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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s