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Does technology have a place in the rite of tea?

Posted by Tyas Sōsen on

Tradition is alive, and to stay afloat in today’s accelerating world in which its inhabitants keep looking for novelties, readjustments must be made. But such adjustments should remain superficial. If we change tradition in itself, that could mean that the inherent values it proposes could get lost, and therefore loose its purpose in today’s age. Contemporarily we keep looking for innovation and new approaches, but it is tradition that teaches us that we mustn’t forget to appreciate what we already have. The flipside of contemporary acceleration is that more often we look for opportunities to slow down and take a moment to be present in the current moment. It is most often in traditional practices that we discover the possibilities for such occasions. Therefore the question remains, to what extent should, or can innovation become part of tradition? And it is this question that we, as proponents of the traditional arts, must approach carefully and thoughtfully.

Two months ago I collaborated with a 3D designer on a project for which a 3D tea chamber was created that could be entered by participants, putting on Microsoft’s HoloLens. They would enter an Augmented Reality (AR) environment in which the 3D tea hermitage was added in the actual surroundings, and where I would make them a bowl of tea.

As a result of this experiment we were commissioned to provide a similar activity as part of an incentive trip organized in the theme ‘Tradition and Innovation’. Due to limited availability of lenses, we this time focused on 3D printing technology and asked the following questions: How can the innovation of 3D printing technology augment a traditional praxis as the rite of tea? What are the possibilities, what should be avoided, and how could this technology positively impact the transmission of this ritual to the next generations.

As a result, I felt that joining tradition with technology is best tested in Kyoto first – where the traditional atmosphere is strong, and we can start from a traditional foundation –, as we did. Should this have been hosted in Tokyo, the focus on technology and ‘new’ may likely have been more prominent, but since this was conducted in Kyoto, I feel that the general atmosphere got everyone to experiment with new features, while maintaining utmost respect for traditional practices.

I am an active promoter of traditional values, standards and ways. I enjoy to work with a tea scoop that has pedigree and an amazing story to it, and feel the spiritual value of carving a tea scoop self handedly as opposed to employing a 3D printed object. But I am also curious. Is there perhaps a place for ‘digital craftsmen’ in the tea environment? Or can digitally created objects at least give us a distant, but real engagement with old objects that contemporary practitioners would otherwise have no chance of engaging with?

As we have just commenced these experiments, I do not know the answers to these questions yet, but I am willing to try and see what the possibilities might be. Could we perhaps recreate objects that have gone lost, or can only be seen from a distance at a museum, for contemporary practitioners to take in their own hands; or is there maybe an opportunity to reconstruct a tea pavilion that is due to its old age now shut off from the public, and use the software to enable students the educational experience of ‘visiting’ the place in an alternative, undamaging way?

Inevitably experiments as these imply dangers for the maintenance of tradition. Young inexperienced practitioners could take to technology as the sole approach for their tea practice, and thereby revoke the access to the true authentic values of their discipline. I believe that you can’t experiment with tradition – and you shouldn’t – if you don’t understand tradition first. I of course don’t want to sound pretentious in a way that I am saying that I perfectly apprehend tradition, but I do try to at least be mindful in my approach, and evaluate if the experiments we do could or could not have a place in the future of the rite of tea.


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