The Japanese ‘Art Way’ (dô)
Ryôsuke Ohashi, Kyoto
Sensus communis in the Context of the Question
of a Non-Western Concept of Modernity
Ryôsuke Ohashi, Kyoto
Sensus communis in the Context of the Question
of a Non-Western Concept of Modernity
To begin with, I would like to illustrate one of the findings of the current debate on modernity, which, although it has been discussed at length in one form or another, still contains some loose ends. This finding indicates that the subject of ‘modernity’ is, in reality, a ‘classical’ one. The fact that it is a classical theme means that it is constantly discussed without being exhausted, albeit in a banal or epochal fashion. Perhaps the reason why the subject of ‘modernity’ is classical, is that its origins are classical. The realm of science and technology which shapes modernity did not first originate in the modern era, as their roots extend far back into classical Greek antiquity. If the origins of modernity lie in classical Greek antiquity, and are consequently predominantly Western, we are justified in asking whether and to what extent a non-Western modernity can exist.
To answer this question, I will adopt a similarly classical approach. I would like to examine the classical definition of ‘nature’, which, so to speak, provides the sensus communis of traditional Japanese art, and serves presently as the conscious or unconscious guiding principle of certain artists in Japan. The sensus communis indicated here is not a form of sensuality per se, but a communal, sensual experience of nature represented in the so-called ‘art way’ in Japan. This locally defined sensus communis formed the ‘Art Way doctrine’ in Japan (Japanese: geidô-ron). Just how an illumination of this Art Way doctrine can contribute to reflections on non-European modernity will become clear in the course of this presentation. The Art Way doctrine originated under the rule of the knight class between the Muromachi period (1392-1573) and the Edo period (1600-1867) in Japan.
The ‘Art Way’ doctrine
First of all, it is important to note the broad spectrum of art genres contained in this doctrine. The Tea Way, the Flower Way, the Perfume Way, etc. are known as the Art Game (Japanese: yugei), which also includes Puppet Theatre (jôruri), Kabuki, Nô, etc. and the theatrical arts (butai geinô). Finally, the martial arts (bugei) such as sword fighting, archery, lance fighting, riding, etc. are also dealt with in the Art Way doctrine. More significant than the external scope of this art genre is the fact that the Art Way doctrine was an expression of the personal self-awareness of the artist. It differs from the meta-theories of art which already existed in Greek antiquity, of which Plato and Aristotle can be considered the founding fathers. The writings of artists such as Alberti, Leonardo, Dürer should also be mentioned in this respect for their expression of artistic experience. They did not, however, develop any clearly defined genre of art doctrine.
This distinction comes perhaps from the fact that the fundamental self-awareness of the Art Way doctrine was not an individual, but a communal sense, a sensus communis, which grew out of the Japanese spiritual/intellectual tradition. The ‘Way’ (michi) contained in the term Art Way actually refers to the ancient Chinese term tao. It is based on Chinese Taoist thought, which was further developed under the influence of Buddhist ideas in Japan and elevated to an art concept. This is enough proof of the particular relationship which existed between art and religion in the Art Way doctrine.
Puppet theatre: interspace of the skin membranes
Let us now look at a concrete example, a short piece by the playwrighter Chikamatsu Monzaemons (1653-1724), best known under the popular title: The Doctrine of the Interspace of the skin membranes, between irreal and real being (Kyojitsu himaku ron). This popular title derives from the key phrase of the play: art lies in the interspace of the skin membranes, between irreal and real being. The interspace between the irreal in the sense of the non-real void and the real in the sense of the real is logically inconceivable. In a court of law, for example, a clear verdict must always be reached on whether to free or penalize a suspect. However, as soon as this logically inconceivable interspace is expressed as skin membranes, a part of the organic body, it takes on the form of a real image. It inspires us to think of human feeling or will, which is in the broad sense organic. The expression ‘the interspace of the skin membranes’ seems extremely curious to those who are unfamiliar with the semantic background. Chikamatsu developed a genre of puppet theatre known as Ningyô Jôruri.
In this genre, the puppets move to the rhythm of the songs, accompanied by a 3-string instrument called a shamisen. The Ningyô Jôruri puppets are not stuffed like conventional puppets. They consist solely of fabric membranes. One, or sometimes as many as three puppeteers, insert their hands into these skin membranes, using their fingers to manipulate the puppets’ hands and head. As a dramatist of the Jôruri Theatre, it was Chikamatsu’s greatest and final wish to use the puppets to surpass performances with real actors, especially in the Kabuki Theatre.
‘Since it concerns an art form, which competes with art by living individuals, above all in the Kabuki, and uses lifeless puppets to express a range of feelings designed to move the audience, ordinary efforts can scarcely result in a memorable performance’.
Gestures which are made by puppets and not humans, but are still more moving and realistic than those of a live actor, cannot be achieved through ordinary efforts. The Jôruri Theatre is an art form designed to express these gestures using lifeless puppets consisting only of skin membranes. The objection raised at this point is that the term skin membranes merely expresses the skin or dress of the otherwise insubstantial puppets, and thus only the aspect of irreal being, even if the puppets convincingly depict real people.
This term therefore, cannot express the aspect of real being. Why and how did Chikamatsu succeed in describing the essence of an art containing not only irreal, but also real being by the term skin membranes? It is important to note here that Chikamatsu manipulated the syllabary to create an unusual reading of the characters of the term skin membranes (kanji). In Japanese, the characters are generally used for nouns and verbs, and the syllabary for auxiliaries, the syllabary being added to more complicated characters to allow the reader to read it without difficulty. From the very first edition of his book, Chikamatsu always added the syllable hiniku, denoting meat, to the characters skin membranes, which otherwise reads himaku, although the meaning of the characters does not allow this. Only real people possess flesh and skin (hiniku), and Jôruri puppets consist only of skin membranes (himaku). The insubstantial puppet is irreal as a human figure. When not actually performing, the puppet is hung up on a nail and reduced to a pathetic and insignificant object.
However, as soon as this pathetic figure is set in motion by the puppeteers, it becomes a human figure, which appears more real than real human beings. The otherwise hollow skin membranes appear to envelop the flesh. The puppet begins to possess both, skin and flesh. The characters skin membranes should not be read here as himaku, but hiniku.
Art which transforms himaku into hiniku and creates the interspace between real and irreal being is not exclusive to Jôruri theatre. All valid art must possess this ability; in fact, it is this very ability which qualifies it as art. Chikamatsu as one of all people, who felt such a strong sense of competition towards the Kabuki and never failed to point out the uniqueness of the Jôruri, worked together with the famous Kabuki actor Tôjûrô Sakata (1647-1709), collaborating with him until his 50th year on the Kabuki-Kyôgen, a comic transition piece written for the Kabuki theatre. He wrote the following review on the performance by the Kabuki theatre:
‘Today, the audience wishes to see a clever portrayal of the real, so that, for example, the actor playing the minister has to depict the real minister's gesticulation and speech. But does the real minister powder his face and paint his lips red like the central stage character? Is it amusing that the central character allows his beard to grow wild and appears bald on stage, precisely because the real minister does not paint his face? We have now reached the point where we must speak of the interspace of the skin membranes.’
The concept of the Art Way is further illustrated by the great Nô actor and Nô theoretician Zeami (1364?-1443), since he was the one who coined the term Art Way. His book The doctrine of the beautifully-formed flower (Japanese: Fûshi kaden) contains the essentially identical doctrine on mimesis as taught by Chikamatsu. Zeami describes how an actor should depict old and young people of various classes on stage. The main thing is to represent the real figure as accurately as possible. ‘However, it is important to note that there are various degrees of difference between dense and thin.’
What Zeami means by dense is the dense intensity of art, which corresponds to Chikamatsu’s concept of ‘irreal being’, and ‘thin’ means a less artistic portrayal, which, like Chikamatsu’s ‘real being’, spontaneously attempts to remain true to reality. Imitation containing this difference between dense and thin is stylized in a particular way in the Nô play. This stylized form, known as kata, consists essentially of the hollow membranes devoid of content. As soon, however, as this kata, the stylized expression of human gestures, is depicted on the Nô stage, it springs to life. It portrays an aspect of human gestures which is generally concealed in everyday life, and thus becomes flesh in the highest sense of the word. The sheath of this kata membrane fills with flesh.
Nature and the Way
It will be clear to the reader by now that both Chikamatsu and Zeami were concerned with ‘nature’ or naturalness, which is realized by the actor both upon and as the Art Way. Nature or naturalness is at once both the goal and the ‘way’. Indeed, the sameness of nature and the way was already stated in an ancient saying by Lao Tse: ‘To man the earth gives his measure, to the earth the sky gives its measure, to the sky the way (tao) gives its measure, to the way nature gives its measure.’
This tradition had an impact on the writings of Chinese Buddhism, above all that of Zen Buddhism. Many Zen masters left sayings and poems in which the state of exercise and the inner state was represented in analogy to descriptions of natural landscape. These were not concerned with a naturalistic description of some given landscape but with the immersion into and the acquisition of the true essential nature of the Self. The poems are concerned with the spiritual state of the student, and this was not to be found in Indian Buddhism.
The reason for that lies certainly in the particular sense of the Chinese people for nature. Nature as an expression of the Way of Buddha has eventually become a specific term in Japanese Mahayana Buddhism. It is easy to confirm that in ‘Sutra of Mountains and Water’, written by the Zen master Dôgen (1200-1253) the older tendency of Zen poems to refer to landscape as a model was finally led to its full self-awareness. Dôgen sees in Mountain and Water the very presence of the Way of Buddha. The sutra begins with the following well-known sentence: ‘Mountains and water [before us] now are the appearance of the law of ancient high monks.’
In Dôgen’s view the mountain and the water present before him give an account of that which already came into being before the flow of time. In their ‘being so just of themselves’ they are the appearance of the way of Buddha, the law of ancient high monks. These sentences might easily lead to the opinion that mountain and river in themselves are the presence of the way of Buddha. Then everything would be well ordered from the very onset on and every human being would already have realized his Buddha nature at birth. From his early youth on, Dôgen doubted why, then, the ancient high monks and masters had to practise the demanding exercise in order to attain Dharma nature. The Buddhist writings repeat over and over again: ‘Man is originally of true Dharma nature, and from birth on he has the body of his own self.’
But Dôgen had seen that a mere intellectual understanding of this word did not solve the question of life and death. The young Dôgen began his strict exercise. His own answer after his awakening was as follows: ‘It is true that this Dharma realizes itself with every human being, yet it will never become present without exercise and it cannot be reached without being proven.’ The decisive development of the concept of nature in term of the religious way was made by Shinran (1173 - 1262), the founder of the Jôdô-shin school, the biggest School of Japanese Buddhism up to the present day. ‘Nature’ means the fundamental attitude of believers to abandon self-centeredness and any attempt for salvation of his own accord, and to rely absolutely on Amitâ-Buddha instead. This being natural is to be realized as a ‘game’. Shinran once referrred to this game as the ultimate state of religion in his major work Kyô-gyô-shin-shô.
The meaning of this game is to be free to act or not to act. As an example Shinran takes the god called Asura. This heavenly being, elsewhere known as the god of war, is also the god of music. Shinran says the game in the sense of the freedom of the human being is ‘as if Asura does not hit the drum, and yet his music resounds naturally’. The heavenly being Asura plays his music although he does not hit the drum. He certainly does hit the drum but not through his own self-centered action, rather in the way of a selfless game which appears as the action of Amitâ-Buddha. In this sense he does not hit the drum himself.
This sameness of nature and way interpreted in play is the basis of the ‘art way’ in Japan. Where some of Zeami’s writings are given a title containing the character for Flower, this flower implies the life way which the actor should take. The Flower in Zeami’s work symbolizes first and foremost the aesthetically pleasing form of the young actor. But this natural beauty of youth fades with age. The actor must use his artistic skill to express the never-fading flower. Zeami writes that his father’s performance shortly before his death was in fact this never-fading flower. For Zeami , the flower of the Nô play signified the ideal of life in its respective phases, and the art of the Nô play, which aspires to this flower, was precisely the way of life.
The question is what relevance does this idea which germinated in the Art Way of medieval-modern Japan brings to bear upon the discussion on modernity and non-Western modernity. To answer this question, we should perhaps examine the concept of nature in the Art Way doctrine more closely. How, for example, does it differ from the natural irreal being/appearance proposed by Kant in his Critique of Judgment as the essence of art? Naturalness in the Art Way doctrine does not mean that the stage character resembles the real one, rather that the stage character is in fact the true reality. Fiction in this case is the higher reality, the interspace of skin membranes between irreal and real being.
The Art Way is the way in which one perceives or becomes conscious of this higher reality. In order to convey a clearer understanding of nature as a way in art, let me refer to another Art Way doctrine known as the Tea Way. The book The Writings of Nampôs (Japanese: Nampôroku), which discusses the ideas of the great tea master Rikyu (1522-1591), demonstrates that the practice of the Tea Way takes its standards from ‘the pure rules of the Zen monastery’.
According to this text, the essence of the Tea Way lies in expressing ‘the pure and innocent world of Buddha’. The act of boiling water and drinking tea in the teahouse ‘exposes the heart of Buddha’. This act is ‘simply setting a fire, boiling water, drinking tea, and nothing more’. If this be the case, then it appears that the activities in the Tea Way differ in no way from the activities of everyday life.
Everyday life is the natural world. But the activities in the teahouse are also natural. Therefore, the critical difference must lie between the former and the latter naturalness, since the latter can only be acquired after long practice in the Tea Way, like the artistic skill of the actor in the Nô theatre or in the puppet theatre. The thing that makes the difference between everyday and artistic naturalness is practice, which is a long way, but is nonetheless regarded as one cut. With this cut, everyday naturalness is cut out, but in such a way that the generally concealed, deeper naturalness within is expressed as the higher reality.
The Art Way is a way, which begins with a departure from natural commonplace experience and returns to the more exalted naturalness of the same. Perhaps the Art Way doctrine of medieval-modern Japan offers a perspective to the modern world. In this world of technological advance, nature must be judged to be on the retreat. But nature as a way in art could also continue to exist in this modern world. At this point, I would like to refer to the ideas of Martin Seel. In one of his books, he writes that art is the only nature which continues to exist in the present.1
The game as ideal
I would like to suggest another approach, already touched upon in this presentation, i.e. the game as realization of the sameness of nature and way. The game is the ultimate and highest ideal of not only Japanese Mahayana Buddhism, but also of the Art Way. However, differentiations also have to be made here. In the foreword of the Japanese edition of his epochal study on the game Les Jeux et les Hommes, R. Callois refers to the ‘clear relationship between Japanese culture and the spirit of the game’. But even this renowned scholar could only see the game as an intermediary link between the Sacral and the Secular, and not as freedom from the Sacred and the Secular. The game illustrated by Callois is a game in a religious context, but in Buddhistic terms not the guiding principle of art. In his study, Callois does not provide an example of the art. The game of the Art Way signifies freedom, a kind of autonomous independence, which, however, obviously differs from the autonomy and independence of European art in the modern era.
Modern European art, which emancipated itself from Christian religion and its hegemony, is based on a specifically European consciousness of the ego. Those who have been awakened to a consciousness of the ego demand authority and emancipation, and thus freedom from God. But freedom in the Art Way is achieved when precisely this ego-consciousness is obliterated. Unfortunately, time does not permit me to demonstrate how and to what extent nature in the sensus communis of the Art Way doctrine continues to influence art in present-day Japan, and which role it could eventually play in the context of modern art in general. Other framework considerations would be necessary here. It suffices to say that if art is the only nature which can survive today, nature in the Japanese Art Way, realized in a game of special significance, is one approach to a non-Western modernity, an approach rooted in the classical intellectual/spiritual tradition.
1 Martin Seel, Eine Ästhetik der Natur. Frankfurt/M. 1991, p. 168-169.
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