AN: Did this for a class assignment, but kind of liked how it turned out. Based on what little information there is on the life of one of the greatest Tea Masters in all of Japanese history, Sen no Rikyu. I put this in Japanese Mythology, but... it's really based on history. If there's a better place for it, let me know. Um... I don't own Japanese history, obviously.
After all of his hard work and devotion, something has finally gone right. Sen no Rikyu has been made tea master for the emperor, Oda Nobunaga. Despite being the emperor, or perhaps because of it, he's a bit wild and not at all skilled in the art of tea ceremony; he lacks many of the necessary qualities to fully enjoy tea, least of which is the essential peaceful nature of a tea practitioner. If there's one thing that Sen no Rikyu is sure of, it is the fact that his emperor is not a peaceful man. This is not a judgment on his lord's character, certainly; for many occasions, most of which his emperor faces on a daily basis, a harsh disposition is quite necessary. It is merely an attribute which, by definition, makes true appreciation for tea completely beyond his comprehension.
Still, there are many benefits to being the tea master of the emperor. He is finally permitted to practice his own style of tea, which of course is tea in its purest and most essential form. At last he has the financial resources to see that it's done in the way he feels best portrays the important aspects of the art of tea ceremony.
Sen no Rikyu can't paint or write like the great masters; his drawings and poems will never be read with reverence like the great writers and artists he sees all over the emperor's palace. But if there's one thing Rikyu is good at, it's tea, and he is content in this knowledge. Tea is his life, and he is devoted to it, and if being the tea master of the emperor will help spread his passion for tea, then he will gladly accept the position, however misguided his emperor may be.
Sen no Rikyu can't help but feel... wrong.
He has a new emperor now; it doesn't feel like long at all since he began serving as tea master for Lord Nobunaga, but now he serves Toyotomi Hideyoshi. While Lord Hideyoshi may not be as ruthless as his predecessor (although Rikyu would never say this to Hideyoshi - if there was a sure way to get fired, or killed, it was to criticize Lord Nobunaga), he definitely had something of a power-hungry streak to him. Hideyoshi is determined to see the country united, and Sen no Rikyu isn't surprised when he succeeds; Lord Hideyoshi has grand ambitions, and more than enough determination to see them realized.
But Sen no Rikyu feels that there is hope for Hideyoshi. He may yet be able to lead him to a more peaceful place, somewhere where the world isn't as violent as Lord Hideyoshi sees it. He thinks tea is the way, because tea is always the answer. It is the guiding light, the north star, the sun, and all of the most inspiring aspects of nature.
And it is also pouring boiling water over some herbs and drinking.
That is the beauty of it.
Finally, Sen no Rikyu is offered the opportunity to serve tea to Lord Hideyoshi. He is not nervous; he has already served one lord, and he knows that his tea ceremony is a distinctly memorable experience. He only worries that his new lord will show the same disinterest in the art as his last lord. Of course, Lord Nobunaga attended many tea ceremonies, and he spoke often of its worth and beauty. But Lord Nobunaga did not understand tea ceremony. Tea ceremony was merely a tool to unite and please and intimidate.
Sen no Rikyu hopes that Lord Hideyoshi might see tea for what it truly is, like he does.
While he is sure the simplicity of his tea will be enough to get Hideyoshi's attention if he possesses the necessary qualities to appreciate his tea, Sen no Rikyu thinks some extra attention to detail can't hurt. In a moment of inspiration, he has an idea. He goes out into his garden - which is bursting with Morning Glories - and proceeds to trim every single flower from its bush. He gathers them up and hides them out of sight, save for one particularly exquisite branch, which he places modestly on display in the tea ceremony house.
He knows as soon as Hideyoshi enters the small building that the Morning Glory has had its intended effect. A look of wonder transforms his lord's face, replacing the look of surprise and confusion that had previously plagued it. Rikyu breathes a small sigh of relief; perhaps this time, he will be able to serve his emperor with the devotion he was unable to give to his previous one. Lord Hideyoshi understands.
Hideyoshi asks him during their ceremony why the hut is so small, why so little decoration, shouldn't the noble art of tea be treated with more grandeur and dignity? Sen no Rikyu merely smiles, a touch of sadness for Hideyoshi's misguided views. "The Way of Tea is naught but this," he responds; "first you boil water, then you make the tea and drink it." He continues on to explain that he believes the environment and ceremony should reflect this, and while Hideyoshi doesn't seem to fully understand, Sen no Rikyu sees curiosity alight behind his confusion, can feel the tea calling to his soul, calming it, luring him in.
There is hope for this lord yet.
Sen no Rikyu soon determines that using utensils which were created with the purpose of anything other than performing the duties required in tea ceremony is simply not right.
He requests an audience with his emperor at the first available opportunity – which turns out to be remarkably early, considering his lord's schedule of late, if the rumors are to be believed – and asks if he might be permitted to design his own utensils, for one of the palace's master craftsmen to bring into existence.
Lord Hideyoshi is slightly baffled at the intensity in his tea master's gaze, and the extent to which this inquiry seems to matter to him. But there is something to be admired in his tea master's passion, in his attention to detail, and Lord Hideyoshi doesn't hesitate to grant Sen no Rikyu's request. He asks that he be present to witness the utensils being put to their intended use, and Sen no Rikyu is delighted to agree to his lord's proposition.
Tea, the way it is meant to be served, under a master, who appreciates it for what it is.
Sen no Rikyu is sure he can't be more content with his lot in life.
He really should've known that life is far to complex to always be as straightforward and pure as his beloved tea ceremony.
Someone always has to make a grand entrance and disrupt the peaceful simplicity of it, completely unaware of the utter chaos and unbalance that infects the room like a cloud of locusts as they do.
There are some things that Sen no Rikyu simply will not do, and committing murder is one of them.
He'd thought Lord Hideyoshi truly understood him, he thought Hideyoshi had gotten it. Harmony, respect, purity, tranquility. Wasn't that what he was always telling him? Making him write over and over again with brush and ink, and hang on the walls?
How in the world could he ask Sen no Rikyu to serve someone poisoned tea? How was the very notion not completely repulsive to his lord? Sen no Rikyu feels sick at the thought, and doesn't even dignify the request with a response when Lord Hideyoshi summons him to his chambers. He simply leaves the emperor, sitting behind his infernal screen depicting vicious animals and laced with gold and flashy brushwork. He doesn't even make the request to Rikyu's face. Some part of him must know how wrong it is, to ask someone like Rikyu to commit murder for a petty rivalry.
A great deal of time passes before Sen no Rikyu can tolerate the presence of his lord without feeling nauseous, and whatever was broken between them when his lord made the abhorrent request is never fully repaired.
Rikyu has made it his policy to never involve himself in politics.
He finds the whole notion of politics distasteful; it is full of deceit and manipulation, and its sole focus is the image presented to enemies and allies alike; you must show strength, show your power, intimidate, impress.
It is the exact opposite of everything that tea stands for.
Sen no Rikyu enjoys looking for the flaws in things, isolating them, until their very existence is precisely what makes an object or plant or person beautiful. It is the flaws that make them unique, make them what they are, make them distinct from the others of their kind. It is a way of showing humanity. The beauty in the human race, Rikyu believes, is that they make mistakes, they have flaws and problems and challenges, but they can overcome them. They can turn them around and make them successful. They can embrace them.
In politics, a flaw is fatal. It means death and the end and, above all, loss.
Why does losing have to be such a big deal?
And of course, Sen no Rikyu will never understand conquest. One should make the best of what one has; what is truly essential to a person's well-being is remarkably limited. Rikyu argues that you can find nearly all of it within yourself.
So when Hideyoshi gets it in his head that he must conquer China, Rikyu can't even begin to understand.
"Whatever do you wish to conquer China for, my lord?" Rikyu inquires one day as they are quietly sipping their tea. They have discussed a great deal of topics, as Hideyoshi often does with Rikyu; he has become something of a confidante, and Lord Hideyoshi often feels that Rikyu is one of the few people he can talk to, can seek advice from, without someone else finding out, or feeling like an utter fool for trying. For showing weakness. Because that is how Hideyoshi sees it – if you require the input of another, it means you were unable to find the answer yourself, and are therefore imperfect.
But Rikyu makes his flaws feel less… flawed. He transforms each insecurity into something to be nurtured, and embraced.
Hideyoshi feels a little more human around Rikyu, and he craves it.
So when Rikyu gives him that baffled, incredulous look after he asks what he thinks about attacking China, it immediately puts Hideyoshi on the defensive.
"What do you mean, what for?" Hideyoshi snaps at his tea master. "It's for Japan. Everything is for Japan. For the people."
Sen no Rikyu looks at his lord for a long time, considering, before he speaks.
"I think it is for you that you wish to conquer China; not for Japan, my lord," Rikyu says quietly. "If you truly have Japan's interests at heart, I believe you would not wish to conquer any country at all."
Hideyoshi reacts to the tea master's words as if he'd placed are a sword to his throat. He yells and curses Sen no Rikyu and demands his immediate dismissal from his presence.
Rikyu isn't surprised, but he is very saddened by his emperor's reaction.
Rikyu is aware that he's made a fatal mistake as soon as he sees the statue.
He had made the request merely as a joke, one that was obviously taken far too seriously. He's developed something of a habit in his old age, and can't help turning everything into jest. Life has just seemed too oppressive to him lately, and he can't resist the temptation to make light of things. He doesn't see what taking everything seriously will gain, so he has taken to laughing everything off, as old men are wont to do. Because Rikyu is certainly getting old.
Although, if he is honest with himself, he has been old for a very long time.
But when Sen no Rikyu sees the statue, perched high above the gate, he knows that this is very far from amusing. It is not even remotely funny.
He requests many times that the statue be removed, that its existence had been suggested on a whim, not to offend. He has no need for it, it is not in the spirit of tea. He is not worthy of an effigy; he's merely a vassal, passing on the truth and beauty of tea to anyone who will listen. He does not need anything else.
Of course, no one listens to him.
Of course, Hideyoshi sees it immediately.
And, with absolutely no amazement on the part of Rikyu, Hideyoshi is angry. So incredibly angry.
The cause of his anger did not begin with the statue, or even with Rikyu's advice against conquering China. The anger has been there for a long time, and the statue simply pushes the anger past the limit. Far, far past the limit. Because it is an affront to Hideyoshi's authority; the statue has a remarkably loud voice without saying anything at all.
I am higher than you, it says. You are beneath me. You may be the emperor, but I
Sen no Rikyu isn't at all surprised when Hideyoshi calls Rikyu into his chambers and demands in a fit of rage – with all seriousness, despite the excess of emotion and melodrama of the situation – that Rikyu leave, that he is banished to Osaka.
He isn't even surprised when Hideyoshi calls him back soon after, just to demand that he take his own life.
Rikyu merely heaves a sigh, and retreats to his home to make preparations.
Sen no Rikyu decides that he's going to go out with a bang.
Not a Hideyoshi-style bang; that would involve gilded halls and expensive screens and thousands of guests and an inconceivable amount of food and probably the conquest of a small nation.
No; Sen no Rikyu is going to do it his way.
He invites a number of guests – people that have influenced him, that have affected his life in some way. People that understand tea.
He performs one final tea ceremony, and everything is perfect. There is no extravagance, no exaggeration, no deceit. He gives a souvenir to everyone, so that they might remember him, but more importantly, so that they remember tea. He makes sure to look at each one of them, right into their eyes, and he can see their soul. Their purity. And their devotion to his craft.
He smashes his flawed bowl to pieces, as one final display for his lord. "Never again shall this cup, polluted by the lips of misfortune, be used by man," he says in a soft voice, but his words echo deep in the hearts of all those gathered around him, because they understand.
When he lifts the dagger to his stomach and recites his final poem, he can taste the regret and resignation that hangs in the air. But he is confident that the tea will live on in those gathered around him, and he hopes that someday, his lord might find a way to allow the tea to soothe him, to ease his pain.