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Japanese Tea with Robert E. Lee

March 23, 2018

Life sure is strange. So there I was talking in a church with the statue of Robert E. Lee behind me. The same Robert. E. Lee whose statue in Charlottesville, just 120 miles away, had ignited fires of hatred. The invitation to speak at the Phi Beta Kappa convocation at Washington and Lee University in Roanoke Virginia had warned me that it would be held in the Lee chapel and I had accepted. I was also told the surprising news that the university had a Japanese tea room to which I was also invited.

 

So I sought to bring the different worlds together in the chapel by talking about the Japanese tea ceremony. In front of the retired general I spoke of how samurai would use the tea ceremony for the development of their character. Entering a tea house through a tiny door, short and narrow, first forced them to bow. This was an act of humility. Then they needed to remove their swords and armor to squeeze in. Once inside, the high class samurai were of equal status to others. They had to embrace vulnerability.

 

I showed a clip from the film Last Samurai in which the Japanese samurai explains to the American warrior about Bushido, the way of appreciating each moment in life, each cup of tea, every breath we take. And as the American warrior in the film is impressed with this way of living, so were the mostly white students, parents, and faculty in the chapel. After all, living in the moment, awake, aware, and appreciative for the once in a lifetime opportunity it presents -- ichi-go, ichi-e -- is not exclusive to Japanese, but is a human need, especially today when so many of us are lost in the seductive and destructive lure of science and technology.

 

My message of heartfulness seemed as appropriate in the chapel as it did later when a small group of us gathered in a circle in the Japanese tea room. It was a different group from those who had been in the chapel, and we drank matcha, talking about mindfulness, inclusion, and social justice. It was a warm and intimate place to connect with the new diversity at the university.

 

I asked myself, and the people I met, if it was worthwhile to travel across the country to speak for thirty minutes to one hundred people? I told them that it may seem naive and idealistic, but I believe that this is my purpose, to speak from the heart to persons of great ability and promise, with the hope that they will expand their purpose from individual achievement to service for humanity. I said that if one person was moved to live in a more heartful way then it was worthwhile to me. At the book signing a student, her mother, father, and younger sister came up to me and told me that yes, it was worthwhile for me to come because it made a difference in their lives. That's all I needed to hear to help me to keep moving.  

 

Is the world changing? Well, it sure felt like it. Our work often proceeds in small steps, through small acts. What can each of us do? Say yes when we are called, do our best with the opportunities we are given in our daily lives, no matter how small, to live with our hearts, caring for ourselves and others.

 

 

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