Zhaozhou taught, “The greatest way is not difficult if you don’t pick and choose. As soon as I speak, you’ll think, ‘That’s picking and choosing,’ or ‘That’s clear.’ But I don’t identify with clarity.
Can you live this way?”
Someone asked, “If you don’t identify with clarity, what do you live by?”
“Again, I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know, why do you say that you don’t identify with clarity?”
“When you ask the question you already have it.

Make your bow and step back.”

—The Blue Cliff Record Case 2

Last week we investigated the Daoist notion of Ma 間: sunlight streaming through a gate, “the space between.” Lately, I have been thinking about Wa 和, or “harmony.” In the practice of Zen, realizing Ma—“space”—brings a measure of Wa: “harmony.” So how do we get from Ma to Wa?

Wa has a broad cultural meaning in Japanese society. The left element on the ideogram, ine: 禾,  means rice plant. The character on the right is kuchi: 口—mouth. As a verb, the ideogram is read  和む, nagomu, meaning “to soften.” So, it is not hard to see why rice + mouth represents a softening into harmony, peace, and unity.

The Wa character also stands for Japan. The story goes that in the 8th century, as trade picked up with China, the Japanese got tired of the Chinese calling them a certain Wa  倭, which means “submissive, distant, dwarf.” So they changed the character to another Wa 和: harmony. “Great Harmony,” daiwa or yamato, is one of the ancient words that Japan calls itself.

The Japanese see promoting social harmony, Wa, as fundamental to the nation’s stability: crime is low, lifetimes long, and the gap between rich and poor is relatively narrow. But there is a dark side to seeking that Wa: severe bullying in schools, high youth suicide rates, difficulties with integrating outsiders. The greatest harmony, in society and in our lives, comes from not excluding the shadow.

Many years ago, when I was getting my start as a freelance reporter in Japan, I was invited to be an extra in a Tora-san(“Mr. Tiger”) movie, in a series called Otoko wa Tsurai Yo (It is Hard Being a Man), directed by Yoji Yamada. For two decades it was the most popular movie series in Japan; Yamada shot fifty episodes. I was in episode thirty, and my (uncredited) claim to fame was bumping into the child star in a restaurant and saying “Excuse me,” in English. So yes, IMDb, if you’re checking, I spoke lines.

On the face of it, Tora-san was anything but Wa: he is a bumbling traveling salesman who meets the female star of the day, and just as they are to consummate their relationship, he packs his one small suitcase and skips town. Tora-san was a ne’er do well in a society striving for perfection. By embracing Tora-san, ordinary Japanese were finding a greater harmony by laughing, for a moment, at the darker side of social Wa. 

In our own lives, inclusion of all the bits is the greatest way, the greatest Wa. For me, that’s what Zhaozhou is pointing at. The greatest Wa is not difficult at all, if we just don’t pick and choose. We need not dwell in some notion of clarity, purity, or even harmony. Perhaps just asking the question is enough.