‘May you live in interesting times’, is a Chinese curse that might describe the world we live in. More so for people who are plugged into the many streams of information, disinformation and misinformation that abound in our world. How I long for what the Japanese refer to as WA (和).

The Japanese concept of WA is usually translated as ‘harmony’. Harmony can imply conflict avoidance, a balance of all things in and around us, both literal and implied. As a guiding principle in all interactions, whether in a family, social or business environment, wa stresses interdependence over independence, cooperation over dissent, and patience over resistance. The positives to wa are immediately obvious, while the difficulties in achieving, it and maintaining it are also fairly obvious.

The first recorded name that the Chinese and Koreans gave the polity that would later become Japan was wa. This initially referred to the Kyushu Kingdom and later also referring to Honshu, the largest central island of the four main Japanese islands in the archipelago.

The character had a different meaning originally. It was Prince Shotoku Taishi who formalized the name in 604 C.E. when it was decreed in Japan’s first constitution: “Wa should be valued and quarrels avoided. When superiors are in harmony with each other and inferiors are friendly, then affairs are discussed quietly and the right view of matters prevails.” (De Bary, et. al. (2001) Sources of Japanese Tradition: 2nd ed. Volume 1: from Earliest Times to 1600. Columbia University Press.) Wa had evolved from a social contract to the foundation of Japan’s value system.

The concept Wa, originating from Confucianism, means people working in harmony and politeness in a group, with full appreciation of the uniqueness of its members, to reach the goal: goodness, peace and growth of all the members involved.

In Japan coexisting in harmony with nature is also a Shinto model. They see that every living thing has a spirit and therefore should be shown respect. When nature is shown the respect it deserves, people thrive better. It is believed that respecting nature promotes healthier crops and can even promote better health and fertility within the surrounding population.

Wa is a guiding principle in Japanese arts, such as the tea ceremony (chado) and Ikebana (flower arrangement) and architecture, shinden-zukuri (an open structure with few walls that can be opened and closed with fusuma (paper sliding doors)). In these examples seasonality and the natural world are integrated into daily life. The arts become a model to live by. Harmony is achieved by minimal elements carefully placed.

It is an understanding that in order for society to work harmoniously, everyone should do what they’re expected to do, address certain people a certain way to show loving care and respect towards others and vice versa. The Japanese would say that this method is what keeps their society working together in what we would call a collectivist culture. In other words, taking the needs and wants of the group as a whole instead of in the form of individual’s needs. This is diametrically opposed to what we experience in the so-called West. The western view is what Robert Bellah referred to as, “. . . the ideology of free-market economics and of the radical dis-encumbered individualism that idealizes the choice making individual as a prime reality of the world.” (Bellah, R (1991) Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World. University of California Press.)

A overzealous application of harmony can lead to excesses, in a way similar to how individualism has led to hyper individuality in our postmodern society. Many Japanese people feel constrained, at times in the extreme, by the expectations of the family and society toward the individual. In response to this Konishi, et. al. writes “Confucianism emphasizes not to confuse Wa and Doh (conformity with superficial agreement). Doh means you conform and do not express ideas but just act like everyone else so as not to rock the boat.” (Konishi, E., et.al, (2007) Harmony (Wa): The Japanese Traditional Value and its Implications for Nursing Ethics in Japan. Bioethics; 17 pp 74-81.)

From a Buddhist perspective we are expected to follow ‘The Middle Way’. This is where East Asian Buddhism and the West should learn from each other.

The notion of the individual is a positive contribution from Western philosophy that dates to the Greeks and Romans and was reinterpreted by early Christianity and expanded upon in the 16th – 19th centuries by European philosophers. (Siedento, L. (2014) Inventing the Individual: The origins of Western Liberalism. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.)

As those in the west begin to examine and learn from Asian philosophies, we gain an exciting new realization that there is wisdom to be found outside a Eurocentric perspective.

How do we balance individual concerns with a harmonious (collectivist) mindset? Ah – there is the Middle Way in action in both Asia and outside Asia.

The individual must be understood as part of the larger whole, not the center of the universe, as an element within the universe. This requires an embedded sense of interpenetration. With this we find humility. With humility we gain a perspective that the provisional self is not the center of the cosmos.

Harmony does not derive from codes and laws, but from mutual respect, not superficial regard, a deep empathy and compassion that allows for forgiveness and understanding of the nature of the human condition. Harmony comes about when we respect the trees and streams for the spirit that they possess, not as mere objects that occupy the same space as we do. Harmony exists when we recognize that Dukkha exists for everyone, not just our circumscribed cohort.

By combining an appropriate sense of what constitutes the individual with an abiding sense of harmony we can meld the best of Asian and Eurocentric philosophy. This is the Middle Way.

In the world around us we can benefit from encouraging wa and decreasing a sense of entitlement that hyper individualism promotes.

With Love and Gassho . . . Monshin