Monday, November 26, 2007

Applied Shinto: Musubi and Kannagara

(For my introduction on why exactly I'm using Shinto philosophy and terminology, click here for the preceding post. I may expound on my almost certainly poor interpretation of Shinto philosophy, but for now let me define some useful terms from it.)

As the basis for further essays I'll be writing, I first want to define two terms that serve as the foundation:

I believe there is a fundamental quantity that can be used to describe and link broad aspects of human progress. Perhaps the closest term for this quantity might be made by stripping away the authoritarian overtone from the word "order" -- using it more as the opposite of "entropy" than that of "lawlessness". But more than that, this quantity is constructiveness, intelligence, elegance, goodness, beauty, and complexity all rolled up together.


I've been looking for a single word to describe this broad concept because I think the preceding English words are specific cases of a single thing. All of them have to do with what I think of as progress: of things proceeding in the right and proper way, of optimizing the use of what is available for the greatest good. I think it's useful to define a word for this because it seems like there are a million arguments about a million topics -- politics, morality, business, design, etc. etc. -- that I am finding are best approached with the same basis for evaluating what is productive and counterproductive, right and wrong, a benefit or a hindrance.

Fortunately I think there's one good word for this concept: musubi.

I have read musubi defined as "the spirit of creativity", but there is a lot more behind the word in Shinto philosophy, with refinements and extensions of the concept that describe how it functions in the world. In its various forms and applications, it seems a very good fit for this concept, this quantity, that I want to discuss. So grasping my new word, I will begin:

I believe that musubi applied to human endeavors defines the magnitude and direction of the arrow of human progress. Great men and women bring more musubi to the world than others. Successful businesses create it and increase their wealth. A well-designed machine is musubi made physical. Great artists clearly express the spirit of musubi in their work. Musubi makes the world go 'round -- better living through musubi -- Vorsprung durch Musubi the Germans might say.

Here I'd like to define a second, related term: kannagara.

Kannagara is the way of the kami, the many godly spirits of Shinto. I don't want to get too deeply into kami and their role in Shinto right now, but suffice it to define kannagara in practical terms as as "the path to an ideal universe". With apologies again for my probable slight misuse of the term, I don't believe this means an otherwordly nirvana, or an idealized utopia, it's more like the best possible outcome given the circumstances. If you think of the world as a giant choose-your-own-adventure book, kannagara is the set of page selection choices that avoid the world getting eaten by alligators or jettisoned into space, and lead it to the best of happy endings. I believe that the ideal application of collective musubi leads the world to kannagara by definition.

This all sounds fairly hand-wavey and ill-defined, but I believe that my interpretation of musubi is a very objective thing, and should be resistant to subjective interpretation. My hope is that it should even have mathematical strength, although perhaps we can only define it as such in narrow and well-defined fields of study. Nonetheless, I've been finding myself looking at the world with an eye toward recognizing musubi with objective skepticism, and I've found it useful -- having much musubi, I might even say self-referentially.

I'll be writing more about all this (and I'll be referring back to this page), but for now I hope that you might create a place for this concept of musubi in your mind. Maybe start looking at the world with an eye toward how people, systems, organizations, cycles, even machines can operate to have the most positive, constructive, beautiful, and efficient impact; not just directly but through their overall interaction with everything around them in broadening ripples that weaken as they touch things further and further separated. The better they are at doing that, the more musubi they exhibit, and the closer then the world around them is to achieving kannagara.

(By way of a little bibliography, I have to give credit to Guji Yukitaka Yamamoto's Kami no Michi that illuminated a number of Shinto concepts for me and served as the basis for a lot of my further research. He is a Shinto priest who seems to skew toward the more practical, less mystical, interpretations which I find to be the most relevant and useful.)

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