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Japanese Arts and Self-Cultivation, The

Book Summary:

This book is a philosophical exploration of several Japanese cultural arts (Aikido, Zen landscape gardening, the Way of Tea, the Way of Flowers, pottery making) and their connection to spiritual and ethical cultivation. A good portion of the book involves personal interviews with masters of these arts. Easy and engaging reading. Profound ideas.

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Review by: Jerry Larock

Robert E. Carter (Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada), in his groundbreaking new book, The Japanese Arts and Self-cultivation, explores Japan's unique approach to self-development and ethics by examining five examples of its arts: Aikido, landscape gardening, the way of tea, the way of flowers, and the way of pottery. Much of this exploration takes the form of engaging personal experiences and lively interviews with great masters of these arts.

The various arts of Japan are perceived by many people as being either wholly pragmatic and utilitarian -- as practical methods of achieving some end -- or as mere artistry and aesthetic affectation. Other people are able to appreciate that the philosophical and psychological dimensions of such training can augment technical prowess. Beyond this, precious few seem privy to a much grander vista; specifically, a realization of the extreme importance of the social, ethical, and spiritual domains, and the impact that training in the Japanese arts can have on one's personal development in these areas. Carter uses a cross-cultural, comparative approach to clarify eastern and western perspectives and further elucidate his central themes. The most obvious characteristic of all these arts is that they are intensely physical practices and, thus, they perfectly exemplify the Japanese means to ethical training -- the cultivation of ethical behaviour through concrete, physical action. This stands in stark contrast to the western approach to ethics which is predominantly analytical, academic, and intellectual. Carter's profound conclusion: morality and ethics are not learned through words, by merely memorizing lists of rules, but by actually, physically practicing them! And the Japanese arts are avenues that amply provide such practice. In addition, an authentic morality is not one based on a fear of punishment or a promise of rewards (a view that seems predominant in western religious/ethical thought) but is dependent on the cultivation of specific internal, pro-social attitudes, particularly that of empathy, a felt connection to others, and the compassion that naturally results from such a connection. This is more correctly understood to be the true source of authentic ethical behaviour, and it is to the cultivation of these various attitudes that the Japanese arts aim and excel.

Throughout his book, Carter offers a penetrating analysis into the Japanese approach to ethics and the cultural methods developed since time immemorial to cultivate these values. From the arts as mere practical skills, to the arts as pathways to self-realization (the discovery of one's connection to/oneness with the universe), to ethical cultivation and a strong social focus, the thing that Carter makes clear is that a practice of the different arts impacts all of these levels of self-development simultaneously. Ultimately, an immersion in the physical practice of an art can lead to the psychological state of emptiness/no-self that not only is the source of all unconscious, skillful action but is also the basis for all empathetic, ethical behaviour -- of our ability to come together in correct human relations. So far, I have not yet come across another book or author that deals with this important, seminal topic in such exquisite depth and in as clear and engrossing a manner.

In conclusion, I believe that this outstanding book would be of great interest not only to philosophers and students of philosophy (those interested in ethics generally and in Far Eastern ethics and arts specifically) but to much of the general public as well. In particular, I recommend it wholeheartedly as essential and necessary (as well as relatively easy and engaging) reading for every serious martial artist who wishes to develop a greater understanding of the deeper dimensions of the arts.

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