Ichi Go - Ichi E - jwardenphotography
This article was first published in the Fall 2010 edition of Nature Alberta Magazine.
By John Warden

It’s a good image, I’m really pleased with what I got - it speaks to me. It’s almost perfect, but…it could use a bit more depth of field. A couple of more f-stops and of course a tripod - once again, I had left my tripod at home. I resolved to go back out to Elk Island National Park and take the photo again, but this time, properly.

A week later I was back out at the park. It was the same day of the week and the same time of day and I knew exactly where the trees I wanted to photograph were located. But when I got there, it was all different. The light was different and the trees were different. It wasn’t the same. It wasn’t anything special at all. The moment was gone. It was like I was in a different time and place. I was standing at the same point in the river but the water had moved on. 

Ichi go – ichi e. One moment, one opportunity.

I studied Japanese martial arts for nearly twenty years and I learned the Japanese phrase ichi go - ichi e from my Sensei, my teacher. He used it in the context of our training in the ‘dojo’ or training hall. As the senior student, I had the opportunity of training with the Sensei and he would tell me to ‘focus, train harder’, we only have this one moment, this one opportunity to train together.

Most resources attribute the phrase ichi go - ichi e to the zen esthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony. The tea master has one moment, one opportunity to create the perfect setting and the perfect bowl of tea. While the phrase may have originated in the tea ceremony, its concept, its philosophy has been absorbed into all of the Japanese arts, from flower arranging, to painting and brushwork and into the combat arts. In feudal Japan, sword training was literally a matter of life and death. In actual sword combat, there would only be one moment and one opportunity.

My karate sensei and I had the good fortune of being able to train together for many years, but then one day, he was gone. He moved away, and we no longer had those moments. We no longer had those opportunities to train together. But I have carried his teachings and the zen practices of the martial arts into my photography. For me, the nature photography is about becoming completely absorbed in the energy of that exquisite natural moment. It’s about being part of something so much bigger than yourself, but being in harmony with it. It’s an opportunity to be part of a perfect moment in time. And then that moment is gone and there’s no going back.

But another moment and another opportunity are right there, right now.

I was a police officer for thirty five years, and I can tell you that my career was full of moments and opportunities. Most people don’t really associate policing with the word Zen, but one person who did was Janwillem van de Wettering.

Van de Wettering was a Dutch author who wrote a series of police procedural novels set in Japan. I’ve read nearly all of Van de Wettering’s fiction, but one of his titles has always stayed with me –‘Inspector Saito’s Small Satori’. Satori is a Japanese word for sudden enlightenment or sudden understanding. 

I like the idea of small enlightenments, small understandings. Perhaps that’s what life is all about, a series of moments and opportunities that yield small understandings. Pile them up, one on top of the other and you have a journey, a journey going forward, based the small understandings of each moment and each opportunity. 

I don’t expect to find that exact same image of aspen trees at Elk Island National Park again, but maybe what I learned from the opportunity of looking for them is my own small satori, my own understanding that we only have the moment, so…I better bring my tripod!

Ichi go – Ichi-e. One moment, one opportunity.

Time stops,

In my camera lens -

One moment

A Haiku by John Warden

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