Living the Japanese Arts & Ways:45 Paths to Meditation & Beauty
by H. E. Davey
Those of us who take an interest in Japanese arts are often attracted by the philosophical view surrounding these arts. By arts I mean traditions such as Tea Ceremony, Kado or Flower Arranging (also known as Ikebana), Kyudo (or ceremonial archery), and, of course, such poetic forms as Renga. It is not easy for non-Japanese to grasp the esthetic categories through which Japanese arts and ways are formulated. There are some differences between western and Japanese approaches and these manifest in both big and small ways. For example, in the west flower arranging is considered a merely decorative pastime, while in Japan flower arranging evolved into a high art. Why is this so?
The best presentation of the basic ideas underlying Japanese approaches to the arts I have found is H. E. Davey’s “Living the Japanese Arts & Ways.” Davey is the Director of the Sennin Foundation for Japanese Cultural Arts in the East Bay. He is an accomplished practitioner of several of these arts, including Japanese Yoga and Calligraphy. He has been certified by traditional Japanese schools.
The book is divided into 45 sections, grouped into four chapters: 1. The Essence of the Japanese Arts & Ways, 2. Spiritual Aesthetics in the Japanese Arts & Ways, 3. Mind & Body Unification in the Japanese Arts and Ways, and 4. Traditions & Personal Relationships in the Japanese Arts & Ways. Each of the 45 Sections is headed by a Japanese term, such as “Yugen”, “Mono no Aware”, "Wabi", and "Furyu". These terms are then explained and illustrated. As the book unfolds, and as new terms are introduced, the new terms are related to the previously introduced terms so that a fabric of relationships among the terms is gradually woven.
In addition the book begins with a broad overview of East Asian philosophy that is at once insightful and accessible to the ordinary reader. I was particularly impressed by the author’s emphasis on Confucian influences on the arts and ways; a point which, I think, many western writers on this topic have missed. There is also a section on the influence of Shinto, which is equally insightful. Davey really has a broad grasp of Japanese cultural foundations.
Davey sees the arts and ways of Japan as sharing an underlying view which he states as seeing the universal in the particular. That is one reason why Flower Arranging could become a high art in Japan, because the idea is that, when framed correctly, one can apprehend that which is universal in the particularity of the impermanent flower arrangement, and thus a flower arrangement can function as a gate to this universality.
Davey does not talk directly about Renga in his book, but his book touches on many of the esthetic ideals that are foundational for Renga and which all Renga poets shared. The idea of a flow of images is rooted in this understanding that the universal resides in the particular and for this reason Renga, like Flower Arranging, became a Way, or Path, in Japan during its heyday. I think Renga can still function in that way. I have read this book several times and found each reading to be helpful. I highly recommend Davey’s book for all those interested in the Japanese approach to the arts and particularly for those interested in Renga.
Note: “Living the Japanese Arts and Ways” was originally published as a separate book, but I believe it has gone out of print. It has, however, been reprinted in its entirety in “The Japanese Way of the Artist”, by the same author which contains, in addition to the “Arts and Ways”, his book on calligraphy, “Brush Meditation”, and his book on flower arranging, “The Japanese Way of the Flowers”.