This is my first blog post for my new website and it’s over 3,700 words long. It’s hard to imagine writing so much on a day when I’ve had other work to do. However, for most of my life I’ve searched for a lifestyle and ethos that fit my soul and until now I’d never found it. I’ve always felt split, different, an individual, and unable to find something to match me. The strict rules of most groups and sets appalled me, as did the precepts of most religions, the narrow mindedness of Western Literati groups – indeed, for a long term the word Literati was a foul one to me.
However, this has changed as I’ve got older. My ideas and feelings have begun to coalesce, the world has become less black and white, and I’ve felt more of a confidence to lay my own path. It’s one that I hope others may follow, but if not, then I’ll plough on alone.
What is The Way of the Runari?
The Runari idea is a combination of my love for art, a desire to live a more virtuous life but not one defined by moralistic religions, but one which creates and loves the arts, but also loves nature and makes me fitter, healthier, and more grounded. I wanted to combine spirituality, martial arts, crafting, life and art. I also wanted to reconcile the parts of me which feel torn between Chinese, Japanese, and Anglo-Nordic (Viking) philosophies, animism, Buddhism, and lifestyles. The Runari is all this – despite all the words and ideas, it is simply to become a better person, a happier person, and someone who creates for the love of creating, and can do so, can talk freely, without a fear of the mind police. Enjoy life, become a Runari.
A Rejection of the Western Literati Style
Japan and China are not the only spheres to have a concept of the literati. The word itself is Western and comes from our own literati – the comfortable middle class and landed gentry with free time to explore the arts. In the west, especially in Britain, the literati are seen as an upper or middle class group of people who love literature but it is contained to stories by themselves to themselves with little respect for other traditions. It’s self-indulgent, arrogant, closed minded, and elitist. Furthermore, as opposed to its Eastern variants, Western Literati are very much of the socialist mindset and so again, as a kind of closed-minded set or club, having different opinions or interests are discouraged.
This stands in contrast to the Wénrén of China and the Bunjin of Japan. In China, the Wénrén were hermits with small, remote houses so they could be with nature and live a life of disciplined virtue learning the arts. They had fun too, partied, drank, engaged in free conversation, and created art. The Japanese had this too, but today’s bunjin live in the middle of society, come from many backgrounds, and keep their hidden talents quiet.
Both have something over the Western literati however because both create art as well as live it. Also, their societies remain more philosophical in nature and the arts more diverse and modest, varying from person to person, group to group. They are more connected to their ancient roots and do not disdain them unlike the British literati. I wanted to write that they were more open to free conversation with friends, but while the Chinese are perhaps more honest, they feel the brunt of the Communist regime, while Japan’s thoughts and philosophies and ways have been fossilized since the 1950s/60s, and before. The creative play of the Edo Period is sadly gone, let alone what happened before.
One thing we know next to nothing about is the Scandinavian Literati style – we have fragments modern and old, we have the skalds, the warriors, the craftsmen, and some wrote in futhark, some in the Roman script. Any pagan traditions have been broken down, but there is the possibility of a Northern Literati style, after all, Odin the wanderer and searcher of knowledge, seems to fit the Eastern model quite well.
The Conflicting Synthesis of Rúxué and Dáoxué
To Alex Kerr, the literati lifestyle of the Runari is basically a combination of Confucianism (Rúxué) and Taoism/Daoism (Dáoxué). These are the basic two philosophical schools and principles of ancient China, pushing away animism and shamanism, and not challenged until the advent of Buddhism. I’m sure in my development of the Runari lifestyle that Buddhism will become a major part; especially Zen.
Until then, Kerr’s thesis is that Confucianism brought a serious side to culture. To them joy came from putting time into studying something. It promotes discipline and a steadfast love of the arts. However this also included practising the arts, learning a widespread knowledge of literature, and learning to ‘make right the heart.’
Taoism on the other hand is more free spirited. It’s less about a disciplined, studious and virtuous life and more about wandering free – appreciating the hills and woods, waterfalls and nature. About having a bit of fun and gaining knowledge as an offshoot of one’s experiences. It is also about the art of ‘pure conversation.’
Taka: A Friend and Bunjin
When I met Taka, he was a gravelly voiced teacher at my third school in Kashiwara. He was from neighbouring Yao-shi, home of Takashi Miike and was not a full teacher in the Japanese system which meant he’d graduated as a teacher, but had not been certified by the local Board of Education for whatever reason.
In his case, it turned out to be his free spirit and dedication to his students which cost him. Put simply, he broke the rules, raised his head above the parapet and made the others look bad. However, he was a kindred spirit to me, one of the few people to be truly on my wavelength. We did some awesome things together be it translating songs from Japanese into English, teaching 60 kids to play guitar together and sing a song at the Culture Festival or creating an after-school cram school for kids too poor to afford private tuition like the others (for truly, no one really learns in a real school there).
What I saw in glimpses but was too ignorant to see at the time is that so many teachers and others partook in the arts as well as sports. They were embodiments, whether they knew it or not, of the literati/Runari lifestyle. Taka collected arts and crafts in his modest apartment where I once wrote a poem about light filtering in through window slats, but he was also obsessed with good food and cooking, of playing sports and discipline, he played the guitar and sung songs. Other teachers wrote haiku, went to rakugo plays, enjoyed kabuki, many could sing well at karaoke, and most played sports with their students. When I think of England, I do not see the same things. It is only now, too late, that I see who my best friend in Japan is and what he does – he’s more than the best teacher in the country.
Squaring the Circle Within: A Personal Journey
For a long time I’ve felt like the lifestyle I’m in is not the right one. I have tried changing places a few times in the hope things will magically improve, but I’ve seen in others how this can go wrong if the problem is internal. As I’ve grown up and become more worldly, travelled, experienced life in Japan, met Chinese people and read the literature of both, seen all kinds of movies, made friends from dozens of countries, I’ve realised there’s so much more out there for me in terms of lifestyle but also that I did not fit into any kind of group. To think of Alex Kerr’s thoughts on the literati – I was curious, but never academic with anything.
As a child, I tried to put my fate in the hands of the Christian God, even praying to him and trying to find solace in the New Testament given to me, yet in my deepest soul I felt the pull of Anglo-Nordic paganism. This pull came partly because of my deep roots, but also just a feeling inside like there was something to pull out of the mystery. As I’ve grown up that feeling has remained, been tested and grown – none more so than when stood in the middle of a Hillsong concert. But I never found my path.
Christopher Lee’s autobiography started part of the journey – he lived a life with great stories and anecdotes. I learned a bit of haiku, a bit of shodo, wrote a skaldic verse here, freeform poetry there, dabbled in creative writing, wrote a play, but they never developed because my time got wasted with vices – not that they’re bad, but they’re bad to me because they take the place of better things to do with my time and life. Reading Alex Kerr’s book “Lost Japan” then opened my eyes up to his ideas of the literati and the eastern ones. It has reminded me of my good friend Taka and made me realize that I’d skimmed the surface of Japan and missed the thing that would have spoken to me most – the Bunjin lifestyle.
But it was not until this summer, 2016, that is coalesced in my slow brain and I began to ponder how to tie it together. For me it’s important to combine both Taoism and Confucianism, but also to combine Japan’s staid beauty and elegance with China’s vibrant creativity and its former freedoms of speech. However, it is also important to combine east and west. Not just Romano-Greek philosophy which is the root of modern literary thinking – but more importantly, Anglo-Nordic pagan tradition. In a way, this idea of the Runari is a combination of these elements inside me.
The Etymology of Runari
Whenever I want to create something, usually in fantasy stories, I want to do it through the framework of Old English. Sadly a lot of our lore was destroyed after 1066 and even more by the advent of Christianity before that. The continuous folklore, philosophy and traditions of Anglo-Nordic practices has been lost, ridiculed, and turned into garbled, mere folk tales and nursery rhymes.
Still, I’d like to create new terms – our language is not a fossil, nor are our old ideas. They can be mixed with new ones as we create our own paths. Runari is my path – I wanted a way to say Literati in English without confusing the two. Literati means of people of literature, of the word, of language and letters. It’s come to us from French via Latin. In the East it is known as Wénrén and Bunjin as discussed above meaning people of letters or scholars. As both terms, independent of one another, but meaning the same, I looked back into the etymology of English words to find an equivalent.
Runa is Gothic, the language which predates Germanic tongues and Slavic tongues, and means rune. In English we have words, but letters is a Latin term – our term is the semi-mystic Runes, but rather than thinking of the modern, almost silly magical term, think of them in their origin – letters for a language. +ari is a suffix from Proto-Germanic, I could not find the equivalent in Gothic, but is +er in English, meaning doer like potter, footballer, and writer. This way I’ve created a word with the same general meaning as Literati and Bunjin, but with a Northern European origin.
Principles of Living the Runari Life
In short, the principles of being a Runari or Eastern Literati can be boiled down to:
- Living the Arts
- Approaching life with curiosity and good humour
- Balancing discipline with fun
- Connecting with nature
- Creating as well as appreciating
- Talking freely
Socrates said that a wise man is someone who knows that he knows nothing. While we cannot hope to know everything in life, there is no harm in trying to learn something and to impart it on others too (the Anglo-Saxon principle of Lor). These tenets are about how we approach life as individuals and how we approach each other, though of course respect is good and knowledge that there are no sacred cows. The most important part of the Runari lifestyle is not the basic principles, but the 6 ways of life.
The 6 Ways of Life
In China, the literati were supposed to master the 3 perfections – poetry, painting, and calligraphy. Later this developed into the fine arts such as woodcarving, metalwork, and pottery. When it combined with Taoism came a love of nature. However, if we think about a pagan way, then other elements come into play too including the self, but also martial arts. I have divided the Ways into 6 broad elements – the arts, the word, martial arts, nature, tea, and the self. Picking one or more from each may be like picking credits at university, but they lead to a more fulfilled and Runari lifestyle.
Craeftweg: The Way of Art
The central path of the literati according to Alex Kerr is the love of art. This transfers over to both East and Western literati though the Eastern ones are more broad and accepting of folk art and traditional arts, while Western literati keep to narrow confines and often things with little artistic merit (unmade beds anyone?). The arts, to be loved, but also made can be broken down into:
Art: collecting, learning to paint, sketch, and so on.
Crafts: pottery, metalwork, wood carving and so on.
Music: playing instruments from pianos to guitars, or just the drums. In old English this is known as dreamcraft.
Theatre: To love, to enjoy, to discuss, and maybe act or write – particularly Japanese Noh and Kabuki.
My Path: The arts have never been my strong point – stick figures being the height of my drawing. Classes never went much better and my attempts to play music were worse – sacked as a triangle player at my first Japanese school. However, I’d like to be more than that. Maybe learn to sketch when out in town or on a walk to accompany my haiku, maybe look into simple Japanese paintings or learn the shamanic drum or the berimbau. It is possible to learn to carve wood or take up pottery classes if time and money allow. Of course, I’d love to collect some modest art too.
Runaweg: The Way of The Word
As art is key to all literati, the Western form is most at home in literature. After all, Runari, Wenren and Bunjin all mean language-person. Though to embrace the word, does not mean embracing just high literature, but all forms of the written word including:
Poetry: Skaldic, Haiku, verse, free-style etc… to compose, recite, critique, and perform.
Literature: Does not have to be literary, just enjoy reading, but also write too be it novels or shorter stories, snippets, or reviews.
Letters: to become a person of letters, discussing all things of the Runari or life, experiences and discoveries.
Calligraphy: Easier with Chinese characters, be it shodo or Chinese calligraphy, channeling emotions and feelings into a single character or phrase can be intensely beautiful.
My Path: First, I’d like to trace my journey online with a blog, but also in a diary written in futhark, the ancient alphabet which created runes. I’d also like to finish and publish stories – there’s enough of them to last a lifetime, complete more haiku, and re-start my interest in shodo. These are some of the easier elements if my work allows.
Guthweg: The Way of War
Sounds tougher than it is. Both the west and east have martial arts be it the way of the sword, archery, or hand-to-hand combat. Learning martial arts (Budo) is good for the confucian side of the Runari – discipline, exercise, exactness, and routines. These also happen to be good for the body and spirit too. For those truly into Guthweg, try one weapon-based and one hand-to-hand martial art be it sword, spear, bow, karate, taekwondo, or glima.
My Path: Explore Bruce Lee’s ideas on Jeet Kun Do, but before that, develop tai chi and Iaido – the Japanese art of drawing a sword. Both solo practices, but maybe some day take up something more social. Interested to see how Viking draga may combine with tai chi.
Woruldweg: The Way of Nature
To the Taoist, nature is very important. In Japan, many people proclaim a great closeness to nature as they exist in their concrete jungles where nature is a sandy park with moss and weeds. Bristol’s not much better sometimes, but does have its hidden gems, plus Ashton Court, Brandon Hill and many smaller parks. Being close to nature is vital, helping it, nurturing it, saving bees and walking in woods is the way of nature.
In Japan, it also means writing about nature be it in the haiku form or some other, and also ikebana or flower arranging. According to Alex Kerr and my own experience in Japan, it’s become staid and boring, plus quite plastic, but at it’s height the choosing and arranging of flowers is a true art form to reflect nature and the seasons.
My Path: I’ve been in this house for 4 years now; the longest I’ve lived in any one place since I left for university aged 19. All the time I’ve promised myself that I’d fix the garden and not let it have so many weeds. All I’ve managed so far is to plant an apple tree and save the neighbour’s hedge from its owner so hedgehogs will have a refuge. It’d be nice to see more nature and to have a proper garden whatever that means. I’d like to do ikebana again, but of course on my own terms and creatively – that might be nice.
Leaf Beséothan (Sencha): The Way of Tea
Boiling down leaves. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, but one of the more optional Ways to adapt, but it relates to both the Way of the Self (see below) and the principle of free discussion. Furthermore, it is an art form in itself. While tea ceremony is almost wholly Eastern, there are major differences between the arcane, measured artifice of Japanese Sado (茶道) and the freer, healthier Chinese Sencha (煎茶).
My Path: Explore both types of tea; both the beauty of one and the range of the other. To investigate the different types of Chinese tea and their medicinal benefits. Never turn down a chance at English tea ceremony with cream scones, sandwiches and cakes. There must be a hygge tea ceremony!
Silbaweg: The Way of the Self
All of the other ways combined require a healthy mind and body. This is where the Way of the Self comes into being. This includes improving health, fitness, diet and the general function of the body. Part of this comes from the martial arts, part from walking around nature, and part from the medicinal benefits of tea. It seems the body is also served by non-martial arts such as meditation, tai chi, and yoga.
Alex Kerr makes reference to one of his most revered literati, Shirasu Masako who said that if you love pottery then you will get angry about it, and you should get angry about food too. But in the spirit of the Runari, this means cooking and baking it too as well as criticism of others’ work. Confucian discipline may err toward health, fitness, and being good to the body, but the reckless enjoyment of taoism allows for the well timed Anglo-Nordic feast.
This brings us to feeding the soul; however that is done be it spiritually or with fun. Some might include religion too as a nourishment though many of the major faiths won’t be compatible. However, Buddhism and the pagan faiths may be flexible enough depending on how they’re practiced. Certainly Taoism gave rise to Buddhism at least.
My Path: In one abandoned novel (Rodorryn’s Oathbreakers) the lead character practices yoga every day, well, it’s mixed with Tai Chi and other exercises. In the novel it’s called Ge-Aenan, which is Old English for ‘to unite’ or in this case ‘to unite oneself.’ I’m curious to see if it can relate to draga, but to start with I plan to learn more tai chi, then teach myself yoga, mixing both with confucian discipline and Daoist philosophy.
I’ll also eat better, exercise more, read more on philosophy, and learn to meditate.
Thank you for reading this far into what may have been a dense and long document or perhaps it’s best referred to as a manifesto. It is not set in stone, I have no intention of this idea becoming like the coddled and rule dominated ways of Japanese culture where intuition, heart, feeling, and creativity are forgotten in favour of doing something right. Keep to the principles above and there won’t be any rights or wrongs beyond it.
In a short story, more of a fake memoir – definitely more fake than Knausgaard, my penname Ryujin talks about how he gave up a traditional life in big city Osaka where he’d been squeezed into trains in his cheap suit, day in and day out, forced to work long unproductive hours, and drink with the boss in the hope of a promotion. He gave that up for a small, decrepit home in the southern Nara mountains to live the Bunjin lifestyle.
Unlike Ryujin, my first steps won’t be to anywhere close to that. Replace southern Nara prefecture with south Bristol, replace mountains and forests with housing estates and traffic, rivers with clogged up roads, and ancient mysticism with people eating McDonalds and shouting on the bus. Anyone reading this thinking that it sounds like the life for them too will have to decide their own first steps. Mine will be in my own style – de-cluttering the house, buying books on the topic to read, slowly increasing health and fitness, teaching myself the chosen skills above, and re-organizing my home to turn it into my sanctuary, perhaps a little urban hermitage (Anseld). What will you do?