Peace practitioner Dr Genshitsu Sen visited Sydney in June 2023 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Urasenke in Australia (Wago no Chakai).
It’s a clear, sunny day down by the water in Sydney’s Pyrmont, and I’m watching a small procession of kimono-clad people file into National Maritime Museum for a very special Japanese guest: the 100-year-old Dr Genshitsu Sen, who is the 15th-generation descendant of Sen no Rikyū.
If you know anything at all about chado, Japanese tea ceremony, you will have heard of its founder, Rikyū. While his story has a tragic end – he committed seppuku at the behest of samurai leader Hideyoshi – his tea legacy lives on in the three main chado schools: Omotesenke, Urasenke and Mushakōjisenke. Dr Sen is the former Urasenke Grand Master (his son assumed the title in 2002) who has made it his lifelong mission to promote ‘peacefulness through a bowl of tea’.
If the seaside venue seems unusual, I assure you it is no accident. In World War II, Dr Sen served in the Japanese navy and was designated a kamikaze pilot. Due to his tea cultural heritage, however, he was prevented from fighting on the front lines. In choosing to hold his event at the Maritime Museum, he pays homage to those in the navy who senselessly lost their lives in the war.
In 1949 he took Buddhist vows and, since 1950, he has been spreading the message of peace through sharing tea around the world. In 1973 he met an Australian woman called Rosaleen McVittie, an Omotesenke practitioner who had rebuilt a Japanese teahouse in her back garden from parts discarded by the Japan External Trade Organisation. Impressed by her dedication to chado, he persuaded her to convert to Urasenke, thus founding the Urasenke tradition in Australia.
Back in the museum lecture theatre, a full house watches Dr Sen make and serve matcha to a select few distinguished guests. At his age, he no longer kneels on the tatami mats, but instead practises a modified version at a low table. Later, through a translator, he talks about his life and legacy, and how tea has brought people together, mentioning how the Urasenke centre in Ukraine maintains a peaceful space in war-torn Kyiv. He also thanks the audience for their loyalty and dedication over five decades – there’s a nod to the younger associations in New Zealand and New Caledonia there as well.
He's spry for a centenarian, and sharp. One audience member asks after his secret to longevity, to which he quips “green tea”.
While he is no longer the Grand Master of Urasenke, his role as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador continues. If there was ever a time to play the tea heir card, being taken off the kamikaze list was certainly it. Since then, Dr Sen has shown time and time again that it is better to make tea not war.
Guest speaker Julian McVittie, Rosaleen’s son, will recount the early influence of Dr Sen in establishing the Urasenke tradition in Australia as part of the Sydney AUSTCS seminar (21 October). Tickets now available.