MICHI – The Japanese Philosophy Of The Way And The Life

The ideology of “Michi” has long been established as a Japanese philosophy and life practice.  According to Kuroda Toshio, writer of Shinto in the History of Japanese Religion, the term michi is not a doctrine. It is a way of life, established during the medieval period. Michi relates an idea state of being or a particular conduct.  

The word itself was usually compounded with other characters to create a new meaning. Sometimes the new compound can take on the meaning of only the other character.  Kuroda Toshio provides a great example “michi is compound with another character and read to or do. Therefore, tento contains a compound of michi and deities, the word holds the meaning “deities such as Bonten and Taishakuten” only.   The national heritage of michi was founded in the medieval era that originated in other Asian cultures. Michi is a Japanese reading of Chinese characters for Shinto.

Shinto was understood to be a part of Buddhism that “provided a rationale for absorbing folk beliefs”. The Buddhist beliefs were comprised of 8 sects that involved study, teaching and rituals. Shinto was drawn to this and adapted a religious doctrine to the practices. Japanese michi? is derived from the Shinto foundation and  was again adapted to what is known in modern society as michi or  “The Way.”

This adaptation changed from a spiritual belief in Chinese culture, to a religious practice known as Shinto and then back into a spiritual context for living and connecting with the universe around oneself as the Japanese philosophy of “The Way.” 

During the historical time period when michi was not widely embraced by the Japanese nation, shifts of values began to occur. Kevin Gray Carr of Amherst College writes in his publication Making Way: War, Philosophy and Sport in Japanese Judo that during the Kamakura era which spanned from 1185-1333 BCE many warriors became aware of the concepts.  Michi, or “the Way” was embraced by the brave, loyal fighters.

Carr writes that “some warriors spoke of kyúba no michi” which translates to “the way of the horse and bow”. The era, however, an unstable society built upon self-interest and flooded with chaos. During feudal Japan the wars, famine and civil strife cause conflicts, requiring warriors to adapt their self-defense into a way of living.  Thus the first forms of the “the Way” came into a practiced life Philosophy.

Later transitioning into a peaceful way of conduct, this practice was utilized in the Kamakura era to produce formidable opponents.  Despite all the unrest, the art of michi began to establish itself through the warrior’s disciplined practices.  Eventually small groups of people began to embrace the “frugal” and spiritual way of life that is consistent with common conceptions of michi. The few became the many and a way of living that revolved around ritualistic, spiritually enlightening practices came into being. This kyúba no michi forms the base of modern Judo, or the way of martial arts, no longer an offensive militant practice but a self-disciplined study of defensive maneuvers. 

As time progressed other disciplines of michi became honored practices, one of the common being “The Way of Tea.” Saint Mary’s University in Canada produced a writer Alexandre A. Avdulov that explains the Japanese traditions of tea in a publication titled The Way of Tea: Paradigm for Lifelong Learning. 

Chanoyu, also originated in ancient China, refers to the Japanese Tea ceremony. The practice is comprised of an integral balance between conversations, traditions, and learning.  Often internationally, The Way of Tea is founded on principals of shared knowledge. Not to be confused with an art, this ritualistic way of serving tea is a spiritual practice.  

Founded on a life-long, continuation of self-motivated learning; The Way of Tea is an acquisition and transmission of knowledge through Zen, a Buddhist meditative school of thought. The tea-house itself is typically found in a quiet and remote location that is conducive to the tranquil state embraced during the Tea ceremonial practice. 

Avdulov’s work denotes that “the four principles of Tea practice are harmony, respect, purity and tranquility”. This offers a heightened state of spirituality awakening of the senses and unites the mind and body. The practice of The Way of Tea is complicated and soothing, modern techniques can merely mimic the delicate Japanese conduct ritual. 

The Way of Flowers is yet another discipline of michiIkebana, is the popular term for the Japanese practice of arranging flowers in a vessel in a particular manner. The Ikebana International (IKI) website reports that this art-like-form of michi is meant to unify humanity with nature. The spiritual aspects support the living in the moment attributes that IKI report the practices as embracing. These asymmetrical forms of flower arrangements often utilize blank space to embrace the symbolic embracing of nature.

The idea that as a human in the environment focuses too much on the processes associated with industrialized society deems Ikebana necessary to remain grounded in the natural landscape.  Especially in modern society, where concrete walls, asphalt roads and deforestation have taken over much of the world surface area, Ikebana embraces a lost commitment to nature.  The michi of flowers is a common practice that produces a harmonious tranquility with nature and the individual. 

The way of Writing, also referred to as Shodo is yet another Japanese michi discipline, note the “do” that makes it a compound term on the end of the word. A group of authors including:

“Kumiyo Nakakoju, Kazuhiro Jo, Yasuhiro Yamamoto, Yoshiyuki Nishinaka and Mitsuhiro Asada” from the University of Tokyo compiled a study titled “Producing and Re-experiencing the Writing Process in Japanese Calligraphy” that explains the basic principles of this michi. Shodo?, again featuring the michi compound “do,” comprises of a unique set of artifacts to produce a desired form of writing.  

Japanese characters are made with a brush called a Fude, and ink called Sumi. The techniques are made to preserve the ancient art of hand writing Japanese characters.  The writer is required to “deliver harmonious rhythm with varying brush posture, speed, and pressure”. Although it presents itself as an art-form, the Way of Writing is a complicated expressive process. Despite how accurately a talented student of Shodo attempts to mimic a master’s work, the results will undoubtedly contain variations from the original.

 This is why Shodo is a tradition that surrounded by a dynamic process. Although techniques can be taught to the student, ultimately “the student’s brush hand” will vary in motion, angle, force and direction. The rhythmic process of Japanese calligraphy is a historical tool of self-expression, creative individuality.  Although the students of the University of Tokyo have attempted to digitally capture the process, only the creator of the works can fully understand the moment, the sensation, and the michi that produced the Writing. 

Other forms of michi include The Way of Fencing, The Way of Archery and The Way of Martial Arts.  These founding forms are derived from The Way of Horse and Bow that was seen during the time of Japanese warriors.

The loyalty to feudal lords, craftsmanship of weaponry and arts of self-defense grew into a disinclined way of conduct. Judo, also known as The Way of Flexibility is a way of developing mental and physical training to perfect the art of self-defense. Commonly unknown, this is not a way of an offensive practice.

Most Judo students are taught at an early stage that the best fights are the ones that can be avoided. The Way of the Sword or Fencing, is known as Kendo, often taught to alongside with Judo. The discipline covers more than just the samurai sword of legend but embraces skilled weaponry as a dance like discipline of self-defense. Finally the Kyudo, also sporting the familiar “do” compound, embraces The Way of the Bow.  

This is an etiquette of standing systematically positioned to shoot a bow.  This practice requires focus, tranquility and precision. Though there are many different forms of “The Way” the underlining principles are similar, discipline, rituals, self-discovery, honoring of nature and sharing of knowledge. 

Modern adaptations of Michi have been seen from elementary school kids in a karate classes to stigmatized television characters trimming bonsai trees. Although there is some foundation in the Japanese culture to these modern styles of “The Way,” the loss of spiritual and ritual aspects deny the practice its due respect.

The rich Chinese and Buddhism history of this Japanese Way of spiritual awareness elevates the practitioner to a mind, body and spiritual awakening when fully embraced.  Thanks to the internet, modern movies and worldwide vacationing travels, the Japanese culture has found its way into many lives.  

Changing the way that a person perceives their stature in the environment, allowing them to focus and expanding their intellect through the antiquity of “the Way.” Even psychologist at the University of Germany have found that adolescents can benefit from adapted michi practices to cognitive behavior therapies for depression.

The study Innovations in Practice: MICHI, a brief cognitive-behavioural group therapy for adolescents with depression– a pilot study of feasibility in an inpatient setting was able to use the ancient Japanese practice to help focus suicidal teens.  Although the complicated data in the study is available for reading online, the study was able to adequately introduce “The Way” to these sufferers of depression and better their quality of life. The practice of strict, fluid, harmonious behavioral processes to accomplish different task, denoted by compounding the word with other nouns to create verbs, is a unique and fulfilling spiritual process.