Culture v’s the Essence of the Way

H. E. DaveyArticles, English Leave a Comment

Tea Ceremony

This is an excerpt from: Living the Japanese Arts & Ways – 45 Paths to Meditation & Beauty, by H.E. Davey.

We think that for anyone interested in practising the system of Reiki in line with its Japanese roots then a good understanding of Japanese ways is imperative. H.E Davey does an excellent job of clarifying Japanese elemtns for the Western mind.

(*’Do’ – means The Way, a spiritual path originally derived from the Chinese concept of the Tao. The names of many Japanese arts end in this designation indicating their ultimate objective. )

It is widely recognized that the various Do (despite having been influenced by Chinese culture, art and religion) originated in Japan. Because they are inextricably entwined with Japanese culture, an understanding of Japanese culture is needed to make more than superficial progress in their practice.

Nevertheless, it is legitimate to ask to what degree the Ways and Japanese culture are separate, can be separated, and indeed if they should be separated. The evidence of neglect on the part of both Western and Japanese students of the Ways to deeply consider these questions makes such an inquiry even more important.

The Way means the Way of the universe, and sott it clearly is not limited to a specific art. The Way is universal; the Ways are particular. Being both simple and complex, this distinction is sometimes overlooked. In a sense, it can and cannot be made. As the mind cannot truly be separated from the body, the Way and Ways cannot be separated. Still, the mind and body have different characteristics and modes of functioning; the mind has no form, the body has form and so on.We can make distinctions and speak in terms of mental versus physical despite the fundamental oneness of the two. The Way of the universe and its outward expression, the different Ways are similarly inseparable but nonetheless distinguishable.

Most people who have practiced a Do seriously have, from time to time, heard a Japanese teacher state that only a native Japanese practitioner of chado, shodo, budo and others, can really understand the art. This sentiment, which seems to be less frequently voiced these days, is obviously infuriating to non-Japanese students of the Do. And while this may shock and further infuriate such individuals, I would agree with it – but only on one level.

The Ways are Japanese cultural arts. The Way is not. As Japanese cultural disciplines, the different Do are an outgrowth of Japanese art, history, religion, geography, government, and many other specific factors. And the reference is not simply to contemporary Japanese culture but includes everything that has come before. If we separate the Do from their cultural ground, they cease to exist, degenerating into nothing but a generic sort of art. While multiculturalism is a popular idea and a good thing in general, there is no value in reducing the art forms of other cultures to whatever an individual practitioner is comfortable with based on his own cultural preferences. This kind of homogenizing will only render the arts of other cultures bland and shallow.

The Americanizing of cuisines from other traditions provides a simple example. I like spicy food, and so I frequent Thai restaurants. I’m often disappointed, however, when I discover the food is bland and inauthentic. Querying owners, I’m usually informed that the cuisine has been “adjusted to American tastes.” Perhaps, but it has also sometimes been rendered unrecognizable and tasteless. I’d hate to see this happen to Japanese Do.

Since Do are an outgrowth of centuries of Japanese cultural development, they can never be understood by Westerners in the manner that native Japanese understand them. Plainly, Westerners aren’t Japanese, and we must arrive at our own comprehension of these arts. Whether our comprehension of these arts is problematic depends on whether it results in a homogenization, or “dumbing down,” of these classical arts. Like tampering with a rare classic car to make it “look cool” or painting big numbers on an antique clock to make it easier to read, facile alterations to these arts would damage their integrity. And make no mistake, a number of Do forms are very much “ living antiques” that derive part of their value from their antiquity. I, and a number of other Westerners and Japanese devotees of the Do, would urge Westerners to leave them intact, and if this isn’t palatable, to consider a different activity more suitable to their tastes, rather than destroying venerable cultural artifacts.

Despite some Japanese arts and Ways having survived for centuries, as living arts, they are fragile and depend for their survival on the people who teach them. If these people, Japanese or non-Japanese, lose the art’s essence that is rooted in Japan, then a given art may be rendered unrecognizable within a generation or two.

I now and then hear some American teachers of different Do speak of “not needing the Japanese at this point,” or “ being better than the Japanese at…(insert your favourite art).” I can only shake my head. Competition of this sort has no place in the Do, as Westerners and Japanese should have the same goal: the understanding, dissemination, and preservation of the traditional Japanese cultural arts and Ways. For when the Japanese aspects of an art are lost, so too are the art’s history and character. In such an event, a different name should be applied to the art. At least, if we alter the nature of such arts, we should note this by indicating that we teach or practice American karate or European-style ikebana, instead of trading off time-honored Japanese traditions. The Do are, after all, Japanese Ways, as evidence by their Japanese names.

But is that all they are? Decidedly not. Because, although I enjoy participating in parts of Japanese culture, that wasn’t my original motivation for getting involved in the Do that I study. And it isn’t why I continue to practice them. My original motives had much more to do with universal aspects of the different Do, aspects whose understanding allow us to cultivate attributes that are valued regardless of cultural orientation. These aspects relate to the Way as much as to the Ways (for the Way is ultimately the Way of the universe).

The Ways are Japanese, and Westerners cannot divorce these arts or themselves from Japanese teachers or culture without losing something significant. Yet just as the Japanese Do are Japanese, they’re also expressions of a Way that transcends nationalities and political boundaries. Understanding this universal Way has nothing to do with where we were born. It is the Way of humanity, the Way of the Universe, and its significance is boundless and timeless.

So while we Westerners perhaps can’t understand the Ways as the Japanese do, we can certainly grasp the Way itself. And between Japanese and Western students of the Do, this is a most important link.

Thus the Ways have at their core both universal and particular qualities. The particular manifestation of the Ways is Japanese, but they are also human expressions of the very heart of the universe.

You can buy H. E. Davey’s book here…

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