The Simple Beauty of Masking Tape

Traditional ōryōki sets contain a kind of folding tray called a hattan. It’s black and shiny and crisp, and if you have a relatively new one, you’ll spend a couple extra seconds before every meal smoothing it out so that it’s flat beneath your bowls. Its primary function seems to be to waterproof the cloth below it, to minimize mess. Ōryōki sets designed for laypeople seem never to include this piece–I don’t know why.

The first time I worked as a server (jōnin), rushing through the monks’ hall spooning out soup and pickles to monks seated with their ōryōki, the hattan of the godō caught my eye. First, it wasn’t black–it was a pale reddish brown. Second, it was criss-crossed with what appeared to be masking tape, at almost every folding edge. It was practically paper thin.

I mentioned it that evening to some of the younger monks, and I got two responses: (1) eye-rolling, in the vein of, “Oh, I wish the godō would get over himself”; and (2) “Isn’t that awesome? Sooo nyohō.” I’d probably heard the term before that day, but in my memory, that was the first time I was able to connect the word with some concrete physical example.

What made the godō’s hattan nyohō? In what way was that ragged-looking rectangle an example of being in accord with the Dharma? A lot of things, maybe, but here’s how it starts:

  1. It was used. It was not a new, shiny object–not only was it old (I suspect decades old), but it had been carefully repaired again and again rather than being discarded.
  2. The color was what is referred to as a “broken” color. I’ve heard this defined in various (and sometimes contradicting) ways, but basically, a broken color is not a primary color, and not black or white–it is a color with its own internal, natural variation, like cloth that’s been rubbed over time.

Both of the above are very much a part of the classical conversation of nyohō. They point to a recognizable aesthetic, one with concrete markers.

But there are other ways in which to discuss if something is nyohō or not.  A commonly raised question is this: Does the object in question arouse desire?  This is tricky. Looking at the hattan, on the surface, it’s an old thing that most people would throw away without consideration.  And I would suggest that even the monks that admire the godō’s way of doing things don’t actually want that particular hattan for their very own.  But it can get complicated, once people start to appreciate this kind of thing, because it’s also true that some monks see that hattan and feel a desire to have one like it, or to be like the godō, or to be thought of as that kind of person.

To be nyohō–to be in accord with the Dharma, to express Dharma–is a living question in every moment, in every sort of action. What does it mean to walk in a way that is in accord with the Dharma?  How does one eat spinach and express Dharma?  There is no endpoint to this line of inquiry (and that’s a good thing). But a starting point can be this traditional understanding of nyohō as a kind of aesthetic.  The list of criteria will grow and grow from here, but as a teaser, this is an aesthetic which respects age, which encourages reusing and recycling, which favors  subtle and rough over gaudy and shiny. It celebrates the dignity and simple beauty of a mat held together with masking tape. This particular tradition-within-the-tradition is predicated on the simple idea that part of practice is establishing the atmosphere of practice for others, and that there are criteria which we can apply to that process, some based on tradition, some resting on intuition. We can learn how to make that space.

This is what I want to explore in this blog. This is how I want to live my life.

4 comments on “The Simple Beauty of Masking Tape

  1. judy says:

    Hello Koun,
    I very much enjoy your posts.

    I wonder if you have any thoughts on how the concept of ‘nyoho’ might manifest through different cultures..?
    ie. Where the Japanese zen buddhist aesthetic favours age, subtlety, restraint, roughness, dark colours, simplicity, the subdued, and the quiet, the Tibetan buddhist aesthetic (for example) favours the brightest colours, elaborate complicated intricacy, the shiny, the gaudy, the noisy, the chaotic, the expressive, and the celebrative.
    Two sides of the same coin..

    • Koun says:

      Judy–

      Thank you! I think this is a really interesting question–I, too, wonder if the aesthetic of nyoho is universal, or if it can only find footing in certain contexts. I can say that the description you offer of Tibetan Buddhist culture is a perfect description of most of Japanese Buddhism, including Zen. I know of only a couple places in Japan that actually intentionally try to create that nyoho atmosphere (I’ve heard that the nisodo do as well–perhaps someone like Shotai could shed light on that). There are nyoho-like elements in tea ceremony and other aspects of the culture that embrace a wabi-sabi aesthetic (not the same as nyoho, though in some ways related), but it’s rare to find it in a temple.

      It does seem to me that most cultures, and most religions, seem to have two opposing aesthetic pulls–one toward opulence and one toward simplicity. The opulent version can be inspiring, in the sense that it inspires awe. For some people, maybe it’s more than that. But in my experience, the simple one can evoke a much deeper reaction. A golden crucifix in a cathedral can be seen as an expression of the greatness and glory of God, but for some people, a hand-carved crucifix can be a conduit for establishing a personal relationship with God. Again, I don’t know if that works universally, but I do think that the US, at least, is a ripe, ripe place for a teaching like nyoho. Blue jeans!

      Gassho,
      -koun

      p.s. I also think that noisy, expressive, celebrative, and even chaotic don’t have to be in opposition to nyoho.

  2. Raj says:

    Good. But what is the test that you are not living a created ‘I’ ?

  3. Raj says:

    To understand nyoho is to understand the true foundation of life. To understand what is worth holding and what is worth rejecting. To where to look and spread that look. It economises one’s time and trip. Thank you.

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