A JAPANESE GARDEN HANDBOOK
PART ONE: DESIGN & CRAFT
Chapter 12: Aesthetics
In this Chapter…
- At a Loss for Words…
- Heian Sensibilities
- Far from Idle
- Zen Elegance
- Tea and Flowers
- The Beauty of Paucity
- The Cult of Simplicity
- Ranking Things
- Town Tastes
- Illusions of Grandeur
- Bibliographical Notes
Everything superfluous to the total effect of the garden is discarded. The gardener’s design is complete when there is nothing more he can remove from the garden. – Seike Kiyoshi and Kudō Masanobu
At a Loss for Words…
There is no composite term in Japanese which corresponds with our word “aesthetics”, and the terms which you will encounter in this chapter such as wabi, sabi, awaré and yūgen really refer only to the qualities inherent in certain manifestations of cultural beauty. At best, the Westerner can gather only a sense of the way Japanese people traditionally thought about beauty by learning where certain terms are applied and attempting to attach such labels to other objects that exhibit similar qualities. For this reason, Donald Richie chose the form of the zuihitsu (随筆 “to follow [the] brush”), or meandering personal essay, as the form to couch his thoughts and observations in A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics. “Most likely to succeed in defining Japanese aesthetics,” he cautions, “is a net of associations composed of listings or jottings, connected intuitively, that fills in a background and renders the subject visible. Hence the Japanese uses for juxtaposition, for assembling, for bricolage.” But, as Donald Richie points out, “If there is no term for something, it might be thought that the commodity is of small importance. But it is just as likely that this something is of such importance that it is taken for granted, and thus any contrivances, like words, for discussing it are unnecessary.”
Richie provides us with a portal by citing Ueda Makoto (上田真 1931- ), who draws attention to one of the distinctive features of the Japanese appreciation of beauty. It arises, he claims, from “a tendency to value symbolic representation over realistic delineation.” Mimesis was not an aim, but rather – to borrow Richie’s words again – “qualities existing under this outward surface were searched for and found. Beneath the glaze of a teacup were the qualities of wabi or sabi; in the sleeve of the kimono was discovered fūryū or iki.”
I have chosen to follow Richie’s advice by assembling the following terms under the broad cultural milieux in which they are most frequently encountered or used. These milieux are mostly historical periods, social classes, and traditional cultural practices and art forms.
Perhaps no other age in Japan’s history placed such a premium on the aesthetic tastes and cultural refinements of its nobles and courtiers as did the Heian period (794-1185). During this time, the increasingly effete Fujiwara aristocracy created a rigid aesthetic culture as it found itself gradually isolated from the political machinery of authority and real power. With nothing else to occupy them, aristocrats developed a highly refined sense of elegance or grace that they termed miyabi (雅び). Promotions and social status could depend quite literally on one’s ability in poetry, music or protocol, and the attainment of miyabi became a pinnacle of achievement. Heian courtiers also used the term eiga (栄華), which roughly translates as “worldly pomp” or “opulence”, to contrast the realm of cultural pursuits (calligraphy, poetry, banquets, ceremonies, and competitions) with the impermanence of all things encapsulated in the Buddhist term mujōkan (無常観 “not everlasting outlook”; Skr. anitya).
Heian courtiers who were particularly gifted were said to have fūryū (風流), which is variously translated as “refined taste”, “elegant taste”, “chic style”, “refined aesthetic”, or “creative genius”. However loose it may appear, the strength of this term lay in the myriad aesthetic connotations that it allowed, in the same way that the definition of the English word “taste” relies on the context, speaker, and target. In fact, fūryū has undergone considerable alteration in denotation since it was first imported from China. Feng-liu, as it was pronounced in Chinese, originally meant “well-mannered”, although by the Heian period, the term simply implied that a person or thing was sophisticated or cultured. Later, the term was appropriated by Zen Buddhists, and was applied to the arts of flower-arrangement (ikebana 生け花), tea ceremony (chanoyu 茶の湯) and garden design, where it implied refined or subtle taste and shared affinity with iki (粋) and sui (粋).
Associated most often with Heien-period poetry, yojō (余情, 餘情) refers to the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling in response to the artistic effect of something. The joy of discovering a pun or a bon mot, the sudden burst of appreciation for a witty turn of phrase or a clever allusion, are each in their own way expressions of yojō. A person with developed aesthetic sensitivity – an appreciation for mono-no-awaré (物の哀れ; see “Zen Elegance” below), for example – would have found this passionate response in the presence of nature, also.
The Heian sensibility to the natural harmony of the design or the atmosphere of a garden was captured by the literary term fuzei (風情 “wind emotion”), which referred to one’s aesthetic taste. The character for “wind” here does not refer to the meteorological condition, but rather to “something more like the ancient Greek concept of ether (Gr. aitherios) – an invisible element that permeates and binds all physical matter.” The term has been variously translated as “scenic effect”, “scenic ambiance”, or “scenic quality”, and David Slawson adds that fuzei implies, ”a poetic, quality-oriented approach to design. It describes the effect upon the viewer of those emanations that the design produces by virtue of its peculiar configuration of perceptual qualities. No doubt because these emanations seem to pervade the space between the art object and the viewer, charging it with their special quality, the word fuzei and several of our own English terms for it contain the element “air” or something similarly ethereal.” In its broadest sense, then, fuzei can refer both to the ambiance or atmosphere of a garden and to the taste of the designer or builder. The term first appears in relation to gardening in the eleventh-century gardening manual Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making), where it implies a sensitivity to nature and natural form – what Jirō Takei and Marc Keane call the “spirit of the place” or “subtle atmosphere”. The Sakuteiki advises designers to look to nature for inspiration, to enthuse their creations with personal taste, or fuzei, but adds this warning: “To make a garden by studying nature exclusively, without any knowledge of various taboos, is reckless.” However, because Heian gardeners were essentially imitating Chinese and Korean country gardens within the narrow confines of city lots, nature had to be correspondingly scaled down without compromising integrity or harmony.
Far from Idle
Most celebrated for his Tsurezuregusa (徒然草 Essays in Idleness) written between 1330 and 1332, Kenkō (兼好 1283-1350/52; aka Urabe no Kaneyoshi 卜部兼倶; Yoshida Kenkō 吉田兼好; Yoshida no Kaneyoshi 吉田兼倶;) was a Buddhist priest who urged an appreciation of naturalness, simplicity and imperfection. He was, then, an early proponent of fukinsei (不均斉 asymmetry), and what later became the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi (侘び寂び). “Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom,” Kenkō asks, “the moon only when it is cloudless?… Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration… In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting”.
The collective term fūryū (風流) is used for the four elegant and refined aesthetics most commonly associated with the mood, tone or atmosphere of Zen Buddhism in its “perception of the aimless moments of life.” These are aware (哀れ), sabi (寂び), wabi (侘び), and yūgen (幽玄).
Awaré (哀れ), which denotes an intense emotional reaction to what is refined or elegant yet ephemeral, appears in various forms over one thousand times in the eleventh-century novel Genji-monogatari (源氏物語 The Tale of Genji). Yet, although this aesthetic feeling first surfaced in Heian-period literature, it is now almost exclusively associated with the four Zen moods. Donald Keene translates it as “the power of things to move us” in his translation of Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa (徒然草 Essays in Idleness); thus Kenkō begins his seventh essay, “If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.”
Objects that have the ability to move the human heart in a profound manner are mono-no-awaré (物の哀れ), a phrase coined by Motōri Norinaga (本居宣長 1730-1801) to distinguish its more specific Tokugawa-period (1603-1868) usage. Günter Nitschke defines awaré as the “sensitivity towards beings”, although he adds that according to Heian thinking, “rocks, flowers and trees are not simply inanimate objects, but possess their own ‘being’ and their own sensitivity”. It is, then, an emotional response to nature, or a “heightened awareness of things,” to use Marc Keane’s pun, somewhat akin to an intense nostalgic sadness or melancholy often associated with autumn and the fleeting beauty of the physical world. Keane claims that the word itself “is said to derive from the sounds ah! and haré!, both of which are expressions of surprise”, and rightly identifies this response with epiphany in the literary sense. There is, too, a connection between awaré and the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling which the Japanese call yojō (余情, 餘情). But there is also a kind of poignancy, a pathos or soulfulness in the recognition of the impermanence of nature. Stuart Picken, who devotes an entire chapter to mono-no-awaré in his book on Shinto, stresses that awaré is a Japanese world-view, a “sensitivity toward the aesthetic and the emotional as a basis for looking at life. It is seeing with the heart into the natural beauty and goodness of all things.”
Alan Watts describes awaré as “the moment of crisis between seeing the transience of the world with sorrow and regret, and seeing it as the very form of the Great Void.” He employs the following haiku by Kobayashi Issa (小林一茶 1763-1828) to illustrate this “moment of transition”:
The stream hides itself
In the grasses
Of departing autumn.
Lie on one another;
The rain beats on the rain.
The dewdrop world –
It may be a dewdrop,
And yet – and yet –
Sabi (寂び), often paired with wabi (侘び), refers to the ambiance of the solitary and quiet moment, or to the distinctive patina only achieved through aging and weathering. At its heart is an appreciation for the mellowness that comes with age, the quality of faded perfection in truly old things – what James and Sandra Crowley call the “bloom of age”. Marc Keane traces the etymological roots of sabi from sabishii (寂しい), meaning “lonely” or “desolate”, and in the verb sabiru (寂びる), meaning “to mellow”, but he cautions that sabi carries as many definitions as there are tea masters, thus it may be more useful to say that it is simply “the patina or aura that honest materials acquire with age if well cared for.” Sabi may be found in an old and cracked tea bowl, a moss-covered and crumbling stone lantern, or a wooden veranda worn to a sheen by the passage of innumerable feet.
Coined during the Momoyama period (1568-1603), the term was used mostly by tea masters to describe the simple elegance or natural grace of artwork and tea utensils. Alan Watts uses the following haiku to express the concept of sabi:
A crow is perched,
On a withered branch
In the autumn evening.
With the evening breeze,
The water laps against
The heron’s legs.
In the dark forest
A berry drops:
The sound of the water.
He also adds that sabi is not just loneliness; it is the kind of detachment that comes from “seeing all things as happening ‘by themselves’ in miraculous spontaneity.” In haiku and other forms of traditional poetry, sabi is related to autumn and winter seasonal words (kigo 季語), and to sunset, dusk, and early evening.
Wabi (侘び) refers to the sadness or empty feeling that often leads to a glimpse of “suchness”, or truth, when contemplating something completely ordinary or unpretentious. It is an embodiment of all that is modest, humble and self-effacing, “a naturalness that is unassuming, referring to austerity of design without severity.” Leonard Koren notes that wabi was originally negative in connotation; it referred to the “misery of living alone in nature, away from society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state.” Around the fourteenth century, the meaning of wabi shifted toward the aesthetic value it is to this day. Wabi-mono (侘び物 “wabi things”) are ordinary, humble, unpretentious objects – all too often taken for granted, even though they may well exhibit the perfect marriage of form and function in a timeless manner. They are, however, beautiful in their refined simplicity and subdued rusticity.
Alex Kerr suggests a very practical reason for the sudden popularity of humble, worn wabi-mono. Following the almost total devastation of Kyoto during the Ōnin civil wars (1467-1469), many citizens found themselves hard pressed to keep up appearances: “Poverty-stricken kuge nobles and middle-class shopkeepers used wabi as a weapon to establish their cultural superiority. It was a form of deceit, carried to the level of art. A crudely fashioned brown tea bowl was held up as superior to the most elaborately decorated Imari platter… Bamboo blinds disguised small rooms and shiny paper covered worn tatami. Wabi was Kyoto’s unique achievement: a rug, a bamboo hanging, a meal of ‘one bite and a half’ – all were manipulated to create an effect superior to the gold-leafed halls of feudal lords.”
The regard for serenity and austerity may have had its roots in the turbulent Kamakura and Muromachi periods (1185-1333; 1338-1568), when simplicity and tranquility were justly prized. In 1212, Kamo-no-Chōmei (鴨長明 1155-1216) wrote Hōjō-ki (方丈記 An Account of My Ten Foot Square Hut) in which he promoted the serenity and simplicity of his way of life in contrast to the turmoil on the streets of Kyoto. However, there is some evidence to suggest that wabi evolved its current meaning of refined or subdued taste during the Momoyama period (1568-1603) as the tea masters reacted to the ostentation and over-elaboration that were the hallmarks of imported Chinese culture. One way in which this reaction manifests itself clearly is in the return to nature, a sort of Japanese Romantic movement seen clearly in the following haiku:
A brushwood gate,
and for a lock –
keeps on in the same place:
day is closing.
in the rain-water tub,
sparrows are walking.
Because wabi is often paired with sabi, there is also a link here with shibui (渋い), and the three concepts are definitely interrelated. Time also plays a significant role: Things begin wabi; they end sabi. To my mind, the literary motif of ubi sunt, a melancholic nostalgia born of contemplative reminiscence, may be useful in appreciating this nuance, although there is in wabi a Buddhist sentiment that is not inherent in our western concept. Falling blossoms, dying flowers, autumn leaves on raked sand or floating atop the dark, still waters of a pond, all carry about them the idea that in the blossoming of perfection is the seed of destruction.
Yūgen (幽玄) is extremely difficult to translate, much less define; in its paradoxical nature, it is quintessentially Zen. It is the perception of something dark or mysterious but compellingly beautiful, indefinable, and unknowable in a moment of sudden enlightenment. Once again I resort to haiku as a way of indicating something of this Protean term:
The sea darkens;
The voices of the wild ducks
Are faintly white.
Its voice alone fell,
Leaving nothing behind.
In the dense mist,
What is being shouted
Between hill and boat?
Yūgen is derived from two kanji: Yū (幽), meaning “faint” or “dim”, and gen (玄), meaning “dark” or “mystery”. Marc Keane translates the compound word as “subtle profundity,” citing its origin as a Chinese word referring to something too deep to be seen – unfathomable, as we might say. Günter Nitschke believes that yūgen “suggests an elegant beauty concealing profound depth, a beauty which lies within rather than without, and as such is tinged with the fundamental sadness of all evanescent life.” In the Heian court, yūgen was used to describe poetry of a particularly profound or esoteric nature. However, it was only during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) that the term assumed its more universal significance in relation to literature, fine art, and gardening. There is an obvious and intimate connection between Zen and yūgen, as both are concerned with “the true nature of reality that hides behind the illusory aspects of the world.”
Iwa-ni hana-ga saku.
Sore-ga yūgen da.
(A flower blooms upon a rock.
That is yūgen.)
Ze’ami Motokiyo (世阿弥元清 1363-1443)
There is evidence of a darker aspect to yūgen, as the derivative kanji suggest. The bloody and turbulent civil wars of the Medieval Age (1185-1568) bred men of uncompromising, Spartan natures, and these were reflected in the brooding, melancholic undertones of their poetry and the somber austerity of Zen temple gardens. For this reason, the modern garden scholar Shigemori Mirei (重森三玲 1896-1975) identified yūgen as one of the two aesthetic ideals essential to the creation of Muromachi-period (1338-1568) dry landscapes, the other being yohaku-no-bi (余白の美). In a garden, mists, shadows, and partially obscured views are the stuff of yūgen. It manifests in subtle shifts of perception that are not at first obvious to the visitor.
In addition to the four aesthetics outlined above, the principle of shibui (渋い), or the acceptance and encouragement of the various quirks and vicissitudes of nature, was popular among Zen garden designers. A Japanese-English dictionary might offer the synonyms “astringent” or “sober”, but the term really infers austerity, restraint or conscious rusticity. In art, shibui-mono (渋い物 “shibui things”) exhibit simplicity and restraint, or what we in the West might call good taste or artistic reserve. Like so many aesthetics, shibui owes much of its popularity to the tea masters of the sixteenth century who developed the drinking of tea into an artistic ceremony, and the term is often employed in conjunction with wabi (侘び) and sabi (寂び).
Shibui could serve as a vehicle for understanding the essence behind all Zen aesthetics when applied to gardening. The idea is not to order nature or to impose some external structure on it as if it were somehow incomplete or imperfect, but merely to serve it, to act as an agent on its behalf. Avoidance of clutter, a partiality for plainness or simplicity of background, the preference of uneven numbers, and an exploitation of singularities characterize Zen design. The key is subtlety and suggestion rather than explicit or overt display. The reserved use of color or the muting or graying of colors is a product of this line of thinking. In the tea garden, for example, the harmonious blending of numerous green hues is naturally offset by the seasonal flowering of a shrub or tree, or deliberately contrasted through the placement of a single bloom in the tokonoma 床の間 of the teahouse. The same is true of the luminous green carpet of moss surrounding the gray rocks in a dry landscape, or the bright red cushions in the waiting arbor of a tea garden, themselves perhaps mirrored by the vermillion accent of the artist’s signature seal on the ink painting (sumie 墨絵) on display in the tokonoma.
In garden design, the concept of stillness or rest is captured in the term tomé (止め). The mirror surface of a pond, the expanse of raked gravel, or the calm contours of a flat rock all exhibit tomé. Such stillness is often in direct and intentional contrast to the dynamism in volumetric or horizontal design elements. Another similar term, Buddhist in concept, is seijaku (静寂 “quiet lonely”). Essentially, such stillness or tranquility is derived from formulated or deliberate movement, as in the kata (型) of a tai chi practitioner or the stylized movements of a nō (能) actor. Within the confines of a garden, the tranquility that overwhelms the spirit are forms of seijaku. Lack of distraction and the gentle interplay of multi-sensual stimuli are the products of careful design that compensate for restriction of size or metropolitan location. Seijaku may best be experienced in late fall or early spring, at dawn or dusk, and under moonlight or snow.
Tea and Flowers
During the Muromachi and Momoyama periods (1338-1568; 1568-1603), the desire to consolidate and refine existing aesthetics led tea masters to adapt, adopt, and refine. The result was a rich vocabulary of terms whose similarities and subtleties often perplex amateurs. However, certain themes run through them such as simplicity, ordinariness, and a preference for the undecorated or common. A tea master who was recognized as an arbiter of taste was known as a sukisha (数寄者; man of taste), a term derived from suki (数寄). Dating from the late Momoyama and early Tokugawa period (1603-1868), suki originally referred to connoisseurship or refined taste, and indicated an elegance of manner or a heightened aesthetic sensibility. The origins can be traced to Zen and poetry: “Before the Ashikaga period and its consequent adoption by the Tea enthusiasts the word Suki was used of poetic taste, to which we have seen Tea compared. The Nihon Kissa Shiryo quotes the Kiyu Shoran of Kitamura Shosetsu as declaring:… “In olden days when one spoke of Suki it was understood to mean poetry,”…”
Suki is also closely allied to wabi (侘び), with its love of the patina and mellowness that only comes from antiquity. This sentimental attachment to beautiful old things translated into a mania for collecting and its attendant connoisseurship of old folk utensils. As Marc Keane reminds us, “All aspects of wabi-cha – from the selection of tea utensils and artwork to the construction of the teahouse and garden – were an expression of the taste of the tea masters, who called themselves sukisha, connoisseurs.” Suki is particularly linked to the tea ceremony as practiced by Furuta Oribe 古田織部 (1544-1615). During the later part of the Tokugawa period, however, the term began to reflect the artistic quality in something – its artistry, so to speak.
Sakui (作意; 作為 “to make [a thing] for the sake of it”) is the Japanese equivalent to “art for art’s sake,” and signifies an individual’s creative tendency or original artistry in the manufacture or reuse of something for its inherent aesthetic qualities. It can also refer to the creative drive behind a particular garden design, and the term became popular during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1576 – 1615). During the Tokugawa period, however, sakui was used almost exclusively by the tea masters in reference to the tea ceremony and the tea garden. Furuta Oribe, the disciple and successor of Sen no Rikkyū (千利休 1521/2-1591), was a major proponent of sakui in the design and creation of the tea garden. One manifestation of sakui lay in the novel use of existing materials such as recycling old stone lanterns from temples to light paths or stone pillar bases as basins.
Derived from the noun kangae (考え “idea, thought, point of view”) and the adjective furui (古い “ancient, old, worn out, stale”), kōko (考古) represents something like the principle of ancientness or antiquity, although the term also implies a sense of austerity or reserve. When austerity is mixed with maturity in a manner that suggests venerability and a sense of age derived from long exposure to the elements, we are in the presence of kōko. Akin to simplicity of form, visual elements are rigorously paired down to their essential forms, and all unnecessary adornment is stripped away. Form and function unite in a kind of asceticism based on abstemiousness or restraint. Such austerity is Zen in principle, and the samurai of the Medieval Age (1185-1568) would have been well versed in its aura and application. When applied to gardens, kōko refers to the use of venerable old stones with long-established pedigrees, ancient gnarled trees, and eroded or partially broken stone lanterns – in short, any object with a general air of Spartan, restrained age.
Mitate (見立て; from the verb mitateru 見立てる) is an aesthetic concept that appears in many traditional Japanese arts such as garden design, tea ceremony, bonsai (盆栽), bonseki (盆石), and even painting and ukiyo-e (浮世絵; wood-block printing). It relies on establishing a direct connection between the real or visual representation and a projected or imaginary, but essentially corresponding, symbolic image that exists only in the viewer’s mind. For example, the painter Kawamata Tsunemasa (川又常正 1716-51) created a series of images of courtesans in which each woman represented a bosatsu (菩薩), or Buddhist saint. In Mitate-Fugen-bosatsu (見立普賢菩薩) Kawamata presents a courtesan in long flowing red kimono reading a scroll, but he seats her atop a white elephant, a symbol of Fugen-bosatsu. In mitate, the two images – the real and the symbolic – must coexist in harmony, and the artistry lies in providing the viewer with just enough visual markers to allow the establishment of this relationship. In garden design, mitate is most closely linked to dry landscape, where designers create strong visual impressions or representations of natural or mythological scenery through the judicious choice and arrangement of rocks, sand and flora. For example, a few low, horizontal rocks in the middle of an area of raked white sand is interpreted symbolically by the viewer as the distant Isles of the Blessed (Hōraizan 蓬莱山) far out at sea. Mitate is most often met with in specific rock compositions, and it is not limited to mythological symbols. In dry waterfall compositions, designers consciously exploit the shape, hue and striation of rocks to evoke the visual fall and flow of the water.
Do not confuse mitate with mitate-mono (見たて物), which refers to the re-use of discarded building materials (see “Stone ornaments” in Detailing the garden: Towers and ornaments).
Tea masters of the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1576 – 1615) adopted and adapted the ancient ranking system of shin-gyō-sō (真行草), which corresponds roughly to formal or elaborate, semi-formal, and informal or simple. Its origins lie in Sino-Japanese calligraphy, where the system of kai-gyō-sō (楷行草) described the style of writing kanji characters: Formal block characters, informal rounded characters, and casual, cursive characters, respectively. In tea culture, shin-gyō-sō refers to a ranking system used to designate the style of a design in a tea utensil or other tea-related object. Elements within a tea garden could be classified according to the nature of materials and the manner in which they were employed.
In a path, for example, the materials might be cut or dressed stone with straight edges and flat surfaces (shin 真, formal), laid in a geometric pattern (also shin). Then again, the path may be composed of natural stepping-stones (so 草, informal), set randomly (also sō). Cut square stones (shin) could be set randomly (sō). During the late Tokugawa period (1603-1868), shin-gyō-sō was sometimes used to refer to entire gardens. The first published use of the term dates from 1828, when Akisato Ritō (秋里籬島 fl.1780- 1814) used it in the second volume of Tsukiyama-teizōden (築山庭造伝 Transmission of Making Mountains and Creating Gardens). Marc Keane observes that shin implies objects that are “highly controlled or shaped by man… Shin does not imply opulence, but rather cleanliness and sparseness.” Günter Nitschke clarifies shin as “Japanese tea-drinking, its architectural setting and its utensils, at their highest and purest degree of formality.” Gyō 行, a mellow, semi-formal style, is an “admixture of shin and sō accomplished in such a way as to play one off the other.” A pathway in the gyō style forces a visitor to walk more slowly, and thus more deliberately. One of the earliest proponents of the gyō style tea ceremony was Murata Shuko (村田珠光 1423-1502). Sō is the least formal, most natural of styles, thus materials left in their original state are sō.
The Beauty of Paucity
An aesthetic principle dating from the Medieval Age (1185-1568), yohaku-no-bi (余白の美) translates literally as the “beauty of remaining white”, and to understand the term, a passing familiarity with sumie (墨絵, “ink paintings”) is helpful. Perfection in this art form requires that the artist restrict the application of black ink to a minimum, allowing the remaining blank paper or silk to express the essential quality of the subject. For example, in a snow scene, more than three quarters of the canvas may be left blank, but the presence of mountains and valleys will be evident through the clever use of underlying lines in varying shades and intensities of black. It is the absence of ink, through masterly restraint, that is the measure of exceptional talent in this art.
Yohaku-no-bi may be translated loosely as “the beauty of paucity”, or “the beauty of emptiness”, summarized in the phrase attributed to Mies van der Rohe: “Less is more.” In art, the term refers to the unstated or unexpressed ideas in a particular work – what is left out, so to speak. In Zen Buddhism, this notion of emptiness is expressed through the concepts of kū (空) and mu (無). It is really a sort of conscious subtlety, restraint or simplicity. Shigemori Mirei (重森三玲 1896-1975) identified yohaku-no-bi as one of the two aesthetic ideals essential to Muromachi-period (1338-1568) dry landscapes, the other being yūgen (幽玄).
Commonly linked to the fourteenth-century essayist and philosopher-poet Kenkō (兼好 1283-1350/52) is the term fusoku-shugi (不足主義 “lack or shortage principle”), which is usually translated as Asceticism or Minimalism, and expresses the idea of perfection in insufficiency or incompleteness that yohaku-no-bi embodies. Fusoku-shugi identifies “the most profound aesthetic experience as lying in precisely that which had been withheld and left unsaid. The power of what is absent to reverberate in what is present, contraction with the purpose of expansion, abstention for the sake of implicit suggestion.” In gardening, we see this most often in the sparse expanses of raked gravel punctuated here and there by well-chosen rocks.
The Cult of Simplicity
A primary Japanese aesthetic system having its basis rooted firmly in nature, wabi-sabi (侘び寂び) was originally derived from the two separate but often conflated aesthetics of wabi (侘び) and sabi (寂び). The initial impetus for these concepts was metaphysical, drawing spiritual attributes from Taoism and Zen Buddhism. “At the core of both wabi-sabi and Zen,” explains Leonard Koren, “is the importance of transcending conventional ways of looking and thinking about things/existence. Nothingness occupies the central position in wabi-sabi metaphysics, just as it does in Zen.” Koren believes that the roots of wabi and sabi lie in the “atmosphere of desolation and melancholy and the expression of minimalism in the 9th- and 10th-century Chinese poetry and monochromatic ink painting.”
The Kamakura-period (1185-1333) priest and scholar Kenkō (兼好 1283-1350/52) is often cited as an early proponent of wabi-sabi aesthetics. In Tsurezuregusa (徒然草 Essays in Idleness), which dates from around 1330-32, imperfection, asymmetry, incompleteness, impermanence, and the poignancy arising from the knowledge of the uncertainty of life are extolled. “Somebody once remarked,” he writes, “that thin silk was not satisfactory as a scroll wrapping because it was so easily torn,” he comments. Ton’a [頓阿 1289-1372; a famous poet and monk] replied, “It is only after the silk wrapper has frayed at top and bottom, and the mother-of-pearl has fallen from the roller that a scroll looks beautiful.”
By the sixteenth century, the two separate concepts of wabi-sabi had been completely acculturated, and were expressive of a uniquely Japanese aesthetic. Under the tea masters of the Momoyama period (1576 – 1615), and in particular Sen no Rikkyū (千利休 1521/2-1591), wabi and sabi reached their idealized and fullest expression in the rustic tea ceremony known as wabi-cha (侘び茶 “wabi tea”). In the twentieth-century, wabi-sabi replaced the two separate terms and is now the most common manner in which the West speaks of this principle aesthetic of the tea ceremony.
The closest English equivalent to wabi-sabi is “rustic”, and although this does convey a sense of simplicity, artlessness, roughness or irregularity, it is sometimes used pejoratively to imply a lack of sophistication. There is a similarity to primitive art here, but only in the earthiness or absence of pretentiousness. Leonard Koren defines it thus: “Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.” To this should be added the remark by James and Sandra Crowley: “The spirit of wabi sabi is really a heightened awareness that there are actually processes of maturation and regeneration.” Thus wabi-sabi makes use of natural or organic materials, and avoids all man-made materials. The following chart, adapted from Koren’s book, will help to distinguish between these slippery terms.
• wabi (侘び): refers to a way of life or a spiritual path; speaks of the inward and the subjective; is a philosophical construct; and refers to spatial events.
• sabi (寂び): refers to material objects and art and literature; speaks of the outward and the objective; is an aesthetic idea; and refers to temporal events.
Wabi-sabi, then, is all about essence and simplicity, about stripping things down to their fundamental attributes and properties. A useful co-term is kanso (簡素 “simple, plain or elemental”), which implies the conscious exclusion of unnecessary ornamentation. Obviously, the simplest method of eliminating unwanted ornamentation is to leave things as much as possible in their natural state, or very close to it. There is also a sense of neatness, or freshness, and this is especially so in the tea garden, where the tea master must create an aura of fastidious cleanliness about the ritual, and in the dry landscape garden, where gravel must be meticulously and regularly groomed. Where function is form and vice versa, there is kanso; the two are found without pretense in objects that fulfill their roles naturally and elegantly.
A number of aesthetic terms were first used almost exclusively by chōnin (町人 “town folk”) of Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka, although several were later appropriated by Daimyo 大 名 and samurai. Increased leisure and surplus money allowed the urban merchant class to pursue arts and cultural activities formally the sole preserves of the nobility and samurai class, and because they were not bound by the same moral and social restrictions as their superiors, they could indulge their tastes more freely – more or less!
Three aesthetics that the chōnin used to denote a sense of artistic playfulness or enjoyment in garden design are embodied by the terms asobi (逰び), tanoshimi (楽しみ) and kimochi-ga-yoi (気持ちが良い). Asobi defines a tradition of elegant or sophisticated playfulness, and became an important element in the tea ceremonies of Furuta Oribe (古田織部 1544-1615) and his followers. Later, both terms were appropriated by the daimyo to refer to their vast and stately pleasure gardens. As Marc Keane notes, the stroll gardens were used “for entertainment – cherry-blossom viewing, playing by the water’s edge, and strolls in the woods – pastimes originally associated with chōnin life.” Kimochi-ga-yoi means “pleasant” or “comfortable” – what Marc Keane translates as “feels nice.” It was appropriated by the daimyo, and, like the other two, is still in use today.
The chōnin had several words for “splendid”, “beautiful” and “lovely”. Two of the most frequently encountered are utsukushii (美しい), which dates back to the Man’yōshū (万葉集 Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), and kirei (綺麗). In this collection of poetry from the late Nara period (710-794), utsukushii means “lovable”. The latter term also means “pretty” or “elegant”, as well as “pure”, “clean” or “tidy”, and spawned a hybrid term that Kobori Enshū (小堀遠州 1579-1647) espoused to define a style of tea ceremony: kirei-sabi (綺麗寂び “pure sabi”). It is important to recognize that the Western idea of beauty differs from the Japanese conception. Donald Richie explains it this way: “Beauty is then not a state, but a quality. It is like strength or width or weight. It implies that their are many kinds of beauty – not just one ideal beauty. Everything is real; therefore everything has its own form of beauty, and beauty exists in it and not outside it.”
Originally a negative term associated with masculine arrogance or conceit, daté (だて, 伊達) came to be associated with the aesthetic ideals of the early and middle Tokugawa period (1603-1868), and indicated a certain ornate splendor. Loosely affiliated in concept with the terms daté and tsū (通) is iki (粋), the kun, or Japanese, reading of sui (粋). Iki was an aesthetic ideal popular with Edo (Tokyo) chōnin during the Kasei-bunka culture (化政文化 1804-1829), and it is sometimes translated as an “exacting aesthetic taste” which manifests itself in chic elegance. The on, or Chinese, reading of 粋 is sui, a term used in the Kamigata region by Osaka chōnin to mean “worldly-wise”, “urbane” or “sophisticated”. “One who knew the ways of the world, life’s pleasures, and how to enjoy them to the fullest was said to possess sui and was dubbed a sui-sama [粋様 “Mister Urbane”]”. Günter Nitschke points out that there is sometimes an erotic undertone to this stylishness.
Also closely associated with the Kasei period is the term tsū (通), which corresponds to our notion of connoisseurship, taste or professionalism. The term tsūjin (通人 “people of taste”) referred to a chōnin who actively pursued aesthetic ideals, and connotes an element of dandyism or flamboyance. Concurrent with their emerging economic power, merchants felt a need to prove themselves to be every bit as sophisticated and cultured as their samurai masters, who remained socially superior but economically poorer. A secondary connotation of professionalism surrounds tsūjin, and points towards an increasing specialization in trades such as the uekiya (植木屋), or the Tokugawa-period professional gardeners. Sharé (洒落), meaning “fashionable” or “chic”, also points towards the desire of merchants to show off their taste – and money – and is derived from the verb shareru (洒落る) means to make a witticism or to dress stylishly, although Marc Keane believes that the term was more often applied to personal appearance and behavior than to things or places. In contemporary usage, sharé implies a sophisticated or witty play on words or a pun.
There were, of course, chōnin cut from a quieter cloth, who found themselves more at home with the aesthetics associated with Zen Buddhism and the tea ceremony. The term shibumi (渋味), which carries a sense of calmness, quietness, somberness, sobriety or refinement of taste, is derived from the adjective shibui (渋い), which means, roughly, “astringent”. The meaning of shibumi has shifted from its original, pejorative usage during the Medieval Age (1185-1568) to refer positively to something of unpretentious beauty. As the Crowleys put it, “When the beauty of Shibumi reaches its highest level of consciousness, it becomes the unassuming elegance of the beauty of wabi-sabi.” While it shares some of the meaning of wabi (侘び) and sabi (寂び), it lacks the spirituality attached to these terms. Be that as it may, shibumi remains one of the “key characteristics sought after by architects attempting to create “modern” Japanese buildings”, representing the ultimate in relaxed and spontaneous good taste.
Illusions of Grandeur
Unlike the chōnin (町人), whose public displays of taste were for the most part limited by social and legal edicts, the daimyo were free to follow their delusions of grandeur as far as their wealth permitted. Since they strove to impress on the general populace their power and prestige, their aesthetics tended to embody grandeur, size, lavishness, and intricacy on a grand scale. Two terms were in common use during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868): gōsō (豪壮) and karei (華麗). Probably Chinese in origin, gōsō connotes a spectacular brilliance, splendor or grandeur in garden design. According to Marc Keane, it reveals two overriding objectives of the daimyo when constructing their gardens: “an interest in sumptuousness and luxuriousness that overrode the undercurrent of subdued tea aesthetics… [and] the affection of the daimyō for things Chinese”. Karei (華麗) means “magnificent, gorgeous or stately.”
The subject of aesthetics is vast, but the following books provide relatively clear entry points into the key aesthetics found in Japanese gardening and related arts:
- Crowley, J. & S. (2001). Wabi sabi style. Photography by J. Putman. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith.
- De Mente, B. L. (2006). Elements of Japanese design; Key terms for understanding and using Japan’s classic wabi-sabi-shibui concepts. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
- Deane, A. R. Japanese gardens: Notes on perspectives, perceptions & synthesis. Retrieved 9 Apr 2015 from Japanese Gardening.org.
- Koren, L. (1994). Wabi-sabi for artists, designers, poets & philosophers. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press.
- Okakuro, K. (1995). The book of tea. Foreword & biographical sketch by E. Grilli. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle & Co.
- Richie, D. (2007). A tractate on Japanese aesthetics. Berkeley, Ca: Stone Bridge Press.
- Tanizaki, J. (1977). In praise of shadows. Foreword by C. Moore. Afterword by T. J. Harper. Tranlated by T. J. Harper & E. G. Seidensticker. Sedwick, ME: Leete’s Island Books.
- Ueda, M. (1967). Imitation, yūgen, and sublimity – Zeami on the art of Nō drama. In Literary and art theories in Japan. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan.
Art is a process of bringing order to the world… Tomlinson, H. (2004). The complete book of bonsai. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.; p. 16.
Everything superfluous to the total effect… Seike, K., K. Masanobu, & D. Engel (1992). A Japanese touch for your garden. Photographs by H. Ōhashi. Tokyo, New York & London: Kodansha International; p. 38.
Aesthetics is that branch of philosophy defining beauty and the beautiful… Richie, D. (2007). A tractate on Japanese aesthetics. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press; pp. 15.
“Most likely to succeed in defining Japanese aesthetics…” Richie, D. (2007); pp. 11-2.
But, as Donald Richie points out, “If there is no term for something…” Richie, D. (2007); pp. 21-2).
It arises, he claims, from “a tendency to value symbolic representation… Richie, D. (2007); p. 23).
The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life… Tanizaki, J. (1977). In praise of shadows. Foreword by C. Moore. Afterword by T. J. Harper. Translated by T. J. Harper & E. G. Seidensticker. Sedwick, ME: Leete’s Island Books; p. 18.
The character for “wind” here does not refer to the meteorological condition… Keane, M. P. (1996). Japanese garden design. Photographs by H. Ōhashi. Drawings by the author. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle; p. 163; n. 12. David Slawson translates the kanji directly as “breeze” and “feeling,” but adds that the term “conveys the sense of ‘atmosphere’ or ‘mood’” (Slawson, D. A. (1991). Secret teachings in the art of Japanese gardens: Design principles, aesthetic values. Tokyo & New York: Kodansha International Ltd.; p. 70).
David Slawson adds that fuzei… David Slawson (1991); p. 70-1.
The term first appears in relation to gardening in the eleventh-century… Takei, J. & Marc Keane, M. P. (2001). Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese garden. A modern translation of Japan’s gardening classic. Boston, Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; p. 42. Günter Nitschke concurs, calling it the “genius loci, the aesthetic spirit of a particular place” (Japanese gardens: Right angle and natural form. Köln: Benedikt Taschen, 1993; p. 60).
The Sakuteiki advises designers to look to nature for inspiration… Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001); p. 195.
…in its “perception of the aimless moments of life”… Watts, A. (1999). The way of Zen. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics; p. 182.
“Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom,” Kenkō asks… Keene, D. (1981); p.115. In addition to Keene’s translation, see Chance, L. H. (1997). Formless in form: Kenkō, “Tsurezuregusa,” and the rhetoric of Japanese fragmentary prose. Stanford: Stanford UP.
We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance… Tanizaki, J. (1977); pp. 11-12.
“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino…” Keene, D. (1981). Essays in idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; p. 7.
Günter Nitschke defined aware as the “sensitivity towards beings”… Nitschke, G. (1993); p. 53.
It is, then, an emotional response to nature… Keane, M. P. (1996); p. 35.
Keane offers the following derivation for the word… Keane, M. P. (1996); p. 35.
Stuart Picken, who devotes an entire chapter to mono-no-awaré in his book on Shinto… Picken, S. D. B. (1980). Shinto: Japan’s spiritual roots. Introduction by E. O. Reischauer. Tokyo, NY, San Francisco: Kodansha International; p. 57. See also pp.57-64.
Alan Watts describes awaré as… Watts, A. (1999); pp. 181; 187.
He employs the following haiku by Kobayashi Issa… The translations are from R. Blyth, Haiku. 4 vols. Harold G. Henderson (Haiku in English. Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle, 1996; p. 22) offers two haiku by Masaoka Shiki (正岡子規 1867-1902), although is the first to admit that the original stresses the “description of circumstances” rather than the emotion:
hito ni nite
tsuki yo no kagashi
Being like a man,
in the moonlit night the scarecrow
is very touching.
Time, the great author of such changes, converts a beautiful object into a picturesque one… Cited in Mabey, R. (2010). Weeds: How vagabond plants gatecrashed civilization and changed the way we think about nature. London: Profile Books; p. 218.
…what James and Sandra Crowley call the “bloom of age”… Crowley, J. & S. (2001); p. 4.
Marc Keane draws the etymological roots of sabi… The kanji used for sabi as an aesthetic principle is different from the kanji used for “rust” (錆びる), although the two words are in a sense related. The former appears in sabireru (寂れる; “to decline or deteriorate”) and sabishigaru (寂しがる; “to feel lonely or to miss someone”). Thus, there is an aura of sadness or melancholy surrounding sabi-mono (寂び物; sabi things). Leonard Koren provides “chill”, “lean”, and “withered” as the original definitions of sabi, and suggests that around the fourteenth century, sabi began to take on more positive connotations, and shifted toward an aesthetic value (Koren, L. (1994); p. ).
…but he cautions that sabi carries as many definitions as there are tea masters… Keane, M. P. (1996); p. 76.
Alan Watts uses the following haiku to express the concept of sabi… Watts, A. (1999); pp. 181; 185-86. The translations are from R. Blyth, Haiku, 4 vols.
He also adds that sabi is not simply loneliness… Watts, A. (1999); p. 186.
It is the embodiment of all that is modest, humble and self-effacing… Crowley, J. & S. (2001); p. 3.
Leonard Koren notes that wabi was originally negative in connotation… Koren, L. (1994); pp. -22. Marc Keane cites the etymological roots of wabi in the adjective wabishii (侘しい), meaning “lonesome” or “wretched”, and in the verb wabiru (侘びる), meaning “to grieve or worry”. He points out that wabi, like its cousin sabi, carries as many definitions as there are users of the term; thus it may be useful to say that “wabi… is the aesthetic that appreciates things that have or express sabi” (Keane, M. P. (1996); p. 76).
Poverty-stricken kuge nobles and middle-class shopkeepers used wabi… Kerr, A. (1996). Lost Japan. Melbourne: Lonely Planet; p. 178.
A brushwood gate, and for a lock – this snail… Alan Watts uses these three haiku to illustrate what he calls the “unexpected recognition of the faithful ‘suchness’ of very ordinary things”. The translations are from R. Blyth, Haiku; 4 vols. (Watts, A. (1999); pp. 181; 186).
Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance… Tanizaki, J. (1977); p. 14.
The sea darkens; the voices of the wild ducks are faintly white… Cited in Watts, A. (1999): pp. 181-2; 187-8. Translations are from R. Blyth, Haiku, 4 vols.
Marc Keane translates the compound word… Keane, M. P. (1996); p. 56. The – gen (玄) – meaning “dark” or “mystery”, is the same kanji as the initial character in genkan (玄関), or sunken entrance foyer.
Günter Nitschke believes that yūgen… Nitschke, G. (1993); p. 106.
In art, shibui-mono (渋い物 “shibui things”) exhibit simplicity and restraint… The noun-form of this word is shibumi (渋味). It is symbolic of anything in nature that has a sharp or astringent taste that causes one to draw in breath.
There is an obvious and intimate connection between Zen Buddhism… Keane, M. P. (1996); p. 56.
For this reason, the modern garden scholar Shigemori Mirei… Nitschke, G. (1993); p. 105.
And it is difficult for us to believe or remember or admit that the greatest beauty is always accidental… Richie, D. (1971; 2002). The Inland Sea. Introduction by P. Iyer. Berkely: Stone Bridge Press; p. 37.
Iwa-ni hana-ga saku Ze’ami, Kadensho.
The shrine, seen through a line of trees, gleamed a rich yellow… Richie, D. (1971; 2002); p. 25.
The origins can be traced to Zen and poetry… Sadler, A. L. (1963). Cha-no-yu: The Japanese tea ceremony. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle; p. 6n.
As Marc Keane reminds us, “All aspects of wabi-cha…” Keane, M. (1996); p.76.
During the late Tokugawa period (1603-1868)… Keane, M. (1996); p.164n.3.
The first published use of the term dates from 1828… Nitschke, G. (1993); p.204.
Marc Keane observes that shin implies… Keane, M. (1996); p.77.
Günter Nitschke clarifies shin… Nitschke, G. (1993); p.147.
Gyō, a mellow, semi-formal style… Keane, M. (1996); p.77.
Shigemori Mirei (重森三玲 1896-1975) identified yohaku-no-bi… Nitschke, G. (1993); p.105.
It identifies “the most profound aesthetic experience… Morley, J. D. (1996). Pictures from the water trade: An Englishman in Japan. London: Abacus; pp.179-80.
The elegance of simplicity – beauty to be found in the texture and grain of wood… Richie, D. (2007); pp. 31-3.
“At the core of both wabi-sabi and Zen,” explains Leonard Koren… Koren, L. (1994); p.76, n.4.
Koren believes that the roots of wabi and sabi lie… Koren, L. (1994); p..
“Somebody once remarked,” he writes… Keene, D. (1981); p.70.
From the tea ceremony came an entire celebration of the empty… Richie, D. (1995). Partial views: Essays on contemporary Japan. Tokyo: The Japan Times Ltd.; p.50.
Leonard Koren defines it thus… Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi; .
To this should be added the remark by James and Sandra Crowley… Crowley, J. & S. (2001); p.25.
“I don’t know how ready it was, but everything looked controlled, artificial.”… Eng, T. (2012). The Garden of Evening Mists: A novel. NY: Weinstein Books; p. 217.
As Marc Keane notes, the stroll gardens were used… Keane, M. (1996); p.106.
Donald Richie explains it this way: “Beauty is then not a state, but a quality…” Richie, D. (1971; 2002); p. 190.
Kimochi-ga-yoi means “pleasant” or “comfortable”… Keane, M. (1996); p.106.
In this collection of poetry from the late Nara period (710-794)… Keane, M. (1996); p.106.
“One who knew the ways of the world, life’s pleasures… Keane, M. (1996); p.92.
Günter Nitschke points out that there is sometimes an erotic undertone… Nitschke, G. (1993); p.203.
A secondary connotation of professionalism surrounds tsūjin… Keane, M. (1996); p.93.
Sharé (洒落), meaning fashionable or chic… Keane, M. (1996); p.92.
As the Crowleys put it, “When the beauty of Shibumi reaches its highest level… Crowley, J. & S. (2001); p.3.
While it shares some of the meaning of wabi (侘び) and sabi (寂び)… Keane, M. (1996); p.93.
Be that as it may, shibumi remains one of the “key characteristics… Keane, M. (1996); p.93.
According to Marc Keane, it reveals two overriding objectives of the daimyo when constructing their gardens… Keane, M. (1996); p.106.
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