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)