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Reviewed by:
  • The Japanese Arts and Self-Cultivation
  • Sor-Ching Low
The Japanese Arts and Self-Cultivation. By Robert E. Carter. Foreword by Eliot Deutsch. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. Pp. 185.

The traditional arts of Japan have long been admired in the West for their exquisite beauty and discipline. As a showcase of the best of traditional Japan, they provide a glimpse into a world often construed as inscrutable and mysterious by the West. The Japanese Arts and Self-cultivation by Robert E. Carter is a book written in that spirit: it attempts to bring to light the spiritual and philosophical ideas underlying these artistic expressions and the manner in which an artist approaches his or her material, and to elucidate the ways in which one’s practice shapes one’s ethical being. Underlying this extensive treatment of the Japanese arts is Carter’s presupposition of these various arts as Ways (dō) where serious practice (shugyō) could lead to a state of satori or enlightenment. Focusing on Aikido (Way of Peace), landscape gardening, the Way of Tea, Flowers, and Pottery, Carter attempts to demonstrate that art—properly practiced (as )—can bring about a more inclusive approach to a world that includes sentient as well as non-sentient beings.

Carter’s book is written for a broad audience. It is especially appropriate for use in an undergraduate classroom because of the attention it pays to key aesthetic and religious concepts in Japanese traditions. For example, the first chapter lays the groundwork with an explication of key concepts such as ki and kokoro and the Japanese understanding of mind and body. And in each of the five chapters dedicated to the traditional arts, Carter carefully draws out the Shinto and Buddhist influences that shaped them. But this book would also appeal to specialists engaged in the study of Japanese aesthetics. Concepts such as yugen, wabi, and sabi are given substantial treatment in the book, where the masters attempt to explain these concepts in terms of their art.

What makes this book such an enjoyable read is the highly personal style that Carter brings to his journey across Japan as he recounts his visits to the different masters of the arts. For example, from his visit to a small Japanese town to see the potter Hamada Shoji (1894–1978), one of the greatest potters of the twentieth century who was designated a Living National Treasure, he is able to convey through his encounters with ordinary Japanese the degree of respect in which this living master was held by them. In interviews like these he brings to light the process of thinking and manner of working with the material—be it flowers or clay—that the masters have brought to their work. Carter has emerged from these interviews with a single thesis: “The arts are designed to lead an individual to realize Buddhahood, or to release one’s kami-nature, the divine potential that is to be found in the depths of each and every individual who cares to discover it” (p. 4).

What is more important, as Carter would insist, is the prospect of openness that being enlightened brings. Based on this thesis, Carter argues for an ethics of [End Page 123] dialogue, not just with sentient beings but also with non-sentient ones. Clearly influenced by Nishitani Keiji, whom he quotes at length, Carter tells us that when a dialogue between “I and thou” is achieved, there is “a meeting of kokoro with kokoro” (p. 68). Nishitani, who had extended Martin Buber’s distinction in I and Thou to non-sentient beings, has powerfully argued that a stone or a blade of grass is as “primary as the human” and ought to achieve full status as a human. Carter clearly subscribes to this, for he writes, “Ordinary thinking makes a sharp distinction between self and others, and self and things. With the ‘dropping off’ of the ego-self, nothing is separate from anything else, and the distinction between subject and object is no longer operative” (p. 85).

In all of Carter’s interviews with the masters, he consistently returns to his claim of art’s spiritual possibilities...