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:
- 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.
- 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.