Do you remember watching the the movie The Last Samurai? In one of the early scenes the samurai leader, Lord Katsumto, utters a now famous quote about living an honorable life.
This marvelous quote sets the samurai up for a series of tragic events - that I will not reveal here. Just in case you still want to see the movie. But the samurai learns something about life's true values. It is a profound moment.
What is the quote and how does this relate to an artist's life? Read on.
"The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for it and it would not be a wasted life."
Why all the samurai references?
Recently I watched a program about the making of samurai swords. This ancient tradition is falling away, but a few master craftsmen remain to carry on the art. And it is a glorious art indeed. Fascinating to watch. I do accept that the weapon itself is a chilling one. No doubt about that. But the craft of making the sword is something distinct from the violence associated with the swords.
Sword Making Process
The process begins with turning tons of iron rich sand into molten metal. This raw material reveals itself through a three day smelting process using ancient methods. It is a specilalised ritual blessed by the Japanese gods. The end result is a small amount metal that is good enough for the sword maker.
In the program the man in charge of this process comments that all he wants is to do a good job. He wants to deliver material of a high quality that will please the master craftsman. He mentions the philosophy called Bushido as a guiding influence.
Bushido and the Art Spirit
Bushido is the code of the samurai. A code of chivalry that the samurai had to follow. Not a code for destruction, but a code to live by. The conflict between creating and destroying was recognised by the samurai. One that artists must recognise too. The code not only covered military life, but also standards for an honorable life in all its facets. Including that of living simply, sincerely and doing your best work. Bushido meant putting aside all materialistic desires. Instead you must value wisdom, truth, humility and justice.
Why is Bushido Relevant to Creativity Today?
Fine ideas. But too naive and old fashioned for today? One of the craftsmen said that these days the modern person values money. People these days strive only for a bigger house, fancy car and other material goods. He said that the code of Bushido was not popular any more.
Who can argue with him? It is not just in Japan where materialism is the new standard. I am sure that other western countries would be a shock to him. So why is Bushido and other codes of honorable work struggling to survive? Too hard?. Too many material temptations? Yes. But also the modern world demands that we keep up with the chase for wealth or face an uncertain future. Fear is a big motivator.
To Conquer Fear is to Discover Your Potential
But what did the ancient samurai have to learn above all else? It was to banish fear. All the samurai's skills are wasted if he had a grain of fear. Imagine if you could start the day fearless? Your only focus is to do your art. To work with the desire for perfection. To release the soul within your work of art. Whatever that work may be. No matter how long it takes. No fears about the ceaseless nonsense that besets our lives today.
Sounds blissful. But not impossible. It does need a decision to act. To change priorities. To honor the work as a goal in itself. And to strive for your best work. If you can do that you can sleep soundly knowing you have done well. Nobody can question the simple power of this approach.
An uncomfortable truth nagged me about these ideas.
I had to take stock of my own art process. My approach to the day and my work. Am I taking time to focus on the simple yet necessary craft of art? Or am I distracted by the many demands of modern life? The chase that we call making a living. The truth? I can do better. It starts with taking time and seeking honor in creating. The results will follow from this.
How about you?
PS: Part of the artist's process is to build a solid foundation in technique. Find out more about how I teach these principles in my comprehensive course Learn To Paint With Impact.
Malcolm Dewey: Artist. Country: South Africa