What is Creation?
The Principles of Runari 2/12
“‘If you wish to rule the state, first pacify your family. If you wish to pacify your family, first discipline yourself. If you wish to discipline yourself, first make right your heart.’
“The first step was to discover how to make right the heart: the answer, as it developed in China, was to practice the arts.”
Lost Japan, Alex Kerr
In my second year in Japan, my desk was set next to a quiet maths teacher called Mr. Toyoda – same kanji as Toyota but he was insistent on the da not ta. He would talk a little, but most of the time he concentrated on preparing classes, doing administrative work, marking tests/homework and the club he helped ran – each teacher would run a sport or cultural club in school.
As far as I could see Mr. Toyoda was a normal, greyish, middle-aged maths teacher. Part way through the autumn, I came across an edition of the Kyoto Journal with an article on Basho and haiku. This kind of poetry and its quiet beauty was new to me. They instantly became a part of me as a kind of creative meditation and a way to express elements of my life and experience; especially the more self-reflective senryu version.
With the school’s culture festival (bunkasai) coming up, I thought it’d be a great idea to teach the students to write haiku in English. My 3rd year English co-teacher and I came up with a plan to get them to compose haiku in Japanese then we’d work together to translate them into English. We could then have them side by side, I’d add in some of my own – translated the other way, and we’d post them in the corridor leading to the student art display in the classrooms.
One day, while preparing my contributions to the festival, Mr. Toyoda leaned over, looked, took out a sheet of paper and wrote a quick haiku in Japanese. His calligraphy was perfect, beautiful lines and sweeps, and then he asked me to help him translate it.
This taught me something vital, no matter how grey and technical the person in Japan, they often had hidden creative and cultural talents honed since school. They were quiet ones, calligraphy, playing musical instruments, singing, composing haiku, working wood, painting, and so on. They’re called bunjin – culture people or Runari as I’ve translated into old Proto-English.
The English Literati and Runari
Alex Kerr, in his book Lost Japan calls them literati, but in the west; especially in the UK, the term literati is slightly different. The English literati are seen as people of a certain mindset and class identity epitomized by the upper middle class snob who loves all things French and Latin-based, loves high cultures, and buys into the trends of the day. To a certain extent they fall into appreciation though mostly within their narrow interests with scant regard for so-called “low art” let alone craft.
As you saw in the previous chapter, The Way of the Runari is concerned with appreciating a wide range of things, actions, and ideas. The same goes for creation. The literati do create, sometimes, though usually in the form of criticism, literature (that one novel they have in themselves) and in plays. Maybe the odd piano piece too after dinner. There’s nothing wrong with all of that and if they’re happy then more power to them.
What is Creation?
Creation is the natural twin to appreciation just as destruction is the natural twin to nihilism. If you love the world then create within it. Even if you feel nihilistic, draw from the creative energies inside you to create something which could pull you away from the brink of that self-defeating black hole of nothingness.
Chinese philosophy, which greatly influenced Zen and the Japanese idea of the bunjin, says that to find our discipline, we must start with the arts. However, notice that it said “practice the arts” in the philosophy book mentioned by Alex Kerr. It is not simply enough to like certain arts, to patronise them with your money or appreciation, but if you let the arts flow through your body, mind, and soul (as with nature later on) then you live them too.
For Chinese philosophers, the arts were built off a foundation of the three perfections namely poetry, painting, and calligraphy. This was later expanded to include other areas of traditional Chinese arts such as stone carving, bamboo work, inkstones, paper, ceramics, and metal working. Quite a range, right?
Confucianism vs. Daoism
One problem with the more Confucian approach to practicing the arts is, as you might gather, it’s connection to discipline and virtue. If that feels right for you, go for it, but if you’d like a freer embrace of the arts perhaps go with the more Daoist outlook, which is not only more libertarian but playfully anarchic.
The Daoist world is one of wandering (and perhaps wondering) sages living in the mountains or the countryside. They like to enjoy the arts when in the mood, but will also play with leaves, sit and think, have a drink, and joke with a retired emperor like Jozan with Go-Mizunoo.
Different people like different things. It’s natural. Our skills also vary. And all of these things change over time. Furthermore, the bunjin of Japan are not there to make money from their artistic pursuits, most do not even advertise them except during modest conversations with friends. These are private hobbies.
Appreciated Arts and Arts We Create Can Differ
It is worth noting that the arts we appreciate the most are not always the arts we can practice. I love music be it pagan folk music, heavy metal, the blues, rock and roll, or a simple piano pieces or a stirring orchestral film score late at night, however, I am a shockingly bad person when it comes to making music. To say that I lack a sense of rhythm or timing is to do an injustice to the world ‘lack.’ There’s a total absence.
As you can tell from this book, I too like to write and that goes from poems and haiku/senryu to short stories, novels, and non-fiction. I also like to doodle and find Japanese/Chinese calligraphy relaxing when time allows. In addition, I enjoy a low level of graphic design and drawing maps for fantasy stories or to arrange photographs and images within blog posts. Small things. There’s also an urge in me, when I get settled somewhere, to take up wood carving and photography.
What is Art?
The arts are a broader church than the literati establishment will have you imagine. It is entirely possible you create and live the arts already in someway.
Take a moment and think about all of the arts you can think of. Chances are you
may have thought of writing, dance, music, theatre (including ballet, opera etc..), maybe films and TV, drawing, and painting. It’s a fair list, but have you considered other ones? How about ikebana – flower arranging, tea ceremony, sewing, knitting, stitching, carving, design, gardening, martial arts – even non-combative ones like Tai Chi and Iaido (the art of drawing the sword) and others.
Let’s not forget the expanded list of Chinese arts either, because if you look at the archaeology of human existence we have created not just useful items, but beautiful ones. Sure, many were basic because needs must in times of privation, but in times of leisure, mankind found a way to make even simple objects beautiful and intricate. Just look at Chinese ceramics or Anglo-Saxon metalwork or Roman mosaics.
Tinkering is an embrace of the arts. So is singing to yourself when no one else is around. Hand writing letters is a form of calligraphy is it not? There are so many ways we can live the arts – even cleaning our rooms and getting our interior design right. Does air guitar count? Maybe. You decide. Playing with photos on Instagram definitely counts.
The idea is this simple. Create something you and others will appreciate. Help make the world a more beautiful place or just somewhere you enjoy. We’re only here for a short amount of time, just like the cherry blossom, so add a little fun to it while you’re here.
How do we start living the principle of creation?
Unlike appreciation, creation can come with a cost. Not just in terms of time, but also in terms of equipment and material. This does mean living by the principle can be difficult for those who do not have much money, but that does not mean it’s impossible.
Jordan B. Peterson says that changing the world starts with cleaning your room. The Zen monk Matsumoto Shoukei in his book “A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind” says that it’s good to start the day with fresh air and some cleaning.
Start with your room, your home, your immediate environment. Clean it, put it into some kind of order – yes, creativity is often connected to a disorderly desk and yes, when I’m writing I have books all over the place, but order and chaos are closely linked. Doing a physical task not only puts your room into order, but it puts your mind into it too. Same with cleaning and other labours around the home.
Cleaning the home or just your room also helps to start chipping away at the anchors of the mind, heart, and soul. Think about what you appreciate in terms of art or books or music or furniture or other aesthetics – do you like all the ones you have in your room? For example, would a single poster be more striking on a bare wall or part of a montage?
Removing the items you do not need or want, removes anchors. Some of them can come with emotional baggage – memories of past loves and so on. Furthermore, by removing them, minimizing, you are doing two things. First you are highlighting the truly inspirational and visually pleasing, and secondly, you are creating space not just in your room but in your mind to create.
Not only that, you’ve created a nice room which is a pleasure to exist in and is easier to clean. No more dusty piles of this or that, no more bulging drawers or scattered piles.
What Do You Want to Create?
Think about what you like to create. Maybe sit at your desk or on your freshly made bed and jot down a list of things. Think about what you can do and what you want to do. Maybe make a visual board of the kinds of art you want to make.
Now you have something to go on, but be realistic. Ask yourself if you are more into the fun of it, the Daoist whimsy or if you want to knuckle down, go to class, study, get the basics down, and repeat, repeat, repeat as part of your Confucian discipline.
It’s ok to monetise your creation, and it’s ok to want to make money from it from the outset. The best art in our history came from those who did it for commercial success (though many artists like van Gogh failed utterly in their lifetimes) or because patrons believed in them. Few did it by government dictat.
Be realistic about your time and resources too. Most of us with work, family, friends, and the need to eat, clean, and sleep, do not have much time to be creative. After work it’s all too easy to watch TV, but see what time you can eek out here and there.
There’s a reason why garden sheds are a man’s best non-dog friend.
Have fun and find like minded souls; especially those in the local area you can meet offline. Talk to other Runari who have different creative talents, you might learn from each other, bicker in free conversation, or collaborate. Who knows, right? The Inklings, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ Oxford group had a diverse range of interests and talents or at least styles, but they would share their writings and poems with each other, even doodles and sketches.
Gauging Success as a Creator
Don’t be frustrated if you hit a plateau and don’t mind if your whims take you elsewhere. Some of us are rigid in our interests, but some of us change. We might go back one day when it’s the right time to do so.
And, to borrow another bit of wisdom from Dr. Peterson:
“Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else is today.”
That’s actually from the contents page and is a chapter title, but it’s apt. Social media is designed to promote social comparisons, promote ideal versions of other people’s lives, and to be addictive to an extreme.
The Way of the Runari is to look inside ourselves and figure out our mental, physical, and spiritual journeys through principles such as appreciation and creation. This means we compare our creative progress against what we created last time, and we’re honest about why something might be better today or worse.
One final thing, if you’re proud of your creation or are just happy to create, share it. I, for one, am always happy to see what you’ve created.