*Zanshin means ‘lingering attention’.

Before we look to samurai tea ceremony, let’s examine zanshin in the martial arts.

What is zanshinZanshin in martial arts

Of all Japanese martial arts – many of these far more venerable – it is judo, alone, that has been accepted as an Olympic sport. And thereby placed on a par with both Graeco-Roman and freestyle wrestling.

But why should this be? If Western fencing is an Olympic sport, then why isn’t kendō – Japanese swordsmanship – too? If Western archery is an Olympic sport, then why isn’t kyūdō – Japanese bowmanship – too? But neither nor is granted such recognition, and both are as unlikely to receive it as is either of karate or kung-fu. But why should this remain the case?

Well, something that is crucial to Japanese swordsmanship is zanshin.

There, it concerns what dueling warriors (now, contesting competitors) do after a pair of these has run past one another and, in passing, one of them has successfully struck the other.

That blow alone will, however, not suffice. The warrior needed (as the competitor still needs) to maintain attention to what is now happening, behind his back, as he proceeded to the point at which he faced about, and again confronted his opponent.

samurai tea ceremony kendo
Image courtesy to Marco Heylen

This attention he maintained in order to ascertain that his blow had been effective. For, if a Japanese duelist merely takes it for granted that his blow can only have defeated his opponent (this nowadays meaning having achieved complete victory), and so, over-confident, now allows his attention to become distracted by his assumed victory, he may well leave himself open to sudden re-attack. Differ though a deadly medieval confrontation and a contemporary competitive bout certainly do, neglect or abandonment of zanshin can in either case only cost a participant most dearly.

And, if with subtle differences, the same applies to those other East Asian martial arts that have likewise failed to gain Olympic recognition. For instance, in Japanese bowmanship, it is a sense of oneness with the moment of release of the arrow that should be carried on into, and infuse, daily life.

For judging the outcome of any bout that concerns exercise of such a martial art is a task of undertaking which only extremely-seasoned practitioners of that art are capable – and, even then, only after completing special training.

This is because maintenance, or instead neglect, of zanshin in a participant’s performance is matter that is unlikely to be detected by all but the truly initiated.

Sports vs. martial arts

For example, it often happens that, during a swordsmanship-match, a competitor does succeed in inflicting upon her opponent a visible blow, and yet no judge’s flag goes up – a result by which spectators lacking awareness of zanshin usually find themselves perplexed.

For the cause of her failure may well be that, once she has struck her blow, she has carelessly abandoned zanshin. And, while trained judges will unanimously detect such negligence, this is a failure to which the rest of us are more than likely to remain oblivious.

samurai tea ceremony judo

In the case, however, of judo – at least as it is practiced in the West, and increasingly here in Japan – lack of application of zanshin is not only almost universal: it has also come to constitute no obstacle whatever to winning acknowledgement of victory.

This has reduced contemporary judo to a mere sport: an activity just as easy to follow as is, say, free-style wrestling. Having beaten – by flooring – her/his opponent, and now treating that fellow-competitor as basically irrelevant, the victor tends to do the human equivalent of a gorilla’s drumming its chest, and yet no points are therefore withheld, and the victor’s supporters remain ignorantly ecstatic.

Judo as an olympic sport

So here we have a trio of answers to the riddle of judo’s unique Olympic status.

OneZanshin both has become irrelevant to judo and also remains invisible to the masses.
Two: today’s Olympics are fundamentally spectator-entertainment for those masses. And
Three: the sole Japanese martial art that passes muster as such … is judo. And, in the case of the latter, perhaps /art/ is by now largely a misnomer.

Let us now turn to the realm of hospitality: zanshin in the rite of Tea; Samurai tea ceremony:

Here, on one hand, teppan-yaki, for instance, is a spectacle that is perfectly easy to understand – because it requires no application of zanshin.

A superior service of samurai tea ceremony, however, is unified by ceaseless, naturalised application of zanshin; but, until this is pointed out, such a service can tend to resemble nothing more significant than playing at dollies’ tea-parties – if on a rather larger and more costly scale.

Although each of the individual acts that constitute a given service is indispensable, and should be executed gracefully and economically, none of these is, in itself, of lasting interest. What, nevertheless, is indeed of interest is the manner in which the participant in question connects one such act to the next.

To wit, timing determined by care for zanshin.

Zanshin in samurai tea ceremony and daily life

And, in daily life, such an approach is sheerly practical: for instance, no act of setting something down ends merely with contact between deposited object and receiving surface: the placer then needs at least to make sure that the object has been left resting stably.

Zanshin also has social importance: to snatch away one’s hands, or one’s attention, immediately after having presented someone with a bouquet will risk being found discourteous.

For the majority of the warriors that strove to survive during Japan’s century of violent military unrest, it can only have been common sense to apply zanshin to whatever they did, and thus likewise to their practice of samurai tea ceremony – a form of meditational hospitality in which they sought temporary peace, and spiritual solace. (One illustration of this application can be seen in the fact that, during a service of warrior-Tea, the host is hardly ever left without something in his hand with which he could, if necessary, at least deflect a physical attack.)

At the same time, the principle of applying zanshin does not solely result in a fierce vigilance: it also generates a seamless flow of one act into the next – thereby generating a rhythm resembling that of small waves calmly yet unfailingly breaking upon a shore.

Since, and for both guest and host, such a rhythm still has an effect that is surprisingly therapeutic, its healing quality can only have proven precious to men then living with a constant threat of sudden death. Today, the healing effect of application of zanshin calms the mind, and quite noticeably soothes the body, thereby alleviating stress and tension – ills that, in the present, constantly threaten our own wellbeing.

Tyas Sōsen

Tea has become a way of life, and a way of viewing the world we live in. I have learned to be more appreciative of the things we have, respectful towards other people, have more reverence for our natural environment, and am more able to be present in the current moment.

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