Practical pearls from Japanese "Ways"
Living the Japanese Arts & Ways: 45 Paths to Meditation and Beauty
By H.E. Davey
Stone Bridge Press, 2003
Paperback, 212 pages, $18.95
By Oscar Johnson
Special to The Asian Reporter
At first glance, this glossy paperback may appear to have all the trappings of a wispy New Age treatise penned by the stereotypical Western "master" of eastern something-or-other. But if ever there’s a need to suspend judgment until beyond the cover, it’s with this book. Living the Japanese Arts & Ways: 45 Paths to Meditation and Beauty may not be exempt from such trappings. But it is far more than the sum of its words.
"Certain philosophical and aesthetic standards are shared by all Japanese arts," writes author H.E. Davey. "From the martial arts, to Japanese dance, to flower arrangement, distinctive artistic codes are held in common. These aesthetic codes have had a profound effect on the unfolding of the Ways."
The book conveys a depth of understanding in simple language that is as practical as it is profound. Dō (pronounced doe) or "Way," akin to its Chinese predecessor, Tao, is imbued throughout a myriad of traditional Japanese arts and crafts. It’s implied in the ubiquitous suffix of such words as Budo (way of martial arts), Chado (way of tea ceremony), Kado (way of flower arranging), and Shodo, (way of calligraphy). Traditional practice of these and other arts aims beyond hobby and expertise toward inner refinement: "Many paths, one Way." Both get ample play. But Living the Japanese Arts & Ways is not a dissertation on either.
While offering tidbits of the "paths" and the "Way," it points to some fundamental principles by which just about anything worth doing can be done better. That will — as the old song says, ironically and philosophically — "bring us back to" Dō ….
Davey, director of a San-Francisco-based Japanese cultural arts center, respected calligrapher, teacher, and author of books on shodo, kado, and Japanese yoga, sidesteps the esoteric. He uses plain language to unlock some essentials in Japan’s traditional cultural and spiritual aesthetics. In doing so, he draws from a well of not just knowledge, but experience, to offer readers a revealing glimpse of them. The emphasis is more on the why than the "how to."
The book, however, gives insights into subtle and often hard-to-grasp concepts that pierce the veil of tradition for observer and practitioner alike: an appreciation of Shizenteki or naturalness; Mono no Aware, the ability to eye beauty’s impermanence, freeing the artistic mind from what it saw or thinks it should see; balancing Wabi, a subtle sense of austere simplicity, with Sabi, a sort of melancholic solitary timelessness. The ethereal is also melded with the concrete.
Ample attention is given to the physical. Principles of posture, timing, rhythm, kata — basic forms for repetitious practice — also are spelled out in the context of mindfully pursuing an art, craft, or "Way": The postured precision in the ceremonial whisking of tea, the rhythmic timing of an austere dance poise or martial-art move that slams an assailant to the floor. The paradoxically mindful yet whimsical strokes of a calligrapher’s brush all emanate from a single point, according to Davey’s interpretation of this aesthetic tradition.
Complete with a series of exercises and experiments, peppered with factoids, and topped off with cultural guidelines for the would-be student of traditional Japanese arts, the book has appeal for those ranging from mildly curious to serious "Way" wondering.