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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
Mystical or just common sense?

We westerners often struggle to grasp the nuances of some of the more esoteric concepts that originate in the east. The cultures and worldviews differ, so that what is taken as self-evident and everyday in one culture can seem bizarre and exotic in another.

As an example, “Mushin” can seem quasi- mystical and very esoteric when explained to a westerner. However, the western close equivalent of “being in the zone” needs little, if any, explaining and is accepted as being very down to earth. But you try explaining “being in the zone” to someone not familiar with that cultural way of expressing what is a common human experience. What zone? Where does this zone exist? How can you access this zone which imparts instantaneous flowing action? It sounds very esoteric, but we know that’s not the case. The point is another culture’s way of explaining common human experience can make it seem several steps removed from the actual experience itself if one is not familiar with the wider cultural context from which that expression originates.

We can’t divorce culture from concept. And just as this can cause confusion as concepts move from east to west, it can also cause confusion the other way around. I was recently sent the text below from a friend. It is part of an old article designed to explain English thinking to Japanese students. This part looks specifically at the notion of “common sense”. This is a self-evident concept here and it is frequently cited as the highest form of reason: “It’s common sense!” being a term to convey that something is obvious and should not be challenged. But you try explaining what “common sense” is to someone not from a culture that takes it as being self-evident! Not easy!

To someone from another culture, “Common sense” would seem like a kind of mystical intuitive wisdom, higher than all other forms of wisdom and reason, which everyone could draw upon and it would always show the best way forward. It does not need facts, reason, or scholarly analysis; it simply is a self-evident truth that resides in the collective consciousness of all humanity. Sounds far removed from the everyday concept the term is supposed to describe right!

The bottom line is that “common sense” could be mistaken for something quasi-magical / mystical if you were not familiar with it. Just as has happened with many eastern concepts when transposed into western culture.

Here is Koizumi Yakumo / Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904) attempting to explain “common sense” to his Japanese readers. I think it makes for interesting reading and should get us to reflect on the cultural context of many eastern concepts that exist with our arts.

Please have a read and see what I mean by the above. I hope this thread can lead to some further examples of reflection on the elevation and unnecessary complexity we in the west can add to eastern ways of expressing concepts because of the lack of a common cultural framework.

All the best,


Common sense means much more than the words may imply to the Japanese student , or to any own else not familiar with English idioms … Common sense means natural intelligence, as opposed to , and independent of, cultivated or educated intelligence … It means foresight. It means intuitive knowledge of the other people’s character. It means cunning as well as broad comprehension … No Englishman believes in working from book learning. He suspects all theories, philosophical or other. He suspects everything new, and dislikes it, unless he can be compelled by the form of circumstance to see that this new thing has advantages over the old … His statesmen do not consult historical precedents in order to decide what to do: they first learn the facts as they are; and then they depend upon their own common sense, not at all upon their university learning or upon philosophical theories. And in the case of the English nation it must be acknowledged that this instinctive method has been extremely successful.” – Koizumi Yakumo / Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904)

Gavin J Poffley
Gavin J Poffley's picture

It is indeed very true that a lot of the more philosophical and cultural elements of the Japanese martial arts are misunderstood, misrepresented or emphasised in very extreme ways when removed from their native environment. This is something that is very immediate and obvious to me as someone who deals with Anglo-Japanese cultural interaction pretty much every hour of every day (For those of you who do not know I am a professional Japanese translator and interpreter). 

Of course the waters are muddied even further by a small group of Japanese who very much regard these concepts in complicated mystical terms and promote them as such, and also by a group of people in the west who latch on to such presentations to affirm the beliefs and attitudes they hold already. I suppose if you asked a deeply spiritual or religious Englishman about certian slightly esoteric concepts then you would get a very different answer to what a more secular person would give. Ki/chi is perhaps the biggest culprit here as it is both an everyday word similar to "energy" in meaning while at the same time is also a multifaceted concept in shinto and taoist metaphysics. 

On the issue of "common sense" the Japanese do in fact have a similar concept known as "joshiki" that is often translated as such and is probably the closest equivalent. Linguistically it's It  core meaning is "knowledge that is common" and so can be used in pretty much the same way as the English if need be but due to the pervading culture it is most usually envoked to mean manners or customs that everyone should be aware of. The standard negative form "hijoshiki" almost always means impropriety or improper action. 

JWT's picture

I think the passage lost credibility on the sixth sentence and it went downhill from there.  The author clearly did not know much about the education system from which the 'statesmen' had emerged.

MykeB's picture

JWT wrote:

I think the passage lost credibility on the sixth sentence and it went downhill from there.  The author clearly did not know much about the education system from which the 'statesmen' had emerged.

Now I find myself going back and counting sentences.  When teaching I try very hard to avoid any hint of the mystical in explaining concepts.  I may use the terminology "mushin" for example, but try hard to bring it back to a Western concept that it most closely relates to.  Students are already have enough to concern themselves with trying to learn the physical skills, I don't need to add further complication with too many language barriers. 

ky0han's picture

Hi everyone, in my eyes communication is problematic everywhere technical terms are use. Different groups even in the same field of action put different meanings into a technical term. So when members of different groups meet and start using those terms they end up being at cross-purposes and totally misunderstand each other.

Same in the field of martial arts or Karate in particular. Every Karate teacher has his own vocabulary. One example is Hidetaka Nishiyamas use of the term "application". By that he did'nt meant BUNKAI or something like that. What he meant was his type of how to correctly use the body for power generation within the technique. The application of the body for power generation so to speak. His students knew what he meant by it. Others will totally misunderstand that.

Another thing is that not everything is verbally explainable, somethings have to be experienced. For excample: How do you describe to someone how to learn riding the bicycle. How do you describe to someone how it feels like when you are at ballance while cycling? Everybody who can ride a bike knows how it feels like but you can't really tell how it feels.

So some try to describe the unexplainable ending up sounding mystical. Some totally miss out on a whole concept by just stamping a meaning on a technical term e.g. the concept of KIAI (its not just shouting out or screaming).

The cultural differences make that even worse. So the important part of an instructor who is using technical terms is to make sure to explain them properly and inform the students that other instructors might use the same term for slightly or totally different things.

Regards Holger