Big in Japan – on Heidegger, Tea Cups, and Zen Gardens in the morning rain

I just rounded off ten days in Japan and am now writing whilst looking out on the garden from my room in the Ryokan we are staying at in Kyoto. Sitting on the tatami mat, I am taken yet again with the careful attention – mindfulness if you will – of each rock, bush, tree, and walking stone. Nestled against the wall is a small stone shrine covered with small bits of moss and dripping wet from the rain. It is quiet here even with the morning traffic building on the street down the block. As with most cross-cultural journeys, it is the little things you remember – the smell of the taxi, the rain on the face of Buddha, the taste of Macha tea in the morning, the clash of Kimonos and neo-Punk fashions crossing a street together, the din of voices speaking a language you don’t understand yet somehow learn to trust, the small acts of hospitality that make each day more like a collection of miracles than mere site-seeing. Yes, there are the pictures of the sites we visited, but the memories of the people and the experience of what it means to be “other” that will be bubbling underneath as we return to the States.

One of my disappointments on this trip was finding a tea cup. I had been looking in a number of stores for a tea cup to bring back to the office at SPU and never found the right one. Part of the Chado ceremony (the way of tea) is to find the right cup for your guests – picking the right one that speaks to who that person is. I had thought that finding “the right cup” would be a nice spiritual exercise during my time here. I looked in a number of shops – large department stores and small country pottery shops in the mountains and nothing jumped out at me. This morning as I walked to the bakery to pick up some macha scones (my new favorite) I passed a small rack of items on the curb for sale – each items for 100 yen (about one US dollar). The assortment of a hodge podge of Japan in miniature – old 45 singles of pop singers long past their sell-by date, beat up bric-a-brac of horses and warriors in Samurai attire, wooden spoons and mismatched chopsticks. Tucked in the back was a set of tea cups – a mismatched set of five in a small wooden box. These five tea cups are not shining examples of artistic design – I certainly saw some stunning pieces of work during our time here. But they were ‘real’ in all the ways the Velveteen Rabbit was real – a bit rough around the edges, dusty and rained on, and basically still present in the world despite the neglect of others. Needless to say, these were the tea cups I was looking for but only now ‘saw’ with my own eyes. I knocked on the door to pay the shop owner for the tea cups. He smiled at me as I handed him the 100 yen and I swear there was a twinkle in his eye as if to say “it is about time you came for these – they have been waiting for you.” Heidegger wrote in the “Origin of a Work of Art” in a reflection on a pair of old shoes painted by Vincent Van Gogh that the viewer’s responsibility is to consider a variety of questions about the shoes, asking not only about form and matter—what are the shoes made of?—but bestowing the piece with life by asking of purpose—what are the shoes for? Next, Heidegger writes of art’s ability to set up an active struggle between “earth-ing” and “world-ing” the objects that we behold. “World-ing,” is a notion that means “being,” is a passive entity. “Earth-ing” means “realized existence,” and is an active repose to reality. The world simply occurs while the earth actively exists. Both are necessary components for an artwork to function, each serving unique purposes. As I beheld these mundane teacups, they were both world-ing and earth-ing and trying to surmount its counterpart: the earth is unable to be fully revealed or explained and attempts to draw the world into itself; the world, more open and unhidden, tries to overcome the secreted earth. The existence of truth is a product of this struggle–the process of art (or in my case finding the tea cups finding me)–taking place within the artwork as it struggles to world and earth itself.

Perhaps this was the twinkle in the shop keepers eye this morning – knowing that these tea cups, as they are emptied and filled in the years to come, will be changing my world in ways I have yet to consider. Perhaps he was glad to just get rid of the tea cups. None the less, the journey to the tea cup is often more than we realize…


Leave a Comment

  1. Jeff – I recall enjoying your thoughtfulness in years past. This blog makes me want to come enjoy some tea in one of those cups with you. Thanks for the thoughtful reflection. Greg

  2. Hi Greg (not sure which Greg this is though!) I would always welcome Chado (the way of tea) at any time. The tea cups are in my office should you be around SPU!

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