Followers of the Way

A recent conversation with a friend reminded me that before Christians took that designation they were known as ‘followers of the way’. The Way is a central concept in Japanese aesthetics and it set me thinking about how the two converged.


The Path: Because I walk it, it becomes a path / If I don’t, weeds will grow. ~Mitsuo Aida (poet and calligrapher)

Her name was Midori. When she told me (without a trace of shame) that she had been studying flower arrangement for fourteen years, I’m sure I wondered privately if she was an uncommonly slow learner. I probably asked her what was so difficult about flower arrangement that it took soooo long to learn. That was before I started my own turning and fermenting, my own soaking and conversion, my own maturation process in this culture.

A gentle look back to the times reveals a person just out of University, full of ambition, hungry for Life and Experience. Now I see my underlying assumptions (and smile at the youthful impatience of my attitude) that learning is undertaken for the purpose of gaining a usable skill; that Mastery has a timetable, and accomplishment means once and for all.
Lots of Japanese arts, including the martial kind, go by the name of The Way (道). Here are a few examples:
First, there is the native spiritual tradition called

○ The Way of the Gods 神道 (shintou)]

And some of the arts:

○ The Way of the Brush (calligraphy) 書道 (shodou)]

○ The Way of Tea 茶道 (sadou)]

○ The Way of Flower Arrangement 華道 (kadou)

And some of the martial arts:

○ The Way of the Warrior 武道 (bu(shi) dou)

○ The Way of Unifying Life Energy 合気道 (aikidou)

○ The Way of Tenderness/Gentleness 柔道 (judo)

○ The Way of the Sword 剣道 [けんどう (kendou)] (Also, the mysterious and beautiful iaidou)

○ The Way of Empty Hands 空手 [からて (karate dou)

And this is the place you practice m/any of the Ways.

○ Doujou 道場 The place for the Way (doujou)]

People may say they’re ‘studying’ one of these arts but ‘practice’ may be a better word  to denote their essentially experimental nature and the absence of a concern with time. The arts are realms in(to) which one grows and develops, into which one lives (rather like Rilke’s lovely notion of ‘living into the questions’). You do this with a Master (who may be a woman or a man) and in a community of fellow practitioners. Art, the Way, is about self-cultivation, the way you train yourself to be a better human being, the way you belong and emerge into and serve society, a never ending process.
The ‘-dou’ or ‘-tou’, the Way, is the Japanese sounding of the (better-known?) Chinese notion of the Tao, a concept I liken to ‘flow’, whose basic reality is one of constant change. Moment by moment we are called to attend to Presence, to enter, as Christian teachings have it, the narrow gate. Attention is all.

What I especially like about the Way is the balance of attention given, ideally, to process and spirit, over form and product. As I write that, I am reminded that what I like about the Way is the sense of a process of formation, an holistic approach to life and human relations, one that is being lost as the industrial character of education strengthens and pushes for the  fetishising of scores and certification over the human person coming up and finding their role and place in the world. (1)


A recent bolt-from-the-blue realization is that the ‘self’ of the Eastern practices of self-cultivation is different in radical ways to the Western concept of self. Whereas (whether conscious or not) the western imagination has been grounded by the Greeks, with some conception of a stable (ideal / perfect?) Platonic realm above or behind it, the world of flux that presents itself to the senses is the only reality in eastern ways of being. (2)  Getting the western habits of mind on The Way (since this is a name Jesus claims for himself), i.e. reconciled with impermanence: can it be done? What would be the impact (s) on the evolution of the tradition?
I once had a nasty experience with this disjunction in a calligraphy class when what I was imagining was to come off of my brush and onto the paper actually did not bear the slightest resemblance to what I had in mind. No matter how many times I tried to bring it out, it just would not come: how awful it was! how ugly! And yet, my diminutive, ever-cheery and encouraging teacher saw something quite different and insisted I mount the piece (on a silk scroll) and put it on show. Looking at the hanging in the gallery was an exercise in endurance and anyone who said anything nice about it only added torturous pricks of shame to my experience! I keep the scroll as a question, a challenge and, above all, though I am not reconciled to it even a decade later, a teaching.
I admit I don’t fully grasp the implications of this essential difference of self-conception but for now I’m letting the insight unfold and incubate in my mind. I intuit it has deep significance for my work in a cross-cultural teaching situation in which I am responsible for the formation of young people finding their Way in the world.


(1) Michael Puett, Harvard author of the recently released ‘The Path’ (iffy reviews) was interviewed over at HuffPo on the topic of ‘What’s So Great, or Not, About Asian Education?’. Highly recommended for my compatriots!

(2) See, for example, this fine, informative entry to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Japanese Aesthetics.


At least . . . 

Surely, any consolation is better than none . . . or, is it? What good is false consolation: smoothing over a jagged situation, say, to avoid facing a painful or unpleasant reality? 

I caught myself mid-sentence as the thought, barely formed, floated across my mind, ‘At least . . .’ it began. I was passing a team of road-workers and, directing traffic a large, young, uniformed man with sandy-coloured dyed hair guided me safely around the site. It was hardly necessary. I was on only two wheels and the narrowness of the road made it necessary to travel at modest speed in any event. His actual duty did not affect my passage at all. His gentle, tanned and smiling face made all the difference, however, to my day. Our wordless encounter left me with a gladdened heart, feeling uplifted.

Years ago, on another longer term building site, I used to watch the weather-beaten face of the elderly man wearing a dark construction company uniform, replete with reflective layers, a white hard hat and sturdy looking safety boots. In every sort of weather, come rain, come shine, come bitter cold and crippling heat, there he’d stand, fully covered, waiting to direct people and vehicles safely into or around the site. His duty, above all, was the maintenance of harmony: harmony with the neighborhood & harmony with the company and those passing by. 

“Harmony maintenance worker” has a nice ring to it. (In this neck of the woods, this is something, for better or worse, expected of us all.) What could I learn from this man? Often he seemed to me utterly vacant. I wondered about him. Was he, perhaps, well-suited to low-stimulus work? Or was he, contrary to appearance, free to work on another, invisible level at something completely life-changing and possibly mind-blowing? Could he have been a ‘post-work’ being, in fact, having reached some kind of enlightenment after hours of serious, secret engagement in practice? (I admit I am rather fond of this little fantasy: the construction site worker as boddhisatva.) Pico Iyer notes in an interesting essay on the Japanese sense of self, that 

. . . losing your smaller mind, certain Zen teachers will tell you, is the best way to lose your self. Or at least that divisive, analytical fixed self that sits outside of things and chops them up, as opposed to the fluid one that finds its identity in getting submerged within a larger stream. As the late German-born Zen teacher Toni Packer had it, “Ego, in its most general terms, is resistance to what is.”

Have you ever noticed how the phrase ‘at least’ is a mask of sorts, one that jollies us along, whistling in the dark? How it keeps us protected from that glimpse into the abyss? The English language hardly does better with ‘at best’ – that phrase likewise has a cloud of misery about it, ‘a result, condition, etc., that is the best one possible even though it is not very good.’

My ‘at least’ around the road works got me thinking about the precariousness of working life these days. How would one distinguish in many jobs what it is to be employed or enslaved? (‘At least you have work,’ the reasoning might go  my reasoning went – an attempt, some might say, of introducing a positive element to a glum situation.) But, as reasoning goes, this line of thought is completely without nobility

This week I’ve been dipping into the World Happiness Report for 2016. I was drawn there by this article which concludes that the position of your country’s economy on the world stage has little to do with your sense of possibility, fulfillment & wellbeing.

In a country famed for its workaholism (living to work), more than 40% of Japan’s work force is irregularly employed (having trouble working to live). And yet, if this rather rightward leaning article is to be trusted (I had one eyebrow skeptically raised through much of it, as reassuring as much of it sounded), Japanese solidarity will ensure the future. The thing is, inequality everywhere is on the rise. This place is no exception. The old ‘work hard & ‘all these things will be added unto you’ cliché has had its day. A new day has dawned; a new way is calling us on.

Lately I’ve come across a few books that shed light on the hard subject of job/financial security:

I’m paying attention to my use of ‘at least’ these days in the hopes that I might find a more generous, just, warm-hearted and open way of responding to the world around me. 


 A boisterous shove mid-flight from one of the cavorting crows explodes a riot of blossom; the flight of a thousand, thousand petals looking for all the world like a storm, or swarm, or storming swarm/swarming storm, of butterflies. This is my favourite part of the sakura season: the ‘snow’, the way the petals release and are carried in people’s hair, on their clothing, the way they fall like the softest of kisses, almost imperceptible, on the skin. A reverent quiet inheres in the fall of snow, winter or spring. Here, in spring, though, the quiet tumbling of petals is accompanied by sighs. Ah! – how beautiful! Ah! – it’s over?!

Breezy gusts bring in floating remnants of the delicate white-pink confetti which land among the dishes of the feast. The poet sighs at the fleet beauty of the blossoms saying, ‘Hana yori dango’, rather the flowers than food. I have wondered if you can tell something about a person according to which stage of the bloom they like best? Those who like it before the full bloom are likely to be those who prefer Friday morning’s anticipation to Sunday mornings. Are those, like me, who like the snow, Sunday morning people? Are the sakura-snow aficianados better shaped for wistfulness and other kinds of mourning, where the Friday-morning Anticipators do best with preparations and celebrations?
I’m thinking about something I read recently about presence being always and already divided within itself (in Kevin Hart’s Kingdoms of God) and how the Japanese notion of mono (no) aware picks up the exquisite tension of the human consciousness of time passing.
Mono no aware signifies the deep feeling or pathos of things, the powerful emotions that objects can evoke or instill in us. It is often associated with a poignant feeling of transience, a beautiful sadness in the passing of lives and objects . . .
There is no such thing as perfect, pure presence (thus the flourishing of desire); there is no unchanging reality (thus the impetus to vital activity in the present moment). That things change and fade away, that change evokes in us a sensitivity to the emotional and affective dimensions of existence, is an indication of its essential value. What is conveyed by the awareness of impermanence has been dubbed ‘the ah-ness of things’: that spontaneous and inarticulate response to the things that affect us immediately and involutarily before we are able to put that feeling into words.
To the Buddhist priest, Yoshida Kenkou, there was nothing more precious in life that its uncertainty, the dynamism of impermanence. To meet this as gift calls for inner freedom, vision, a good set of priorities, and a special kind of attention and care and gratitude
How is it possible
for people not to rejoice each day
over the pleasure of being alive?
Foolish people,
forgetting this pleasure,
laboriously seek [like-minded] others;
forgetting the wealth they possess,
they risk their lives in their greed for new wealth.
But their desires are never satisfied.
While they live they do not rejoice in life, and, when faced with death, they fear it—what could be more illogical?
(Yoshida Kenkou, “Essays in Idleness” trans. Donald Keene)
Mononoaware links