When I first came across the saying ‘一期一会’ in a Japanese-styled tea shop, I thought it was a special slogan, for urging customers to come and meet once a week in the shop for tea. It seemed like a nice concept then, though I wondered if it would be feasible for business. Appallingly, little did I know that I had greatly mistaken on its meaning.
As I researched further, I realised that the meaning is entirely different in Japanese. In my defence, ‘一期’ in our local context is normally used to mean ‘once a week’ or ‘one week’ (一星期). Due to lack of in-depth knowledge on the nuances of the language, along with not much openly explained, I forgave myself for this embarrassing blunder. ‘一期’ can have multiple meanings — once; meeting once; once in a lifetime; one time; one moment. ‘一会’ is less complex, with these meanings — one meeting; one gathering; one short period; one encounter.
The concept of ‘Ichigo Ichie’ (一期一会) originated from Japanese Zen Buddhism and was popularised by Japanese tea ceremonies still practised today. It means that in every one moment, is one unique encounter. With everything changing from moment to moment, each moment presents that which is new. How does one calculate a moment? As time is relative, exactly how long is one moment? For some, a moment can last a long time, and for others, over in a flash. Therefore, it is pure awareness of the moment that truly matters. Surely, to the extent that we are wakeful in this moment, is the very extent we are living it — be it more fully or mindlessly.
The Japanese tea ceremony explains Ichigo Ichie as such… It is about enjoying and treasuring the moment, from the boiling of the water, to the first sip of the tea. Even when practised with precise skills, with the unique conditions of all the external and internal factors involved, each process cannot be repeated. One cannot brew or sip a second cup of tea with exactly the same sentiments and taste that arose with the first cup. It is not just in a tea ceremony that we should have the Ichigo Ichie attitude, as it should overflow into our everyday lives too, from moment to moment. This meditative awareness makes one appreciate every little detail, many of which we habitually miss in our ‘mundane’ lives, which makes life all the more mundane.
I guess the poetic charm of Ichigo Ichie for many lies in the constant pursuit of the ephemeral, that fleeting and ungraspable. One can only have ‘it’ in this moment, and no longer in the next. Then again, the Buddha reminds us in the Diamond Sūtra (金刚经), that exactly due to constant change, even ‘the present mind is unattainable’ (现在心不可得). Yet, Ichigo Ichie is not about reminiscing an experience. On the contrary, it is to not cling to any experience, but flow with it. It is about experiencing things as they are, rather than craving for an experience or clinging to one. For example, when we see a waterfall as it is, it does not make sense to hang on to it, with it clearly expressing change. In reality, there is no solid ‘waterfall’; there is only ‘water-fall-ing’.
This brings us to the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness. What is emptiness? Emptiness is all phenomena being empty (空) of any fixed mind (心) and matter (身). Since both aspects are ever-changing at the mental and physical (i.e. cellular) levels, they are impermanent (无常), thus without a substantial self or ‘non-self’ (无我). As a popular saying goes, the same person cannot step into the same river twice. This runs parallel with the Buddhist truth of the emptiness of self and external phenomena (我空法空). If mind and matter have no truly ‘solid’ entities within, which part of us experiences that good or bad?
Exactly since we are unable to pinpoint the who, what, when and where, the takeaway lesson is to treasure experiences as they are, but not be attached. Even ‘bad’ experiences should be treasured for the ‘good’ lessons they teach, without being attached to either. If able to do this, we will surely become truly at ease (自在). Do not expect or reject what life presents. Whatever occurs is just what it is, for us to make the best of.
While some might be overly attached to their good experiences, some simply just take everything (or anyone) good for granted. To practise Ichigo Ichie is to tread the subtle Middle Path between being attached and being nonchalant. While we treasure, we do not become obsessed. While we are not attached, we do not become complacent.
Due to our kalpas of lifetimes’ force of habit, we assume that to treasure a person, experience or thing (人事物) means to hold on tightly, thinking that for it to endure, it has to be possessed. However, to overly romanticise any of the above will only lead to suffering, for how can the slipping sands of time ever be clutched, even with the firmest grip of a hand?
To be liberated from our futile clinging, we will need practice. A tea master takes years of training to reach the stage of recognising an Ichigo Ichie moment. Yet, when we practise mindfulness of Amitābha Buddha’s name (阿弥陀佛: Āmítuófó) with utmost wholeheartedness now, with his great blessings connected to, we will be living the essence of Ichigo Ichie, right here and right now, even before we meet him in his Pure Land later!
(First contributed for publication at TheDailyEnlightenment.com)