The Great Wave: A Secret History of Water

If you wander into the Japanese wing of an art museum, there’s a high chance that  at some point you’ll come across a picture of a wave. Water motifs dominate every aesthetic plane from sculpture to architecture. Seigaiha, a traditional Japanese wave pattern symbolizing good luck everlasting, is commonly found on kumiko screens, fans, and kimono. The name comes from an ancient court dance, where dancers would wear costumes decorated with the pattern of endless concentric waves. And, of course, you can’t talk about Japanese art without mentioning Hokusai’s iconic “Great Wave off Kanagawa”. As an island nation with a culinary affinity for fish, it’s no surprise that Japan has a close relationship with the sea. But more than almost any other element, water extends deeply into the cultural backbone of the country, going beyond geography and permeating its way into art, medicine, literature, philosophy and even martial arts.

Along with fire, earth, wind, and void, water is recognized as one the Five Elements within Japanese Buddhism. This ancient philosophy splits the world into five elements, assigning them particular characteristics and even personalities. Each element is said to represent a certain tendency that reveals itself in nature, physics, spirituality, or human nature. Together, the Five Elements break down the nature of things, societies, and people to help us better understand the world around us.

While the Five Elements represent qualities as varied as stubbornness and spontaneity, water embodies the quality of flexibility. Water, or sui, represents the fluid, flowing, and formless things in the world. Rivers, lakes, and rain fall under sui, but it can also include clouds, mood swings, and even bodily fluids like blood. Plants belong to this element too, as they grow and adapt to their changing environment according to the direction of the sun and the seasons. Altogether sui represents the mercurial things in our world that grow and change continuously. Even its Japanese character, 水, visually depicts many paths diverging from one common central point

In the spiritual realm, sui is associated with emotion, defensiveness, adaptability, flexibility, suppleness, and magnetism. People with “water personalities” are believed to be creative, reflective, and resourceful, but they are also susceptible to fear and indecisiveness, which can block them from achieving their creative potential. Potential is perhaps the word that best describes this element, especially when you consider that even still water (like a lake) always remains in a state of suspended motion, ready to slide into motion at the slightest give.

In “The Book of Five Rings,” a 1645 principal text on the martial arts, Miyamoto Musashi wrote that we may have much to learn from water. To Musashi, water had a natural innate flexibility, since it can quickly adapt to shifting boundaries and continually seek out the best path. Think of a stream or a river held back by a dam: a body of water may be contained, but as soon as the floodgates open, it rushes out to fill the available space. Adaptable and resourceful, water is as comfortable flowing down a stream as it is settling into a lake basin. Given enough time, it can even erode mountains. To Musashi, a skilled swordsman must possess that same ability to adapt to change in a split-second -and the patience to keep his cool even in the most unexpected of situations.

Water’s pull teaches us an important lesson: a mental and emotional comfort with change is key to navigating life, especially when our path suddenly diverges in unexpected directions. Powerful and majestic, the waves are a reminder that life ebbs and flows with the passage of time. The key is to keep a steady course. The opening paragraph of the Buddhist literary classic Hojoki puts it best:   

The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long. So, too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world.
- Kamo no Chomei