31 October 2011

Tea Whisk Monument

Walk along the streetcar tracks from JR Nagasaki Station, turn left at the corner near the Sakura-machi streetcar stop, and climb the hillside.  You'll pass a tree-shaded park on your left and come to a narrow flight of stone steps extending up into the graveyards on the upper part of the hill.  Most Japanese cities hide their graveyards in temple compounds or suburban reien ("spirit gardens"), but Nagasaki's cemeteries sprawl conspicuously across the hillsides right above the city, as if to remind the populace of the impermanence of life.

Turn right and continue along the street for another 100 meters or so and you'll find yourself in front of the brooding sanmon (gate building) of a Buddhist temple.  Up the steps and through the gate and you're in a different realm: you're finished with cars and crosswalks, freed from haste and noise, invited into a hidden corner of Nagasaki mostly unchanged by time.

Shofukuji, literally meaning "Temple of Holy Happiness," was established in 1677 by Tesshin (1641-1710), the son of a Chinese merchant of Nagasaki and his Japanese wife.  Tesshin entered the Buddhist priesthood at the age of 14 and studied under a Chinese master of the Obaku Zen sect before traveling to Mampukuji Monastery in Uji near Kyoto to clarify his "view."

Many of the old Obaku Zen temples in Nagasaki, often referred to as akadera or "red temples" because of their red paint and other Chinese features, are tourist attractions stormed by thousands of people every year, but Shofukiji has managed to stay off the beaten track and to maintain its traditional if slightly dog-eared appearance and atmosphere.  No one collects a fee at the gate or interferes with visitors.  You climb the old steps past the Tennoden inner gate building -- where a wooden statue of Hotei the "laughing Buddha" relaxes in an altar-like cubicle -- and emerge into a grassy courtyard in front of the main hall.  To the right is an arched stone gate leading into the temple living quarters; to the left a two-story structure with a bell tower above and a Zendo (meditation hall) below, the latter now used as storage space.

The main hall, erected in 1678 and refurbished in 1715, is a beautiful example of the Chinese-style temple architecture that sprang up in Nagasaki in the middle of the 17th century when Chinese mariners and merchants accounted for about one-sixth of the city population.  It is also one of the most enduring, having withstood not only three centuries-worth of wind and rain but also the blast and heat generated by the atomic bomb in 1945.

Steps lead up to the Tennoden, the inner gate to Shofukuji where a statue of Hotei greets visitors with a welcoming laugh.

The main hall at Shofukji exhibits typical features of Obaku architecture, including the red banister encompassing the porch and the front doors with illustrations of peaches. 

Look to the left of the main hall and you see a small garden enclosed by a bamboo fence and, inside, a rather odd cenotaph.  You can make out the Chinese characters 茶筅塚 engraved on the base, that is, chasenzuka or "tea whisk monument."  Sure enough, the weathered stone sculpture of about one meter in height installed on the base is shaped like the bamboo whisk used in the Japanese tea ceremony.

Some observers might interpret this as a signpost for the tea ceremony or perhaps a tribute to a great tea master of the past.  Others might take it for an eccentric work of art, like a statue of a spoon or fork installed in a park somewhere.  Fundamentalists might denounce it as evidence of superstition: What, after all, could a lowly kitchen utensil have to do with faith or worship?

The chasenzuka (tea whisk monument) at Shofukuji.

But of course all of these miss the point.  The sculpture is an expression of gratitude to the tea whisk, the little bamboo tube that is meticulously split halfway into dozens of fine prongs that are then pulled apart with cotton string into two rows forming a perfect bell-shape.  Years of training and hours of effort go into each handmade tea whisk.  To the sajin (tea ceremony practitioner), the tea whisk is not only an indispensable tool but also a symbol of the worldview underpinning the art of chanoyu, namely the appreciation of transcendent beauty in simple things.    

No matter how reverently the practitioner uses it, the tea whisk easily wears down and needs to be replaced.  But instead of exile to the garbage can, the countless teas whisks retired in Nagasaki every year are collected and burned during a ceremony in front of the monument at Shofukuji.  The Japanese term applied to this custom is kuyō, which originates from the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word puja, meaning "offering."  In the Indian tradition the word usually refers to offerings to religious deities and distinguished guests, but the Japanese term includes expressions of gratitude to inanimate objects and non-human species to which people are -- or consider themselves to be -- deeply indebted.  In the former case this could be a tool used in traditional arts; in the latter case, insects killed in the process of agriculture or mice used in medical experiments.

In short, the tea ceremony practitioners simply cannot discard a tea whisk without thought or regret.  Thus, they built a monument and hold a yearly ceremony.

The consumer society of industrialized countries, including modern Japan, generates mountains of garbage every year in the form of wasted food, single-use packaging, and a spectacular array of products tossed away without the slightest hesitation.  The whole system is geared to mass production, mass consumption and mass waste, regardless of the looming problem of resource depletion and environmental degradation.

More people should walk up the hillside to Shofukuji and contemplate the tea whisk monument. 


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