BY THOMAS HOOVER
Anyone who examines the Zen arts is immediately struck by how modern they seem. The ceramics of 16th-century Zen artists could be interchanged with the rugged pots of our own contemporary crafts movement; ancient calligraphies suggest the monochromes of Franz Kline or Willem de Kooning; the apparent nonsense and illogic of Zen parables (and No theater and Haiku poetry) established the limitations of language long before the theater of the absurd; 400-year-old Zen architecture seems to be a copy of modern design ideas such as modular sizing, exposed woods, raw materials, bare walls, uncluttered space and a California marriage of house and garden.Zen values experiencing things over analyzing them. Perhaps if we can take the power of direct perception, sharpened by the devices of Zen art, back to everyday activities, we will find a beauty in common objects that we previously ignored.
The notoriously grumpy Kirkus Reviews said, "Thomas Hoover has a considerable gift for expressing his appreciation and understanding of various arts associated with Zen. . . . These are deftly treated, with a concise synopsis of the historical development of each; and together Hooverís discussions provide an excellent introduction to the aesthetics of Japanese culture."Library Journal said, "Hoover covers the ground in an easy and informative way, describing the origins of Zen itself and the Zen roots of swordsmanship, architecture, food, poetry, drama, ceramics, and many other areas of Japanese life. The book is packed with facts, the bibliography is excellent, the illustrations few but most appropriate, and the style clear and smooth. A most useful book for all collections."
Asian Studies declared, "Highly recommended. ZEN CULTURE moves easily from the political climate that gave rise to Zen to the cultural areas -- art, architecture, theatre, literature, flower arrangement, design, archery, swordsmanship -- where Zen has manifested itself."As for the influence of the Zen aesthetic, the Houston Chronicle said, "Hoover suggests we need only look around. Modern furniture is clean, simple lines in unstained, unadorned woods. And that old fad became a habit, houseplants. These are all expressions of ideas born with Zen: understatement, asymmetry, intuitive perception, nature worship, disciplined reserve." "Highly recommended," said The Center for Teachers of Asian Studies."Western intellectuals have tried to represent the height of Buddhist mysticism within the pages of mere books, reducing an ineffable experience into a written report. Predictably such attempts have failed miserably. ZEN CULTURE by Thomas Hoover comes the closest to succeeding," said Hark Publishing.
"ZEN CULTURE, concerned as it is with the process of perception as much as with actual works of art, can open our sense so that we experience anew the arts of both East and West, ancient and modern." declared the Asian Mail.And to go multi-media, NYC-FM in New York said, "Hoover takes us on a grand tour of Zen archery and swordsmanship, flower arranging, drama, food, gardening, painting, poetry, architecture. His book is essentially one by a connoisseur."
BOOKS BY THOMAS HOOVER
The Zen Experience
Wall Street Samurai (The Samurai Strategy)
All free as e-books at www.thomashoover.info
Throughout the entire Far East of China, Korea, and Japan, we see the system of a unique culture which originated in the sixth century, reached its meridian in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and began to decline in the seventeenth century, but which is still kept up in Japan even in this day of materialism and mechanization. It is called Zen Culture."
Sohaku Ogata, Zen for the West
Random House New York
Copyright © 1977 by Thomas Hoover
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Author: Thomas Hoover
Title: Zen Culture
Zen History, Haiku, Zen, Ceramics, Archery, Landscape Garden, Stone Garden, Ink Landscape, Zen Architecture, Sword, Katana, No Theater, Noh Theater, Japanese Tea Ceremony, Tea Ceremony, Flower arranging, Ikebana, Zen Ceramic Art, Raku, Shino, Ryoanji-ji
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:
AMS Press, Inc.: Two three-line poems from page 75 of Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan; Doubleday & Company, Inc.: Eight Haiku poems from An Introduction to Haiku by Harold G. Henderson. Copyright © 1958 by Harold G. Henderson; The Hokuseido Press Co. Ltd.: Poem on page 35 of The Kobin Waka-Shu, translated by H. H. Honda. Poem on page 82 of History of Haiku, Vol. II by R. H. Blyth; Penguin Books Ltd.: A tanka from 'Ise Monogatari' by Ariwara Narihira. Reprinted from page 71 of The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite (1964). Copyright © 1974 by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite; Shambala Publications, Inc. (Berkeley, California): Poems on pages 15 and 18 of The Sutra of Hui-Neng; Stanford University Press: Poem on page 91 of An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry by Earl Miner; Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc.: Three lines of verse from page 130 of The Noh Drama; University of California Press: Four-line Haiku poem from page 104 of The Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa's Oraga Haru, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. Copyright © i960, 1972 by The Regents of the University of California.
The author's thanks go to Anne Freedgood for editing the manuscript and for her many helpful suggestions; to Professor Ronald F. Miller for critical advice on things Western, ranging from art to aesthetics; to Professor Gary D. Prideaux for introducing the author to both Japan and Japanese linguistics; to Tatsuo and Kiyoko Ishimoto for assistance in interpreting Japanese architecture; and to others who have graciously reviewed the manuscript at various stages and provided helpful suggestions, including Julie Hoover, Lynn Grifo, Anna Stern and Ellen O'Hara. I am also grateful for guidance from Professors Shigeru Matsugami and Takashi Yoshida, formerly of Tottori University, and from the garden artist Masaaki Ueshima. The insights of yet others, lost in years of questioning and research, are acknowledged here in spirit if not, unfortunately, in name.
Jomon Culture (2000 b.c. [?]-ca. 300 b.c. )
Yayoi Period (ca. 300 b.c-ca. a.d. 300)
Mound Tomb Era (ca. a.d. 300-552)
Asuka Period (552-645)
Buddhism introduced (552)
Chinese government and institutions copied
Early Nara Period (645-710)
Late Nara Period (710-794)
Japan ruled from replica of Chinese capital of Ch'ang-an built at Nara (710)
Bronze Buddha largest in world dedicated at Nara (752) Compilation of early poetry anthology Manyoshu (780)
Scholarly Buddhist sects dominate Nara
Heian Period (794-1185)
Capital established at Heian-kyo (Kyoto) (794)
Saicho (767-822) introduces Tendai Buddhism from China (806)
Kukai (774-835) introduces Shingon Buddhism from China (808)
Last mission to Tang court ends direct Chinese influence (838)
Tale of Genji written by Lady Murasaki (ca. 1002-1019)
Honen (1133-1212) founds Pure Land, or Jodo, sect (1175)
Taira clan takes control of government, ousting aristocracy (1159)
Minamoto clan replaces Taira (1185)
Kamakura Period (1185-1333)
Warrior outpost in Kamakura becomes effective capital (1185) Eisai (1141-1215) introduces koan-oriented Rinzai sect of Zen on Kyushu (1191)
Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-1199) becomes shogun (1192)
Hojo clan assumes real power in Kamakura (1205)
Shinran (1173-1262) founds rival Amidist sect called True Pure
Land, or Jodo Shin (1224)
Dogen (1200-1253) founds zazen-oriented Soto Zen (1236)
Nichiren (1222-1282) founds new sect stressing chants to Lotus Sutra (1253)
Ashikaga Period (1133-1573)
Hojo regency ended; Kamakura destroyed (1333)
Emperor Godaigo briefly restores imperial rule (1334)
Ashikaga Takauji (1305-1358) ousts Godaigo, who establishes rival court (1336)
Takauji becomes shogun, beginning Ashikaga era proper (1338) Muso Soseki (1275-1351) convinces Takauji to found sixty-six
Zen temples throughout Japan (1338)
Landscape gardens evolve to reflect Zen aesthetic ideals Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) establishes relations with Ming China (1401)
Zeami (1363-1443), encouraged by Yoshimitsu, creates No theater
Golden Pavilion built by Yoshimitsu (begun 1394)
Sung monochromes imported, inspiring re-creation of Chinese schools (fourteenth century)
Yoshimasa (1435-1490) becomes shogun (1443)
Onin War begins, to devastate Kyoto for ten years (1467)
Silver Pavilion built by Yoshimasa; Zen architecture (1482)
Tea ceremony begins to take classic shape as a celebration of Zen aesthetics
Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506), greatest Japanese landscape artist Abstract stone gardens appear (ca. 1490)
General anarchy envelops country (ca. 1500)
Portuguese discover Japan, introduce firearms (1542)
Francis Xavier arrives to preach (1549)
Ashikaga shogunate overthrown by Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582)
Momoyama Period (1573-1615)
Nobunaga begins unification of Japan (1573) Nobunaga assassinated (1582)
Hideyoshi (1536-1598) assumes control and continues unification (1582)
Sen no Rikyu (1520-1591) propagates Zen aesthetics through tea ceremony
City of Edo (Tokyo) founded (1590)
Hideyoshi unsuccessfully invades Korea, returns with Korean ceramic artists (1592)
Momoyama Castle built by Hideyoshi, giving name to the age (1594)
Rise of elaborate arts in opposition to Zen aesthetic ideals Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) appointed shogun (1603)
Ieyasu defeats forces supporting Hideyoshi's heir (1615)
Tokugawa Period (1615-1868)
Ieyasu founds Tokugawa shogunate (1615)
Daimyo forced to begin system of attendance on Tokugawa in Edo
Basho (1644-1694), greatest Haiku poet
Popular arts of Kabuki and woodblock prints arise in Edo
Classic Zen culture no longer supported by shogunate
Hakuin (1685-1768) revives Zen and broadens appeal
Zen culture influences popular arts and crafts
Major Chinese Periods
Han dynasty (206 b.c.-a.d. 220)
Six Dynasties (220-589)
Sui dynasty (589-618)
Tang dynasty (618-907)
Five Dynasties (907-960)
Northern Sung dynasty (960-1127)
Southern Sung dynasty (1127-1279)
Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1279-1368)
Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Anyone who examines the Zen arts is immediately struck by how modern they seem. Many of the most famous stone gardens are abstract expressionism pure and simple, created out of found objects. The ceramics of the sixteenth-century Zen artists could be interchanged with the rugged pots of our own contemporary crafts movement and few people would notice a difference. Ancient Zen calligraphies, bold and slashing, suggest the monochromes of Franz Kline or Willem de Kooning, and if the word "impressionistic" has any real meaning left, the spontaneous, intuitive, impulsive Zen painters should have first claim to it. The apparent nonsense and illogic of Zen parables established the limitations of language long before the theater of the absurd decided to ridicule our modern doublespeak; indeed, our new-found skepticism about language as a medium for communication was a commonplace to Japanese artists who created both a drama (the No) and a poetry (the Haiku) that neatly circumvent reliance on mere words for expression--and in two entirely different ways. Four-hundred-year-old Zen architecture appears to be virtually a copy of contemporary design ideas: modular sizing, exposed woods and materials, movable partitions, multifunctional rooms, bare walls and uncluttered space, indirect lighting effects, and a California marriage of house and garden. The celebrated tea ceremony might be considered an early form of Japanese group therapy, while Zen landscape gardens are nothing less than a masterful deception masquerading as the "natural" look.
If all this were not coincidence enough, consider for a moment our present-day artistic conventions and aesthetic ideals. Like much of what we consider "modern," Zen arts tend to be as simple as possible, with clean, even severe, lines. Decoration for its own sake is virtually nonexistent; Zen artists had no more taste for the ornate than we do today. The works of medieval Zen artists were rough and asymmetrical, with a skillful exploitation of deliberate imperfections and blemishes to make the viewer aware of both the materials used and the process of creation. If it is true that classic art makes one aware of the form and romantic art makes one aware of the artist, Zen art makes one aware of the work of art itself.
We have absorbed into our Western culture almost unawares such Zen cultural forms and aesthetic principles as Japanese ideas of architecture, gardens, and flower arranging. Other forms, such as Haiku poetry and Zen-style ceramics, we have borrowed in a more open-handed way, freely acknowledging the source. Actually, none of the Zen arts is really out of our reach, and a critical following has developed in the West for almost all of them. The great Irish poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats embraced the Zen-inspired No drama, although he probably knew next to nothing about Zen. (For that matter, we should recall that no English-language books were written on Zen until well into the twentieth century.) It seems fair to say that the Zen arts have touched us because they express some view of the world that we have, several hundred years later, quite independently come to share.
Yet for all the seeming familiarity, there remains an alien quality. We are not always aware of the really quite extraordinary mind manipulation inherent in Zen art. Why, for instance, does a Japanese garden often seem much larger than it really is? How does the Japanese-style room alter human perception in such a way that people's experience of each other is intensified? Why do Zen ceramics always manage to make one take special notice of their surface? This subtle manipulation of perception is all done by ingenious but carefully hidden tricks. But since the Zen arts appear so modern, we are lulled out of looking below the surface to find the fundamental differences.
Most important of all, it is easy to miss what is surely the most significant quality of Zen arts--their ability to unlock our powers of direct perception. Since Zen teaches that categories and systematic analysis hinder real understanding of the outer
(or inner) world, many Zen arts are specifically designed to awaken our latent ability to perceive directly. They appear innocent enough on the surface, but they involve a subtle mind- massage not obvious to a casual observer. It is this added dimension of Zen art that truly sets it apart from anything we have produced in the twentieth century.
In these pages I will attempt to trace the history and characteristics of both Zen and the Zen arts--to explain where they came from, why they arose, what they were intended to do, and how they go about doing it. I have also included some Western-style analysis of their very non-Western qualities. The aesthetic ideas embedded in Zen culture and its perception-inducing works of art are among the most stunning achievements in world art history. Zen culture, concerned as it is with the process of perception as much as with actual works of art, can open our senses so that we experience anew the arts of both East and West, ancient and modern.
Part I: The Beginnings: Prehistory to 1333
Zen Culture and the Counter Mind
The Prelude to Zen Culture
The Rise of Japanese Buddhism
The Chronicles of Zen
Zen Archery and Swordsmanship
Part II: The Age of High Culture: Ashikaga (1333-1573)
The Great Age of Zen
Zen and the Landscape Garden
8. The Stone Gardens of Zen
9. Zen and the Ink Landscape
The Zen Aesthetics of Japanese Architecture
The No Theater
Part III: The Rise of Popular Zen Culture: 1573 to the Present
Bourgeois Society and Later Zen
The Tea Ceremony
Zen Ceramic Art
Zen and Haiku
Private Zen: Flowers and Food
The Lessons of Zen Culture
THE BEGINNINGS: PREHISTORY TO 1333
Zen Culture and the Counter Mind
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.
Pre-Buddhist clay figure (haniwa)
The Zen tradition extends back some fifteen hundred years to a wandering Indian teacher of meditation named Bodhidharma. As Indian gurus are fond of doing, Bodhidharma left his homeland and journeyed abroad, following what was in those days a well-beaten trail to China. Upon reaching Nanking, he paused to visit the Chinese Emperor Wu, a man known to be a particularly devout Buddhist. The emperor was delighted to receive his famous Indian guest and proceeded immediately to boast of his own accomplishments. "I have built many temples. I have copied the sacred sutras. I have led many to the Buddha. Therefore, I ask you: What is my merit: What reward have I earned?" Bodhidharma reportedly growled, "None whatsoever, your Majesty." The emperor was startled but persisted, "Tell me then, what is the most important principle or teaching of Buddhism?" "Vast emptiness," Bodhidharma replied, meaning, of course, the void of nonattachment. Not knowing what to make of his guest, the emperor backed away and inquired, "Who exactly are you who stands before me now?" To which Bodhidharma admitted he had no idea.
Sensing that the emperor was not yet prepared for such teachings, Bodhidharma left the palace and traveled to a mountain monastery to begin a long career of meditation. Over the years his reputation for wisdom gradually attracted many followers--dissident Chinese who rejected classical Buddhism and all its rigmarole in favor of Bodhidharma's meditation, or dhyana, a Sanskrit term they pronounced as Ch'an--later to be called Zen by the Japanese. This teaching of meditation and vast emptiness shared very little with other branches of Chinese Buddhism. Ch'an had no sacred images because it had no gods to worship, and it de-emphasized the scriptures, since its central dogma was that dogma is useless. Handed down from master to pupil was the paradoxical teaching that nothing can be taught. According to Ch'an (and Zen), understanding comes only by ignoring the intellect and heeding the instincts, the intuition.
Thus Zen became the religion of the antirational, what might be called the counter mind. The counter mind has taken on more concrete significance in recent years with the discovery that the human mind is not a single entity but is divided into two quite different functional sections. We now know that the left hemisphere of the brain governs the logical, analytical portion of our lives, whereas the right hemisphere is the seat of our intuitive, nonverbal perception and understanding. As far back as the ancient Greeks, we in the West have maintained an almost unshakable belief in the superiority of the analytical side of the mind, and this belief may well be the most consistent distinguishing quality of Western philosophy. By contrast, the East in general and Zen in particular have advanced the opposite view. In fact, Zen masters have deliberately developed techniques (like illogical riddles or koan) to discredit the logical, verbal side of the mind so that the intuitive perceptions of the right hemisphere, the counter mind, may define reality.
What is the counter mind really like? What is there about it that has caused Western thinkers to disavow its functions for so many centuries? The answer to these questions is not simple, but the path leading to it is directly before us. Zen has produced a rich culture which we may now examine at length. As the scholar-diplomat Sir George Sansom has pointed out, "The influence of [Zen] upon Japan has been so subtle and pervading that it has become the essence of her finest culture." And in the classical culture of Japan it is possible to find the most revealing examples of the arts of the counter mind. Zen culture invites us to experience reality without the intervening distractions of intellect, categories, analysis. Here we may find the best evidence of what the intuitive side of the mind can produce--evidence all the more fascinating because it repudiates many of the most cherished assumptions of Western civilization.
When examined closely, Zen culture in Japan reveals at least three interrelated aspects or faces. First there are the fine arts, creations of beauty but also devices whereby the Zen masters transmit otherwise inexpressible insights. Interestingly enough, the Zen masters did not trouble to invent new art forms but rather co-opted existing Japanese (and sometimes Chinese) forms and revised them to suit Zen purposes. During medieval times, the Chinese-style gardens so favored by the Japanese aristocracy were adopted for use around Zen temples, but not before they were first converted into small-scale landscape "paintings" and later into monochrome abstractions. Chinese ink painting, both that of the Sung academy and that of eccentric Chinese Ch'an monks, was imported and made the official art of Zen. Ideas from Shinto architecture were combined with design details from mainland Ch'an monasteries to produce the Zen-inspired classic Japanese house. Various types of rustic dramatic skits popular among the Japanese peasants were converted by Zen aesthetes into a solemn theater experience called the No, whose plays and narrative poetry are so austere, symbolic, and profound as to seem a kind of Zen Mass.
In the later years of popular Zen culture, poets revised the standard Japanese poetic form, which might be compared loosely to the Western sonnet, into a shorter, epigrammatic expression of the Zen outlook--the seventeen-syllable Haiku. Zen ceramics are a curious mixture of Japanese folk craft and Chinese technical sophistication; flower arranging is a link between Zen and the Japanese love of nature, blossoms and beauty; even formal Japanese cuisine is often more a celebration of Zen ideals than a response to hunger. The famous Japanese tea ceremony evolved from a Chinese party game into a solemn episode for the celebration of ideal beauty, inner calm, and the Zen concept of living.
The second face of Zen culture is best seen in the way in which Japanese life differs from our own. This is not to suggest that every Japanese is a living exemplar of Zen, but rather that many of the peculiarities--both good and bad--of the way of life we now think of as Japanese are traceable to attitudes stemming from Zen. In the military sphere, Zen influence began as a special approach to swordsmanship and archery and ended as a disciplined contempt for death beyond what any other religion has inspired, save possibly in a few saints. In the military arts, as in other areas of life, Zen both led and followed Japanese culture--molding that culture and also presenting a vehicle for the expression of tendencies far older than Zen, among them the historic Japanese love of nature, the acceptance of hardship as uplifting to the spirit, the refusal to distinguish between the religious and the secular, and the capacity for the most unpleasant sorts of self-discipline. It might be said that the ideals of Zen struck a respondent chord in the Japanese character, bringing harmony where once there had been random notes.
Zen also brought something new to the Japanese which might be described as a religion of tranquility, or the idea that tranquility is the main objective of religion. The underside of this tranquility is its sense of humor. Zen, with its absurdist koan, laughs at life much the way the Marx brothers did. What exactly can you make of a philosophical system whose teacher answers the question, "How do you see things so clearly?" with the seeming one-liner, "I close my eyes"? Zen has long used the comic view of life to deflate those who start believing in their own systems and categories. It is easier to be tranquil about existence when you recognize the pointlessness of solemnity.
The other side of the religion of tranquility is the need to maintain peace of mind in the face of chaos. Sitting quietly in meditation is the traditional mainstay of Eastern religion, but Zen manages to carry the mental repose born of meditation back into daily life. This equanimity is the product of inner resources brought into being by spiritual training. You need not study Zen to have it, but it is Zen's most tangible goal. The Japanese, whose ability to ignore external distractions in a hectic world is possibly their best-known national trait, have deliberately used Zen and Zen arts (such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, or ink painting) to counteract the stresses of modern life.
The follower of Zen is protected from the incursions of the world by an inverted (in our Western terms) understanding of what is real and what illusory. One of the all-time favorite koan helps to make this clear. The koan describes three monks watching a banner flutter in the breeze. One monk observes, "The banner is moving," but the second insists, "The wind is moving." Finally, the third monk says, "You are both wrong. It is your mind that is moving." The point here is that, in modern times, most Westerners view the physical world as the operative reality and the unseen, nonphysical world as an abstraction (comforting or not, depending upon our beliefs or immediate needs, the spiritual world is said to grow less abstract to those in foxholes). But Zen takes the opposite tack; it holds that true reality is the fundamental unity of mind and matter, inner spirit and external world. When life is viewed in such terms, there can be no success or failure, happiness or unhappiness; life is a whole, and you are simply part of it. There are no dualities, hence there is nothing to worry about. The result is perfect tranquility.
Of course, one small thread remains to be tied. What do you do about daily life, where the world carries on as though it really does exist, dualities and all? Quite simply, Zen would have you treat the physical world exactly as followers of Western religions sometimes treat the spiritual world--as a convenient fiction whose phenomena you honor as though they existed, although you know all the while that they are illusions. The world of strife and relative values may trouble those who mistake it for the real thing, but the Zen-man echoes the words of Hamlet, "We that have free souls, it touches us not." The world is in fact meaningless. It is one's mind that is moving.
However startling such a doctrine may be to Western rationalists, it has engendered such Japanese phenomena as the samurai swordsmen and the kamikaze pilot, both of whom could, in the Japanese phrase, live as if already dead. On a less dramatic scale, it allows the modern Japanese to be spiritually content and enjoy mental repose in a crowded subway, or to find solitude in a paper-walled house amid noisy neighbors. They wrap their cocoon of tranquility about them and become spiritually apart. Again, it is possible to enjoy this inner repose without Zen, but only in a Zen culture could it become a national trait.
The third face of Zen, the deep concern with and understanding of what constitutes beauty, also preceded Zen culture in Japan to some degree. As with many of the existing Japanese art forms, the native sense of taste was co-opted by Zen culture and bent to the rules of Zen. Aesthetic discernment was as important for social advancement in medieval, pre-Zen Japan as good grammar is in the West today, and the characteristic attention to small details, the genuine ability to notice things, from the feathered pastel hues of a partially opened blossom to the colored refractions in a drop of dew, was already well developed. In the centuries before Zen, the notion that aesthetics in Japan could reflect a philosophical point of view would have seemed strange. But to the taste-makers of Zen culture the arts were the handmaiden of spiritual ideas; their arts had to make a statement, and as a result art became an expression of religion, not so much a direct, point-blank depiction of religious motifs as in Christian art, but rather a belief that art itself is an inherently religious concern--an idea Zen shares with the ancient Greeks. But whereas the Greeks strove for perfect form as an exemplification of man's kinship with the gods, the Zen artist carefully avoids final perfection, not wishing to idealize a physical world whose very existence he finds problematical.
Perhaps the most noticeable principle of Zen art is its asymmetry; we search in vain for straight lines, even numbers, round circles. Furthermore, nothing ever seems to be centered. Our first impulse is to go into the work and straighten things up--which is precisely the effect the artist intended. Symmetrical art is a closed form, perfect in itself and frozen in completeness; asymmetrical art invites the observer in, to expand his imagination and to become part of the process of creation. The absence of bilateral symmetry mysteriously compels the observer to reach past surface form and touch the individuality of a work. Even more important, Zen asymmetry forcefully draws one away from any mental connection one might have between completed form and notions of completion and timelessness in material things. Zen denies the significance of the external world and underscores the point by never depicting it in static, stable, or closed terms. Greek art was a tribute to perfection; Zen art is a statement, if only implicit, that the objective world should never be taken too seriously.
The ideas taught by asymmetry in the visual arts are paralleled in the literary arts by the device of suggestion. This quality, first seen in pre-Zen aristocratic poetry, was brought to new heights by the Zen Haiku poets. Among other things, a Haiku poem sets you up for the last line, which kicks your imagination spinning into imagery. The most famous Haiku poem of all probably demonstrates this quality as well as any:
An ancient pond;
A frog leaps in:
The sound of water.
Try to stop yourself from hearing that splash in your imagination, or try to stifle the images and details your mind wants to fill in. Just as with the off-balance picture or garden, the Zen poet has forced you to be a part of his creation. But more significantly, he has achieved a depth and reverberation impossible with mere words. Explicit art ends with itself; suggestive art is as limitless and profound as one's imagination can make it.
Another obvious quality of Zen art is its simplicity. Again one thinks of the spareness and purity in Greek art, and again the connection is wrong. A more useful comparison would be with the diverse, textured arts of India, whether sensuous statuary or fabrics decorated over every square inch. Indian art is a celebration of life and vigor, whereas Zen, with its philosophy that categories and distinctions do not exist, is naturally unsympathetic to decorative multiplicity. The happy result of this rather sober outlook is that Zen art seems surprisingly modern; it is never cluttered, busy, gaudy, overdone. The forms--whether in the classic Japanese house, the stone garden, or a simple ceramic pot--are invariably clean and elegant. And by avoiding overstatement, the Zen artist manages to convey the impression of disciplined restraint, of having held something in reserve. The result is a feeling of strength, the sense that one has only glimpsed the power of the artist rather than experienced everything he had to offer. The Zen artist may deny one voluptuousness, but in the empty spaces one senses a hidden plenitude.
Along with simplicity goes naturalness and lack of artifice. Zen art always seems spontaneous and impulsive, never deliberate, thought-out, or contrived. To achieve this, the artist must so master his technique that it never interferes with his intentions. Again the lesson is contempt for the material world; one must never give the impression of having taken one's art, or
indeed life itself, too seriously. This deceiving sense of naturalness is particularly striking in the later Zen ceramic art, in which potters went out of their way to give their bowls a coarse, uneven finish. They tried very hard to give the impression that they were not trying at all. The joinery of the Japanese house is first assembled with the care even an early European cabinetmaker might find excessive; and then it is left unpolished, to age naturally! Such is the inverted snobbery of Zen aesthetics.
Another quality of Zen art is its understatement or restraint. It does not yield all its secrets on first viewing; there are always depths which become apparent with further study. This storehouse of latent profundity is frequently found in the narrative poetry of the No drama, which, although suggestive in something like the manner of the lighter Haiku poems, has a cutting edge capable of slowly penetrating the deeper emotions. Through language seemingly concerned only with externalities, the characters of the No give us the full sense of their inner anguish, somehow communicating to us sorrows too deep for words. In the same way, Zen-inspired stone gardens have hidden qualities. Unlike formal European or Persian gardens, which are mainly surface and reward the viewer with all their decorative beauty on the first visit, Zen gardens present you with new pleasures and insights each time you study them. Because it conceals its profundity, Zen art is never fully knowable on first acquaintance; there is always something more when one is prepared to receive it.
Perhaps the most puzzling, yet curiously rewarding, aesthetic principle in Zen art is its seeming celebration of the ravages of time. The Zen Japanese consider a taste for newness the mark of the aesthetic parvenu. To be sure, Westerners who have acquired a preference for antiques are sometimes looked upon as more sophisticated than those preferring the latest machine-made item; yet Zen taste has an important difference--the Japanese would never "restore" an antique. The signs of age and wear are to them its most beautiful qualities. This convoluted attitude actually began in pre-Zen aristocratic times, when courtiers concluded that the reason cherry blossoms or autumn leaves were so beautiful was their short season. Soon, the more perishable something was, the more aesthetically satisfying it became. (One unfortunate result of this point of view was a lot of mediocre poetry about the dew.) Later, Zen took over this attitude, extending it to things that perish slowly, and before long, things old and worn out--already perished, in a sense--were thought the most beautiful of all. This idea fitted well with the Zen notion that material things were dross and should not be accorded excessive importance. The curious thing is that the idea works; old objects, desiccated and apparently used up, have a nobility that makes one contemplate eternity and scorn the fashions of the moment. Broken and patched tea bowls or frayed scrolls seemingly falling apart are indeed more beautiful than they were when new. The patina of age is a lesson that time is forever and that you, creature of an hour, would do well to know humility in the face of eternity.
Finally, the aesthetic principles of Zen culture's third face also reflect the practical concerns of its second face, tranquility. Zen art exudes an unmistakable calm and repose of the spirit. Contemplating a stone garden or viewing the measured movements of the tea ceremony, one realizes that Zen art is certain of itself, and it imparts this certainty, this gentle voice of inner calm, to one's spirit. The things that matter are settled, and those that do not are winnowed out like chaff in the wind. And here you realize that Zen art is, last and foremost, a virile creation of strength and surety.
Perhaps the most startling thing about the Zen creations of the counter mind is that few Japanese are willing even to discuss them, let alone analyze them. Zen is the enemy of analysis, the friend of intuition. Analysis is to art what grammar is to a living language, the dull afterthought of the scholar, and Zen culture despises excessive interpretation as a leech on the spirit of life. The Zen artist understands the ends of his art intuitively, and the last thing he would do is create categories; the avowed purpose of Zen is to eliminate categories! The true Zen-man holds to the old Taoist proverb, "Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know." Ask a Japanese to "explain" a Zen rock garden and he will inspect you blankly, uncomprehending. The question will never have occurred to him, and he may try to spare you embarrassment by pretending you never asked or by changing the subject. Should you persist, he may go out and take its dimensions for you, thinking by this objective, modern response to satisfy your Western requirements. When you stop asking and surrender to a kind of intuitive osmosis, you will have begun the journey into the culture of the counter mind.