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That’s The Way: My Teacup Died Today

Illustration by Yii-Jen Deng

‘It was time for your teacup to die.’

So saith Ikkyu, a prince-turned-monk from the 15th century, or so the story goes. I like this one, being a rather accident-prone person myself, and enjoy the notion of a life in things. This article is dedicated to the sudden demise of a spatula that’s shaped like the fire demon Calcifer, from Howl’s Moving Castle, which I rather ironically managed to melt.

The tale tells of Ikkyu as a boy, who had broken an antique teacup beloved by his teacher, who unluckily appeared just after the accident. Hiding the fragments behind his back, Ikkyu distracted him by asking, ‘Why do people have to die?’.

‘It’s natural,’ said the teacher, probably glad that his wayward pupil was so curious. ‘Everything has its own time and lasts just so long. You should not be sad about death: it’s part of life.’

Ikkyu was delighted and produced the poor shattered cup. ‘It was time for your teacup to die!’

Well, RIP Calcifer. I came across Ikkyu’s story in one of the Taoist comic books illustrated by Tsai Chih Cheng—I read them quite often as a child because they were among the few English books in the prayer room, and the existential crises of adults do get dull. The pictures, if a trifle repetitive, have a keen sense of mischief, and Cheng’s illustration of the last scene has Ikkyu looking very pleased with himself, in contrast to his teacher’s wide-eyed horror.

Perhaps it was this horror, which suggested a touch of the hypocrite, that made this character emblematize for me a lot of what seemed jarring in the particular kind of Taoism I often heard espoused—most of all, the fatalistic aspect. I once memorably saw a Taoist lecturer in Taiwan responding to a colleague’s paralysis after a surgery gone wrong with: ‘It is the will of Shangdi’ (Highest Deity, or God), which seemed both discouraging and blatantly insensitive. Yet the story itself is not so simple, and neither was Ikkyu.

Oddly enough, his modern fame derives from the Japanese anime series called Ikkyu-san (original run: 1975-82), which portrays him as the mischief-loving kid suggested in the teacup story. In life, however, his character suggests an odd mix of Zen Buddhism and Western libertinism (though he’d certainly never heard of the latter). An illegitimate child of Emperor Gokomatsu, he was sent to a temple to be trained as a priest but ended up favouring brothels and sensuality as natural expressions of human desire, or even paths to spiritual awakening, in contrast to what he regarded as the superficiality and corruption of Zen monasteries. He depicted himself as an ‘eccentric madman stirring up a crazy storm’, and his wandering led him to be known as ‘Crazy Cloud’.

Ikkyu embraced his iconoclastic strangeness as an aesthetic in his poetry, ideas, and life. Over three hundred years before Lord Byron mounted a human skull as a drinking cup and pronounced himself ‘Abbot of the Skull’, the Zen Master Ikkyu was brandishing a skull on the end of a bamboo stick on New Year’s Day—a walking memento mori for drunken revellers. 

Disrupting established ways of thinking, then, is at the heart of the teacup story, and Ikkyu’s triumphant retort challenges the orderly way his teacher presents death while exposing through shattered porcelain the hollowness of such teachings.Though the teacher claims to be modestly reconciled with fate, it is covetous materialism that prevails. The quick subversive wit of the ‘Crazy Cloud’ foregrounds the value of free-thinking perspectives; though the story may be ‘only’ legend, it gives some idea of the tensions within Zen philosophy, and how Ikkyu played with them.

Though a unique and striking figure in the history of Zen Buddhism in Japan, he recalls for me the famous ‘Mad Monk’ Ji Gong, usually portrayed with a fan and flask of wine, which was the Chinese deity we used to have on the altar at home (alongside Guan Yin and the Laughing Buddha). Ikkyu was also strongly influenced by the writings of Zhuangzi who, as we shall see in a later article, influenced Oscar Wilde. 

In his essay ‘A Chinese Sage’, Wilde observes ‘He [Zhuangzi] would be disturbing at dinner parties, and impossible at afternoon teas’… Incidentally, he was very fond of porcelain teacups as well as blue and white china, once describing them to be ‘as delicate as the petals of a rose leaf’. I leave you, then, with a figment of my imagination: a philosophical tea party in which the guests, Ikkyu, Zhuangzi, Wilde, and Byron, drink Earl Grey from skull cups, which they then proceed to smash, one by one, until they can trace poetry in the bone-white sand.

And the next time you experience existential self-doubt after dropping a teacup (or melting kitchen utensils), you’ll know who to invoke…