Tengshing Kazama was born in 1979 in Hokkaido, Japan. He is a practicing Zen monk, and currently is an artist-in-residence at Sa Sa Art Projects in Phnom Penh.
Kazama obtained a Master’s in Fine Art from Musashino Art University in Japan.
After completing graduate school, he received training to be a Zen monk at Eiheiji temple where he was born and raised. As an artist, Kazama works with various media including drawing, sculpture, installation and performance, often dwelling on exploration of the rituals. He spoke to Eileen McCormick recently.
Good Times2: Why did you choose Cambodia?
Kazama: This residency was made possible through the support from Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs and Sapporo City Fund for Arts and Cultural Promotion, through NPO S-AIR. S-AIR is the acronym for Sapporo artist-in-residence. S-AIR made it possible for me to come to Cambodia.
I chose Cambodia because I already had been to France and I was very curious about this country. In Cambodia not everything is settled and I feel that everything is still new and up and coming. Coming from Japan everything is very organized. So I wanted to see what a chaotic environment would be like.
Good Times2: Can you tell me about your path of being a Zen monk?
Kazama: I am a Zen monk but the Buddhist code of conduct of my temple is different from other temples. As you can see monks at my temple often get married and have families. There is only a short time when we must abstain from more traditional taboos like drinking, eating, marriage etc.
At the age of 10, I received my first initiation. But it was not until I was 20 that I received my second initiation, and took my vows, that confirmed me as a Zen monk for life. People often ask if my family forced me to become a monk because in Japan, it is common for children to follow the advice of their parents. No, my father did not force me to become a monk. I became a Zen monk by my own choice.
Good Times2: Can a Zen monk co-exist as a full-time artist?
Kazama: I believe that the two are closely connected – art and being a monk. Both are exploring the truth of the universe. By being an artist I try to find the full truth. This is similar to what I practice in my spirituality. How the truth comes out depends how you see art.
To me art is something that helps us see the truth from many angles. It has helped me to understand that there are many truths to one thing. Each perspective of even one piece of art work allows me to seek out a whole new truth.
However just being an artist is not good enough. Being a monk, on the other hand, allows me to explore the truth of humanity. In the end both are stepping stones to different perspectives of the truth.
Good Times2: Your art is an ancient Japanese art form that uses a special cord and it’s called Mizuhiki. When did the Mizuhiki tradition start?
Kazama: Mizuhiki is a Japanese traditional wrapping ribbon for special gifts. It had originally been brought to Japan from China in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573). During commercial transactions, the Chinese used it as a visual mark to distinguish the imported goods from the others and as a security key. But then the Japanese mistakably understood it as a special gift-wrapping ribbon to tie a special gift.
Over time, the style and design used in Japan became different from the original one in China. You see this design represents a crane and it is one of the most common animals in Japan. We also use Mizuhiki for celebrations. We also like to use turtle decorations a lot in Japan as well. These two animals are popular because they represent longevity and happiness.
Originally in China they used a different form of turtle, called possibly the god turtle and instead of a crane they used a phoenix.
Good Times2: For what occasions do you use these ribbons?
Kazama: These ribbons are eloquent and are only used for special celebrations especially when we need to give money as a gift. In Japan we have cyclical celebrations and when we celebrate we really celebrate. After the celebrations we go back to normal life, so when we celebrate we want to provide good fortune and really enjoy the time.
Mizuhiki art is considered extravagant and helps to bolster our celebrations. Aside from religious and seasonal holidays it is most common to use this art for both weddings and funerals because when you give Mizuhiki you must provide money inside the envelope. Now, however, things are changing and we also use this art and envelope to give money for New Year’s. This was not the case in the past.
A long time ago for New Year’s we used to give rice cakes as gifts which obviously would not fit inside the envelopes. Sometimes for New Year’s there will be a decadent rice cake with a Mizuhiki ribbon art sitting at the top.
Good Times2: Do certain colours mean different things?
Kazama: The most popular colours are yellow or gold and blue. I must tell you something interesting about Japan. Before we never had the colour green because blue and green are seen as the same colour. You see when you’re at a green traffic light you say in English green but for us we say blue. So when we say blue is a popular colour, it might also mean green.
Good Times2: How do you get inspired when you create?
Kazama: I create art based on how I feel in a particular environment – for instance on where I stand on a piece of land. The creation comes from the energetic cords that help connect me to the land I am on. Inspiration for me to create my art is not the reason behind the art but my connectedness to the land.
Good Times2: Can you share with me about your journey so far, on becoming an artist?
Kazama: My journey to becoming an artist was supported by both my parents – especially financially because it is very difficult to make a living in the arts. My parents never told me to become an artist or hindered me from following my path. They always instilled upon me to follow my heart.
As far as my path to becoming more famous I would not site any one person who discovered me. I think I became better known by word of mouth. I am both an artist and a monk and this is rare. I think people saw that I was following my passion and began to support me more over time. Once word got around about the work I was doing, I was invited to present my artwork at bigger exhibitions.
Art is the easiest way to tell a story for future generations. We for the most part are not sure what is happening right now because we’re all captured in a big wave. And it is not until that wave crashes that the work of artists will be understood.