It was late in the day just before Sunday supermarket closing time, so it was easier for one to drop the other off for some last-minute grocery purchases - less pressure; not so much of a shared mad rush. During the car-park wait, the radio was switched on: maybe music? No: the interrupted discussion mentioned an odd word in a context that sounded interesting. It was jotted it down as a guessed reminder on the back of a small package as 'met tan ai' for future reference. The interviewer kept on sounding the word slightly differently, so the exact identification of the sounds was a little confusing. The discussion intrigued. The programme turned out to be The Philospohers Stone on ABC RN Radio, a 5:30pm Sunday programme on matters philosphical. As the interview continued, my interest grew. I picked up the mobile phone and Googled my assumed spelling: it was corrected to 'mottainai.' The site explained the word as a Japanese notion, (so far so good), a concept that cautioned against waste. The book Grandma mottainai that had already been mentioned in the discussion was referenced in the listing, so it seemed that this was the correct word: see - http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/philosopherszone/avoiding-waste-with-the-japanese-concept-of-'mottainai'/6722720 Yes, this was indeed the term being used on the radio chat, as the subject matter of the talk did involve this issue that was identified as a moral stance with Buddhist links: Schumacher's Small is Beautiful came to mind.
The idea seemed useful, enlightening. At last there seemed to be something that one could identify, grasp, in order to better comprehend that elusive quality, that quiet power, the potency in things Japanese: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/shide-paper-power.html Traditional Japanese architecture has a quality about it that entrances and puzzles at the same time. It is enigmatic, whole, accessible, but elusive and aloof; physical but ephemeral; weighty but oddly light; present almost as a disbelief, incredible, enriched in a glow of ordinary, silent perfection. It touches on the world of the soul, whatever this means; but it does. Now we have a set of words that tell about the thoughts and attitudes of the makers, even if only tangentially: they offer something to hold on to and to reflect upon; to consider. One might struggle to identify matters that 'reduce, reuse and recycle' in any matter or manner of mystery, given the factual and fashionable emphasis and concentration on environmental issues today; but it is the final word 'respect' that resonates in the voids of complex, unfathomable meaning that appears to encompass things Japanese efficiently and effectively in one all-encompassing notion. One might paraphrase the set as: responsibility and respect. Boro, traditional Japanese mending, reduces, resues and recycles with great respect - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/boro-art-of-mending.html - but it is the sense of respect that embodies the responsibility shared in its 'reduce, reuse, and recycle' approach that it does so beautifully and with much care – with resounding regard and reverence.
In everything Japanese, it the art, the craft and the architecture, even in simple, everyday wrapping and packaging, it is respect that shapes the arena of action, defines its rigour, frames its ambitions; holds its intensity; embodies all of this with a defining clarity and determination. The concept has depth in its relevance. One senses respect as the core concept that embraces humility and commitment in attention, skill, thought and the manipulation of making that attends carefully to the detail of every thought, thing and act, caring for it in every way: acting knowingly, as the Buddhists speak of life and living. It is this central, core attitude that defines things traditionally Japanese even for us today. Respect is the essence, the essential feeling of form, its stringency.
What might we learn about this? Schumacher spoke of a Buddhist economics (Small is Beautiful 1973). Roots of Buddhist care exist in mottainai in the same way that Schumacher spoke of in his economics that saw, e.g., only silliness in biscuits made in Edinburgh being transported to London, while those made in London are passing on route to Edinburgh. This iconic example of irrational action sets the scene for most commercial activity today. The ideals of reducing, reusing and recycling, of a caring for all things, not merely quirky fashionable environmental matters that currently draw attention to themselves just too much, are rooted in respect. Issues spiritual, modest matters, are embodied in this concept, at its heart: Buddhism. So what might we do today? What can we do? What must we do?
Attempting to recreate an attitude that embodies these first three 'R's will never give anything but a re-enactment, an attempt to do something planned, practical and clever. A broader base of guidance and a different intent is needed. Respect has at its core a certain, ordinary, caring richness: an essential rigour; a necessity beyond preconceived enactment: a quality of depth and coherence. There is something central, core, in respect that has an emotional essence beyond the facts of being able to reduce, recycle and reuse. One has to feel honestly and be committed to the action. In the fever for 'environmental' achievement, these terms have almost become clichés today. What is lacking in most circumstances is a commitment to respect. Too much attention is now given over to the promotion of ME and MY bespoke self that is catered for in 'tourism' – see: http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/who-or-what-is-tourist.html It is an attitude facilitated, indeed, promoted, by social media – selfies; talk about ME and MY feelings becomes the heart of all actions that seek the attention of others with an effort to reveal something unique in ME – the one-and-only in the universe. Respect removes this focus elsewhere; realigns it into something more inclusive, more wholesome: mankind; life. We need to know this and enact it in living if we want to reach beyond ourselves, our concerns, and our efforts. It is too easy to just 'reduce, recycle and reuse;' it is simplistically naive, indulgent, to let such activities become self-praiseworthy: 'Look at how good, how responsible I am!'
Respect reaches out to touch and understand; to care beyond self-interest. It is a remarkably inclusive term that embodies a core attitude that can be applied to everything. 'To respect' encompasses an understanding, a recognition of others; it entertains a position that is constantly considering others; it displays a caring interest in and a concern for all - people and things -with humility and understanding. It is a notion that our world knows little of in these days of social media hype that exclaims the glory of ME and MINE in a chaos of self-interested effort that demands recognition of MY display; the bespoke ME claiming and demanding my rights to be uniquely different.
Respect is an action; an emotional participation that can only be pure and singular, unpolluted, in its application, or else it is otherwise, something else. The more it is considered, the more remarkable the term is; and the more essential it can be seen to be if our world is to cohere and blossom with a gentle, fertile energy. It is a term that is spoken of as 'earning' as well as 'giving.' It is reciprocal in its effort. Personal responsibility is embodied in a tangible manner. One can 'earn' respect in managing one's mode of action, just as one can 'give' respect to others.
Is it that the giving of respect earns respect; and vice versa? Consider the experience of traditional Japanese architecture, the rock garden. Does the doing involve and embody the emotion itself to be experienced by others in the object? Art/architecture theory likes to avoid this notion of personal feeling that places a relevance on the emotional state of the maker, the doer, in order to promote more 'intellectual' positions in more abstract, schematic notions of feeling in theory that is really only ever the interaction of flesh and blood: living emotion. Things personal are discarded as being tainted, irrational. If this interaction is possible - that the feeling of the maker can be embodied in form of the thing - then we must act now and start respecting ourselves, others, our works, others' works, our world: life; then we might begin to understand more than another's declared brilliance that is frequently promoted as genius; 'star' quality: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/02/bespoke-brilliance-trials-of-quirky.html and http://www.architectureanddesign.com.au/news/2016-bond-university-architecture-lecture-series-t Star lineup revealed for first of Bond Uni's architecture lecture series - (is it not 'line-up'?)
The concept of respect alone tells us this. It makes a total commitment to being. In our world that seems to dislike and avoid anything that gets close to personal emotions or religious feeling, respect might be able to realign our attitudes and approaches and help us manage matters ephemeral and elusive, those very matters experienced in things traditionally Japanese – indeed, in most traditional art where the thoughts and feelings, attitudes of the doer were critical to outcomes. It could be a way to consider these fragile, subtle things without destroying them. Today, we prefer to argue that such qualities lie embodied in the work itself as rational, 'aesthetic' qualities to be analysed and experienced by others.
The irony is that in order to even try to properly, sensitively understand matters ephemeral in traditional things, one has to respect them, their makers, their contexts and their beliefs, not drag these things into our world of 'aesthetic' observation with intellectually argued explanations and analysis. Ananda Coomaraswamy has told us this - (Why Exhibit Works of Art?) Architecture needs to re-evaluate matters spiritual and personal. One might highlight the circumstance being referred to by illustrating a Gehry work and a traditional piece, and consider the difference, and ask why; why 'ME' in one and something more inclusive; richer, more whole in the other? It is something that needs to be pondered, with respect.
One hopes that the notion of mottainai becomes more than a flash fad; more than one of the flimsy, passing fashions that our era so keenly promote with perpetually transient enthusiasm; ideas to be discarded for the 'ever-new' boast that declares MY bespoke tastes that carry the latent statement: 'It is your problem if you cannot undertsand what I am saying!' - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/01/is-todays-architecture-hoax_16.html Sadly boro seems to have assumed this role in our era to become just clever patchwork. There is something moral here that needs attention. One can already sense the cringe; the innate protest that kills the very thing being sought - an understanding of respect: its importance and its relevance in life and architecture.
The challenge is that one has to start this journey with respect: one has to change before one can be changed. It seems to be the same irrational stance that the mind reveals in all religious faiths that speak of believing first, before one can understand. Buddhism suggests a more practical start: to know that you are walking, living; but even this requires a personal change - a moral stance.
Can we do it? Do we care? We have to!
1 March 2016
Perhaps husbandry is another way to understand these sensitive issues: see -