The Theory of Beauty in the Classical Aesthetics of Japan

Posted by Ali Reda | Posted in | Posted on 11/20/2015

To the yearning seekers of blossoms
With pride, would I offer
A delight of the eye,
The green from under the snow
In a mountain village in springtide!

The 'mystery' of Japanese aesthetics comes from the fact that there is a peculiar kind of metaphysics, based on a realization of the simultaneous semantic articulation of consciousness and the external reality, structurally comprising within itself, as an organic whole, the metaphysical, ethical, and aesthetic experiences of the Japanese, dominating the whole functional domain of the Japanese sense of beauty.

It tries to create an associative network of semantic articulations, i.e. a non-temporal 'space' of semantic saturation, bringing into being a global view of a whole (a "field"), in which the words used are observable all at once which is impossible except within the framework of an extremely short poem like waka (31 syllables) and haiku (17 syllables). In a "field" thus constituted, time may be said to be standing still or even annihilated in the sense that the meanings of all words are simultaneously present in one single sphere. Instead of a linear, temporal succession of words, in which each succeeding word goes on obliterating, as it were, the foregoing word.

There are two most important points to be remarked about this spatial, non-temporal image of reality. The first is that, unlike in the reality imaged as the empirical field of causal sequence, there is not supposed to be any priority-posteriority relationship between the things and events which arise therein. Nor should there be any pivotal centers seen around which the things and events would coagulate and tum and at which the relational continuum of co-existence would terminate. That which sustains this image of reality is an awareness of diversity and manifoldness in the form of accidental coincidences, accidental correlations, correspondences and contrasts among things converging into a universal existence with its inner metaphysical dynamics, rather than the awareness of their temporal-causal sequence. In such a perspective, even what is ordinarily considered temporality would appear in a completely different light, for it would then appear identified simply as a perpetual 'inconsistency-transiency' (mu-jo).

As an aesthetic idea it is a feeling of aesthetic harmony fermented in and induced from contemplative awareness. This inner harmony, first projected onto the empirical dimension of things and events. The human reality in this sense may be structurally represented as a sort of existential 'field' that is actualized between the subject and object as its two poles. It would only be natural that the 'field' constituted in this way should have validity only for human existence. To express the same thing from its reverse side, human existence emerges and disappears together with the 'field', that is, human existence cannot maintain itself apart from the 'field'. Or we must say rather that human existence consists precisely in the act of constantly and ceaselessly producing the 'field'. Consequently it would be a sheer impossibility for man to go over the limits of this 'field' and step out of it while remaining at the same time a human being.

The first level of the contemplative 'field' comes into being when the cognitive focus of the subject-which ordinarily is directed toward the outer world unilaterally and one pointedly-begins as it were gradually to become enlarged and diffused until it transcends itself in the sense that it turns into a synchronically multiple awareness directed toward the entire 'field', which is replete with a particular dynamic tension arising from the very co-existence of all things in the all-comprising focal point of such an awareness in one single nontemporal dimension.

At the second level of the contemplative 'field', there no longer exists the vivacious beauty of the phenomenal world. The internal and the external, the subjective and the objective, the perceiver and the perceived, the field and the awareness of the field, the contained and the contaner: whichever of these pairs of opposing units we might posit as the ultimate realms of articulation, we invariably witness primordial poles of reality, almost fused into one another, leaving, however, their faint traces of articulate boundaries, constituting between them a harmonious equilibrium, like a silver bowl and snow heaped therein reflecting each other in an illuminating saturation of silvery light. Such is the whole reality and such is also the whole width of consciousness, and between the two is maintained a state of perfect equilibrium. There is nothing else. This is the whole that IS.

The transition from the second to the third level of the contemplative 'field' may figuratively be represented as a process by which an image of a physically visible extension gradually changes into an image of unfathomable depth. At this stage, hqwever, the never-reconcilable polarity between 'being' and 'not-being' loses its validity as a rationally immutable law. Here, for the first time, is opened a transcendental realm which makes it possible for an ambivalence between these two, 'being' and 'not-being', to be realized. All that have been articulated in recognizable forms fall into the depths of the darkness of night.

But once we reach the fourth level, we witness something beyond imagination. Quite contradictorily, the unfathomable darkness itself becomes suddenly transformed into a boundless dazzling light. However, this abysmal darkness can be at the same time the brilliance of the sunlight. The darkness and brilliance in this case are freely transmutable into one another, because neither of them is an outcome of the articulating activity of the mind. They are rather two forms of the self-manifestation of the primordial Nothingness, the non-articulated, comprising in itself all possible things. The 'mysterious singularity' is beyond the reach of all verbal expressions and indeed absolutely transcends all the activities of the human mind.

On the basis of the awareness of the essential structure of human existence, one may still cherish the intention to transcend its inherent limitations and go beyond them. Such is the nature and motivation of the Japanese form of contemplation. The same idea may also be expressed in a different way by saying that the supreme objective of contemplation consists in man's making an unremitting effort to intend, and approach as closely as possible, the undetermined whole, the nonarticulated Reality which lies beyond human existential reality. Even if by this effort he is able to catch only a brief and passing glimpse of a very narrowly limited aspect of the non-articulated, the attempt is still made. These poets and artists gaze intently at the invisible beyond the visible. They exert themselves to go beyond their sensuous limitations.

In the traditional terminology of Japanese thought, the nonarticulated is called Nothingness (mu), while the articulated is called 'being' (yil or u). In the metaphysical view of the Japanese, it is this very Nothingness as the non-articulated whole that is to be considered the sole Reality. The articulated is thus none other than the dimension of 'being' as the empirical field of life produced by the activity of the 'existential' articulation of human consciousness. This dimension of 'being' which has emerged out of Nothingness as its ground, is brought back to the vision of the original Nothingness through contemplative experience, dissolving its own phenomenal coagulations that have been produced by articulation. The inner strcuture of the aesthetics which we have analyzed so far is, as has been seen, based on a metaphysics having Nothingness as its ultimate goal to be reached, by actually realizing an exquisite organic whole of spatial equilibrium in its serene timelessness.


In waka it is usually the case that self-expression is almost necessarily interwoven with Nature-description. In fact waka could be defined as a self-expression through Nature-description. The inner domain of semantic associations linked with, and substantiated by, the associations of empirically articulated things in external Nature as related to human existential experiences. Thus Nature, actually envisaged by the poet, constitutes in itself a kind of Nature-'field' where the inner existential phenomenal activity of his Subjectivity, his inner 'field' of contemplative Awareness, finds its proper locus for externalization, where he can get into the most immediate and intimate contact with his own inner Self (the non-articulated).

As a result, the units of semantic association actualized in waka assume an evocative significance against the background of this vast, universal totality of the associative networks of Nature interlinked with human affairs. We may observe furthermore the peculiar fact that the associative network of natural things and events shows a remarkable tendency to go on dilating itself into the vastness of rarefied infinity. Consequently we hardly find a waka-poem, a tiny linguistic 'field' of 31 syllables as it is, devoid of a feeling of the cosmic amplitude of Nature, whether its main subject be love or grief.


Yugen, the first component of the word yugen, usually connotes faintness or shadowy-ness, in the sense that it rather negates the selfsubsistent empirical solidity of existence, or that it suggests insubstantiality. Gen, the second component of the word, means dimness, darkness or blackness. It is the darkness caused by profoundity; so deep that our physical eyesight cannot possibly reach its depth, that is to say, the darkness in the region of unknowable profoundity. It may be sufficiently clear from what has just been said that yugen is not a mere aesthetic idea but rather a complex one closely and fundamentally related to the awareness of existence. For we observe in it an inherent tendency which, if developed, would almost exclusively be directed toward a metaphysical awareness.

The beauty of yugen is faint, delicate, suggestive because it is based on the awareness of insubstantiality and delimitation of the human existential field. It is a beauty of spiritual aspiration and yearning motivated by the desire to have sensuous images of the non-articulated, non-sensuous reality of eternal silence and enigma in the midst of the phenomenal world. As we sometimes experience, even the empirical world in which we live, observing things and events coming into and going out of existence, becomes transformed before our eyes into a field, intangible and mysterious, in which things and events assume a tinge of yugen, losing the empirical solidity of self-subsistency, wafting as it were in the air, thus pointing to the presence of the primordial, non-articulated reality underlying them.


The beauty of Nature as a positive aesthetic value, they thought, was not to be appreciated at the momentary height of its full actualization so much as in its transient process of subsiding, or even in its vestiges left after its nullification.

The idea of wabi thus metaphysically understood seems to show quite an obvious characteristic in its structure. It refers first of all to a peculiar metaphysical or existential region which is to be located as it were somewhere between the phenomenal and pre-phenomenal or the articulated and non-articulated whole. This structure observed in its dynamics of involvement and evolvement to and from Nothingness is the sole fundamental basis of the aesthetic idea of wabi.

The phenomenal things and events when viewed in terms of wabi, i.e. a particular metaphysics of Nothingess, naturally come to show quite a characteristic inner configuration as a temporal reflexion of the inner dynamics of the non-temporal structure of Nothingness. That is to say, the process of inner dynamics of evolvement and involvement finds its analogy in the phenomenal movement and changes which, though outwardly indistinct and invisible, are going on steadily, leaving their traces accumulated in the depths of the phenomenal things, as may be visualized by the example of a growth ring of a tree.


In the world of haiku, Nature (and also human affairs) is not simply perceived, recognized and described. It must be 'grasped' on the spot by the poet in its dynamic momentum and immediate experiential actuality, as a phenomenal drama in which the existential whole of the creative-cognitive subject encounters the external world dialecticly. Each event of the subject-object encounter takes place once and for all, lasts only for a moment, ends once and for all, and 'disappears, leaving no trace behind', into Nothingness, the non-phenomenal, non-articulated whole. In each of the actual occurrences of dialectic encounter there are realized illuminating correspondences between the subject and object in their phenomenality. Both the creative-cognitive subject and the cognized object disclose their own phenomenal aspects to each other moment by moment in their limitless varieties and variegations. A certain phenomenal aspect ofthe creativecognitive subject illumines outward a certain particular aspect of the cognized object, which in its turn steers the self-illuminating focus upon another particular aspect of the cognitive subject itself, thus continuing indefinitely, and each phase of this illuminating correspondence forms the potential poetic 'field' of the event itself. The cognitive subject and the cognized object are merely the two poles constitutive of the energy 'field' of the phenomenal, existential event, which the linguistic 'field' of haiku tries to represent with its centripetal dynamics.

In the creative actuality of haiku, there should not be any interval even by a hair's breadth between the state of mind and the cognitive perceptual act. The first and faintest stir of the inner reality (bi) emerges from the thing, it activates the creative emotion of the poet (as an instantaneous sensation), which becomes crystallized on the spot into a poetic expression. There is a remark by the Master concerning the composition of verses: 'Crystallize the first flash of things perceived into words while your mind remains still illumined by its reminiscence.' In other words, the state of mind is most immediately connected with the cognitive act of perception itself with absolutely no intervention of inner activity of semantic articulation, resulting in the immediate descriptive expression of it, thus completing the whole process of the creative-cognitive 'event' of haiku. Thus what he describes or expresses should be superbly natural, with no arbitrary intricacy in itself. As the late Master once remarked: 'In the art of haiku a poem should always be composed in tune with the creative momentum'. He should, leaving at this stage no longer even a trace of doubt and vacillation in his mind, express instantaneously and with immediacy things that occur to his mind, without allowing, so to speak, any discrepancy even as a hair's breadth between his inner self and the writing desk, with a spirit comparable to that of "felling a giant tree down to the ground".

The old pond,
A frog flops in,
The water sound.

The faint sound of water which in itself has not even a trifle aesthetic meaning or which aesthetically makes no sense, by being recognized by the cognitive-creative subject. It is in this sense that in haiku the state of mind is linked immediately and directly with sensation and sense perception while in waka it is the inner activity of semantic articulation which is incorrigibly associated with the state of mind. The plainness, mundaneness or even vulgarity of haiku-expression- in contrast to the sophistication of the aesthetic idealism of waka-assumes an important significance only in this structural framework of haiku as an existential-aesthetic experience. What is implied thereby is that in this particular case the nonphenomenal Whole, the unknowable, is not to be found in the horizontal extension of the semantic articulation, and it is ontologically posited in an entirely different dimension. Accordingly its presence is only indicated by the very absence of phenomenal articulation. What is actualized 'here and now'. This inner state which is beyond the reach of all verbal expression, and in which there is no room for cogitation, and indeed which transcends all the activities of human mind-that precisely is the state of'myo' (the mysterious singularity). Myo (mysteriously singular) refers to a state beyond words, where the activity of the mind utterly disappears without a trace. The artistic state now transcends and is perfectly free from all fixed value-ideas, such as right-and-wrong and good-and bad in the ordinary sense of the words.

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