples can be found in any field of study. Here the ‘On’ has no existence to inter-prate since the only lesson to learn is to run the other way. If a teacher is abusive, insulting, belittling, passive-aggressive, lies, or whose actions are different than their words, then they must be avoided at all costs. Modern teaching techniques, ethics, and standards have yet to filter into the traditional world of Tea. There is a staunch traditional attitude in Japanese culture that if a teacher is tough on you- then they are interested in you. The more that they abuse you- the more promise you are showing. Thus the most strict, unbending, abusive teachers have been traditionally seen to be ‘the best’. This philosophy comes from Zen anecdotes of the disfunctional relationships between student and master that have been mythologised through folklore. If you doubt this; simply google “Problems with Zen Buddhism’ and start reading any of the entries. I had the grave misfortune of becoming a junior monk of the Soto Sect under one of these so called ‘Masters of Zen’. Our entire congregation suffered and finally dissolved due to his abuses, lies, and actions not matching his words- ‘crazy wisdom’ be damned! If the ‘teacher’ finds no promise in you, they simply ignore your very existence. No talking-no notice, no acknowledgement of your being on this earth by him- shows that ‘you need to work harder’ to gain his eye. The problems with this method should be quite obvious.
Hopefully, when learning The Way of Tea, we can find one who can nurture us and help us along our way; one who can remember that ‘Peace through a bowl of Tea’ has uncountable levels of meaning, and who can practice the four principles through their personal example.
3. The Obligation to Ones’ Parents
This is one of the hardest ‘Ons’ to try to repay. As stated before, there is no way to balance the scale. In the Confucian world the spheres of obligation spread out like ripples in a pond; always fanning out in one direction. His protocols for relationship are based of a standard traditional family model. In our modern age, this is rather uncommon. Families can be defined in many different ways. Each country has a different traditional model that sometimes does not fit the Confucian ideal. How do we observe and honor the obligation of parents and family?
I look toward my own family as an example of the problems with Confucius’ model. My father was a two timing drunk. He deserted my mother and I was two. He remarried after that and I have two half brothers and one half sister. He was abusive to them as well. He divorced them after 13 years of hellish abuse. When I turned 18, he was no longer obligated to pay child support. He never did to begin with but now there was no legal right since I was of age. He called to try to foster some sort of ‘relationship’ with out my mother’s notice. After some strong words of ridicule from me, he stopped calling. A few years later he tried again. I reminded him of delinquent child support payments. He hung up. There was no obligation toward him. Only hatred and deep contempt. He died a few years ago. No tears were shed- only relief.
My main obligation is to my Mother. She sacrificed much on my behalf, worked very hard, made sure that I had what I needed, kept me safe, and helped me get a good education. It is to her that I owe the most. She was not perfect- no one is. but still- that balance will never be equalled.
There are many definitions of family. Some take a village, some have none at all. there are countless books written on the ‘Family’ and how it has changed over time. The Confucian ideal; does it have a place in Japanese society today? The western influences have come with technology, modern economy, and global communication. Japanese people travel and settle in different places to put down roots. There are vestiges of the Confucian family here and there. But in my opinion, it is an ideal that has no basis in modern culture. Yet this obligation can bee seen in family units that we make for ourselves. A family of two dads is just as nurturing as a traditional family unit. A parental unit of one or two is the bare necessity for human survival. This is the most difficult obligation to define and write about since all of us are unique in our relationships with our parents. I leave it to the reader to figure this one out. Who deserves recognition as a parent and thus the obligation of respect and appreciation, care and compassion? I can share my own views, but they fall very short of what truly takes place between parent and child.
These three Obligations that I have written about are simply being stated so that we who practice Tea can more fully understand who we are dealing with, who we are beholding to and why. I expect that your stories are far more interesting using the subject matter as your inspiration. I do think that Confucius has a point though. Something that we can all look at and think about concerning our own lives and the lives of those whome we owe so much- whome ever they may be.