The Way

Based on a conversation I had with my good friend Sina about “The Last Samurai”:

There is a way of acting that involves the doer so utterly he becomes the action itself. The Sufis called this “faná”: the state of the lover who is consumed by his Loved One’s beauty.

One who achieved this was the Japanese warrior-saint, Miyamoto Musashi. He achieved such skill with his sword that he refused to fight using real blades – then refused to engage opponents at all. He retired to the mountains and contemplated the mystery behind his skill, and what had allowed him to reach such a degree of perfection. He took on pupils and tried to teach them what he called “the Way” – which he claimed was equally applicable to all aspects of life. A letter he wrote to one of these pupils is found in the book, “The Way of the Five Rings”.

What was this Way he had found? I cannot say, but I relate his thoughts to two experiences of my life: programming and poetry. If I can understand these, perhaps I can make sense of what Musashi had found.

The Way as I know it, then, is marked by a rightness that defies expression in words. It just feels like the way life should be, as if everything were fitted to its place and there were a “singing” quality to the arrangement. An ecstatic, pure joy goes along with this state. And whenever this point is reached, there is no need to go further. That one does go further – to complete the poem or finish the program – is a consequence of time spent in that state. But the state itself is its own fulfillment: its own reason for starting the activity.

This rightness identifies a moral truth associated with the Way. It is a Way of what is good and right. For example, if a house feels like home and is well arranged, it is a good house; if a tree bears bountiful, delicious fruit, it is a good tree. The Way guides human action to such good results – achievements that radiate quality and provoke humble admiration.

This “good”, however, is not a prescribed good. The Way is not the same as the laws of any particular path along the Way. For instance, there may be rules of grammar for writing a beautiful poem, but grammar does imply beauty. The good is something alive, attracted by the spirit of the person who pursues it. If that soul touches the good, and brings it to being by honoring its moral needs (as if a bird seeking a well-built nest), there is joy in such production more satisfying than what is produced.

In the case of poetry, one sits down to write a poem. There is much to be learned before starting, such as vocabulary, metaphor, alliteration, rhyme. All these arts should be taught to the poet, so he has a wide pallet to choose from. Then he sets down his pen. By listening to his soul, an inspiration comes; he feels the inchoate beauty of this spirit, and desires to honor it through expression. This is when he uses his sense of rightness – the Way – to guide the application of form to the essence his heart has experienced. If he be true to his spirit, and honor the requirements of good poetry, he can produce something great and attain private heights of grandeur by such creation. Poetry is but a medium for communing with that spirit; it is the Way of the poet to lose himself in the Beauty he knows through poetry.

What is good poetry, however, has nothing to do with what is judged to be good. It is good if it fulfills the Way, which means that it is good. That is, good in the sense of being better; good like a cool breeze on a hot day, good like food after hunger, good like the sun as its touches the horizon on a clear day. This quality of rightness cannot be defined or taught, but is intimately familiar to every human being. We instinctively orient our lives toward the discovery of such good – even if we pursue it by following what is said to be good, rather than the quality of goodness itself.

Since what is good is most desirable, purity of desire is the only thing needed to find it. When this purity is reached, what is good can be seen. It defies words, yet is more obvious than words. It is this rightness the Way seeks to bring into being; it is the joy of such an act that thrills the soul and makes life seem inexhaustibly rich.

All that’s been said above can be applied to living itself: which is the highest expression of the Way. As with a particular art-form, life has its own moral truth that allows for a good life. If a good house is one worth living in, a good life is the same. Its success is evidenced by happiness. And in the moment, there is that same, fiery joy experienced when doing anything after the manner of the Way.

Without morality – in any endeavor – life is fundamentally broken, however attractive it may appear in other respects. In the same way, a blade without moral strength suffers a flaw soon to break, or a line of poetry insensibly detracts from the beauty of the whole. Sensitivity to the connection between morality and rightness requires chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit, otherwise it is too easy to believe that what is attractive is also good.

Religion has often called the Way of living rightly, “The Straight Path”, and has associated this Path with happiness, joy, and with a road that leads ultimately to God. This implies that the morality taught by the Messengers of God – if it comes from God – describes the moral truths needed to live a good life. Yet they are still only laws; if conjoined with the living joy that comes from intimacy with the Spirit being sought – then the consequences of morality are its own fruit, and this is that spirit of the Way described earlier.

In all these journeys the traveler must stray not the breadth of a hair from the “Law,” for this is indeed the secret of the “Path” and the fruit of the Tree of “Truth”…

If this is so, it sheds new light on the importance of the Law, because no sooner would a forger allow the least impurity to corrupt his steel, than an individual would commit an action detracting from the Way of his life. For the Way is not the act, but the spirit of the action. If the action is not as pure as the intent that began it, how can it achieve perfection? If the Way lives through the joy of such acting, moral corruption is equal to death. I would compare the good to an ethereal spirit, which humans are capable of attracting to the world; but if our actions do not honor its goodness by rectitude, it will flee and have nothing to do with us.

In sum, the Way is known when acting is such joy as to forget the details of acting. It is the secret of life, the doorway to the inner land. Those who have been there understand it, while everyone can recognize it instantly. It recalls one to the joys of youth, when living was unconscious and the rightness of the day was like sunlight compared to shadow. Only later, when we acquired skills and the need to judge whether we were doing well or not, did assessment take the place of immediate knowing, and definition the place of what has always been indefinable, but is the very soul of reality.