Monday, August 31, 2015

Zen in Japanese culture

Japanese culture as evidenced in its various "ways" (道) is Zen like. For example, there are Way of Tea (茶道), Way of Arrow (kyudo 弓道) and Way of calligraphy (書道). It seems that every traditional practice can be expressed as "Way of" by the Japanese. Is it just a common way of saying thing in the Japanese language without any special meaning? Or is it imbued with signification special to the Japanese culture? And what is the purpose or performance objective of such significations?

To understand Japanese, one must look at what they like to do. Japanese like to take bath in a very special way. I remember decades ago, in one of my early trips to Tokyo, my wife and I stayed in a small hotel in Asakusa, a popular tourist district with the famous Kinryuzan Temple. On the top floor of the hotel, there is a huge public bath in which male guests can do the bath ritual and soak in a huge hot water communal pool overlooking Tokyo. In addition to public bath houses, Natural hot springs (温泉, onsen) are numerous and highly popular across Japan. Every region of the country has its share of hot springs and resort towns, which come with them. The internal sensation that a Japanese seeks is a balanced chi-filled body created by hot bath, not without a short period of "suffering" before one can ease into the enjoyable meditative state. The mind is totally consumed by the hot water and the person will enter a mode of total focus that rational thoughts are supposed to be blocked out.

Most Japanese love such sensation, except perhaps some of the younger generation who feel more akin to embracing the western environment of a Starbucks in Shibuya, to see and to be seen like any Western kid. Even then, in the heart of such busy district like Shibuya, there are small cafes scattering in the side streets where, mostly on the first floor, I found a few salaried men and women sitting stoically in front of a café, very Zen like.

Japanese love Zen, and they like to create the feeling of Zen in traditional practices like tea, archery and calligraphy as mentioned above. What is meaningful in Zen for the Japanese personality? What are they seeking in Zen, as expressed in the different Ways?

First of all, it is not passive enjoyment. The Japanese Way of Tea is not like simply enjoying a nice cup of tea. If that be the case, no ceremony will need to be learned. Secondly, it is not like a quantifiable achievement. In the higher Dans, Kyudo practitioners are not being judged principally by their target scores (which being no more than 20% of the final score). Thirdly it is not just simply beauty. In Japanese calligraphy, a piece of work is not judged principally by its artistic beauty (that will make Japanese calligraphy works of graphic or abstract art).

Steps in practising/doing Japanese Ways are meticulously set out as rules. A practitioner of a Way has to learn the steps to the letter, usually in a particular order and which always requires some kind of physical pain (oftentimes involves muscular endurance pain) on the part of a practitioner. Suffering, rather than to be avoided, is an honorable act for a Japanese. What suffering finally delivers is a perfection of the steps. Perfection in a such as way that the particular movements of a Way has to be second-nature to the practitioner. Perfection also has to include the mind. The mind has to be totally focused in attending to the task. The kind of focus requires is meditative in nature. In other words, it should be in essence as in the zone as in seated meditation. This is moving meditation par excellence.

It is Zen. It is Japanese interpretation of Zen. It is attention to physical that delivers mental results. It is Tao. It is The Way!

Japanese tea ceremony

1 comment:

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