Tokonoma is a place that should be in every household. It is a place that encourages us to talk with the world, talk to others and to ourselves as well. It is a place from which the power of the word and the power of beauty can affect us. Including the power of gratitude.
Perhaps my long experience in a culture other than the one I was raised in led me to an everlasting longing for conversation. The conversation helped me to orient myself in the chaos of things, to stay myself, protect myself and at the same time understand others. I gradually realized what everything conversation could be. For example, even a self-talk can become a conversation. In many critical moments of my life, I recited the beginning words of the biblical Gospel of John that “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, the Word was God,” and I read the sentence over and over until I began to gather together the pieces of my mind drowned in tears. I didn’t try to understand the mystery of the Word, all that mattered to me was that the Word was close to me. That we were in a conversation. This was despite the fact that my sputtering was more of a monologue than a dialogue.
One definition of what a conversation is is that it is “a mutual exchange of views between two or more people who take turns talking and listening.” This definition would seem to rule out a monologue, but I still know that my monologue was a conversation. I even think that a conversation can take place between a person and a thing, and it doesn’t matter that there is no noticeable exchange of views and the thing is not a person. What is important is the inner urge to fill the space and time that encourages conversation.
When believers long for a conversation with God, they often visit a temple or find a place in nature that provides some space for confession and listening. For an interview. Talk. In Japan, I was fascinated by the fact that the place, which encourages either secular or sacred conversation, is part of the architecture of every ordinary house. You can’t miss this place. It is called tokonoma and it is the most important space of the household. People place family alter in tokonoma, hang a scroll, place a vase with flowers or exhibit household art objects. According to the occasion and according to the season. Decoration of the tokonoma is constantly updated and shares symbols and beauty with household members. Tokonoma reveals sentiment of the particular house. “Ma” means space and “toko” can be imagined as a bed. It is a raised part of the floor, around which a kind of niche or alcove is created. That’s how it translates – a niche, but it’s not a niche, because it’s the main part of the room. The part around which everything revolves. This is where your eyes will rest when you enter the room. Even then, when you settle down, the tokonoma lures your attentiion and accompanies you, and even not knowing, you are driven toward a conversation with its content.
For example, now that we are celebrating the beginning of the new year, Oshougatsu in Japanese, the dialogue with the decoration is a prayer for the health and happiness of the house. In the tokonoma is placed a bowl with grains of whitish rice and black charcoal, which symbolize the promise of prosperity of the house. Long willow branches are decorated from the hanging vase, and white and red camellias must not be missing. That’s how I know it from the ceremony of the first teapot in the year called Hatsugama, and that’s how I like it. White and red in combination symbolize the nation and evoke a strong festive atmosphere. The branches merge to the floor to promise continuity. A kind of circle arrangement around the branches calls for harmony, which is to ensure peace and tranquility of the house as well as of the whole human community.
But it doesn’t always have to be the set holiday event making you place to tokonoma what is recommended for a given time and season, you can express your personal worries and joys too. Tokonoma is there for your ideas and creativity. I remember lovingly displaying our most valuable scroll with a monk on a donkey to our tokonoma while placing a birthday cake sprinkled with sakura flowers under it. The birthday was even more festive like that. I could express myself and I didn’t even need to say anything. When I had something on my mind, I put a desired object in the tokonoma that expressed my wish and hope as symbols. It had nothing to do with something supernatural or even fetishism, it was just a conversation with my worries and events around me. Often a small vase with a fresh flower made our tokonoma inhabited and I was a little less sad when being alone at home. Tokonoma should be a place of an active conversation, and the worst is when the tokonoma is empty or there is a decoration which is no longer on the agenda. It is as if the household has become a cursed castle. Tokonoma tells about the people who live in the house. About the state of their souls. It also connects people and that is very beautiful. I experienced it that way and tried to keep us as family well and, if possible, happy.
It tempts me to ask if we also have a kind of tokonoma in our Czech households that would push us efectively to be the creatures of conversation? It can be a fireplace around which we gather, with its mantelpiece, on which are placed photos of our dearest. Maybe it’s a shelf in the living room, where we have the most valuable objects in the house – a statue or a coffee set, or it may be a picture hanging on the wall. It can also be a Christian cross or a holy image. It’s all important, but let’s admit that our decor is rather a static scene and we don’t even notice it in the end getting used to it. The most dynamic and communicative place in our households is probably the dining table with, for example, a freshly baked Christmas bread or a pot of hot soup.
In any case, I am convinced that having a tokonoma, the place that is always up-to-date, conspicuous and dedicated to its purpose, place in which and through which conversations of all kinds take place to strengthen and refine us, is very useful. You may be inspired by the video I enclose. It is definitely worth watching. After seeing it you may like to take a new look at your home and decide – it will be here. Here will be our tokonoma! And please be generous, because tokonoma is the most important place – it is a bed for body and soul which will give you strength to be creatures of conversation.