When no is not an option, in Japanese tea gardens and life (2020)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

This weekly musing is a thought experiment on consent and the meaning of no. I write this as an invitation for contemplation on the grey zones of human interaction. If you are looking for a more concrete and practical first approach to consent in BDSM and tantra, then I recommend reading the text “Playing safer” instead.

Most of my thought process right now is dedicated to Japanese gardens and tea houses – as my long term plan is to build and maintain one by my own two hands. I recently listened to a lecture on spatial concepts in traditional Japanese architecture, and one thing that stuck with me was the process of invitation into a garden. Or temple, or tea house for that sake. The entrance is gradual, with several borders to cross. The first one may be a gate or Torii, a symbol for stepping into another realm, followed by an entry path into a garden leading up to a house. The house has a Genkan, an entry area for welcoming guests that often include a porch. It is above the ground, and here the outdoor shoes are exchanged for slippers, as another yet step. Inside there are several rooms, each room separated with sliding Shoji doors. The doors are opened and closed as the guest are invited further into the building. Each is marking another border and another ritual of moving into a more personal realm. Every step exists to invite the visitor along a mysterious path, where each step is shrouding the next. In Japanese, this is the concept of Yugen that is said to mean…

A profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe and the sad beauty of human suffering.

Writing this, I remember my years of working for a telecommunication operator in Japan, and how it was impossible to say no. In the morning meetings, my manager would tell me – today I’m writing that you did this in the report – but it’s only early morning, and I didn’t do anything yet, and I don’t know if I will be able to. Anyhow, it was up for me to do it. It might seem harsh and stupid, but there is another side to it because if I failed, my manager would take the blame. So she would slowly invite me into more responsibility, similarly to how the tea garden stepwise invites the visitor into a meditative space. This process is crucial in a culture where it’s almost impossible to say no. And there are several layers to it, at first glance, it may seem uncomfortable for the person receiving the no. As they did something wrong, and in Japanese culture, they will lose face, and be embarrassed. But it is equally uncomfortable to say the no, as they must show their discontent, and probably experienced the source of it – the no. I think the best way is to see it as a joint failure of proceeding through the ritual of invitation. My experience is that this behaviour is very defining in Japan, but we traditionally have the very same tendencies in Sweden, to avoid being rude and breaking social codes. Maybe that is why I find it so comfortable in Japan as an introverted Swede.

Here I should probably, say that there is another side to the whole thing, where everyone also can be better at asking for what they want, as nobody is mindreader, and that exchanging a no should not be a failure. And yes, this perspective is also valid.

But coming back to the subject, I believe that is a similarity to BDSM here, or at least in how I tie rope because I don’t want the “no” to be the ending point of a session. It has to be there, as a defined idea, as a handbrake when everything else fails. But preferably it is never used. The Japanese gardens achieve this by the gradual invitation and architecture that aims to slow the guest down. That is why path built in different sized stones, often slippery from the moisture of surrounding moss, to invite focus from the risk of falling. Entering the garden should be a mystery, but yet peaceful and tranquil, just like a rope bondage session. The surroundings are continually changing – trees, rocks, and water mixed with wooden constructions and carved stones. The garden conceals this process from the visitor. It is part of Yugen. And its actually in service, as the place is itself, is guiding the visitor to let go, and just be.

And surrender in BDSM can be similar, I believe. As the ropes gradually get more challenging, the positions get more exposed, and the situation gets more intense. The process is, in a way hidden without asking, while still taking full responsibility, like my manager at Docomo. Of course, one can always say no, but the goal is not to want to. There is a Japanese expression called Omakase that could translate into “chefs choice” when ordering sushi. It’s kind of entrusting the chef to provide a mystery, so the guest can let go and surrender to the experience. I believe it comes down to trust. In tea gardens, BDSM sessions and sushi bars. But remember, similarly, to the gradual invitation into a garden, there is no sushi chef will force-feed you your sushi. Both my manager and restaurant owner would lose face and want to kill themselves if I had to say no. And this is the key, I think, trust and responsibility.

To end this weekly musing, I want to ask a final question – in a BDSM session, who is inviting who? On the surface, it may look like the dominant, or the rope master or the bakushi (being fancy and Japanese) is inviting the submissive into their realm of expertise. But I believe that it is equally much an invitation into the vulnerability and perversion of the submissive, gradually asking the dominant if they are ready for that responsibility.