Thursday, 19 May 2016

Yūgen and the Japanese Garden


幽玄


The Japanese aesthetic language is full of terms that have no direct translation into English, wabisabi, iki and fūryū are just a small sample. Yūgen is another such term, which is also one that we (both Japanese and non-Japanese) can encounter at first hand when we experience a Japanese garden. Though we should be aware to capture such terms in the mind is to try and catch fish with our bare hands or with a basket that has no base. They refuse to be simply pinned down by words and rolled neatly into easily graspable concepts.

Ryoan-ji, Kyoto

If we search for dictionary definitions of yūgen, there are many: ‘subtle grace, hidden beauty, mysterious profundity, elegant simplicity, the subtle and profound, rich and mysterious beauty.’ Yūgen can be all these ideas, and yet like the proverbial fish it’s a slippery beast to pin down. The term is usually associated with Noh drama, and is associated with the expression of a quality that an actor expresses through movement and tone. Arthur Waley referred to yūgen as ‘what lies beneath the surface.’ The elusiveness springs from the fact we are dealing with an emotional response that arises in the heart of the one experiencing, rather than directly in the mind. We recognise yūgen as the beginning of an unfolding of an emotional response, rather than a concrete manifestation of an action.

In the garden yūgen arises as part of our emotional response to the scene before us, it is that which holds us there, caught by the desire to remain in the spell we have entered into. A garden such as the dry landscape garden at Ryōan-ji is an example of yūgen, most who have sat and contemplated the scene recognise the quality even if they may not apply the term. The garden is mysterious; it offers us no obvious clue as to how we are to engage with it.  Yet we are aware we have left convention behind. The garden space is complete in itself, only requiring the presence of the viewer to be the experiencer. Bounded with the space is a self-contained universe, where change is subtle and movement shrouded by stillness. Think of the mysterious interplay of light and shade, of time passing yet seemingly being held in quietude. The primary elements of the garden (the stones and their relationships to one another) do not alter, it is us who alters and changes.

Ryoan-ji, Kyoto
Part of the difficulty of a definition of yūgen arises from this notion that it is a state of being that is transformative and not at all fixed in any way. It seems its very intangibility is at least in part because at the moment where we recognise it, it arises from a notion that is a state of being that is esentially transformative and not fixed. It seems its very elusiveness may at least in part be because the moment when we cognitively become aware of yūgen in some way it has already passed, moved on to become something other, an idea or a thought. It is the same as we hear and recognise a note of music the sound has already passed.




Thus yūgen lies in the realm of suggestion, of the unformed, it posits a direction or place we may move toward. I would suggest yūgen is not found in the full bloom of the cherry trees so beloved by the Japanese, or in the fiery blaze of autumnal colours of maple trees in autumn. Rather it is revealed in the buds of the cherry before they open fully, or perhaps in autumn colour momentarily reflected from some unlikely source. It is a quality veiled by a certain sense of mystery, contained in that which is fleeting, ephemeral and not obvious.

Matsuo Taisha shrine, Kyoto

Any opinion on yūgen is bound to be ultimately subjective, which is also what makes it interesting. For myself, the hillside stone arrangement at Matsuo Taisha shrine created by Shigemori Mirei towards the end of his life has this quality. It is powerful and deeply ‘mysterious’, modern in some ways perhaps but it also exudes a sense of the ancient. The hand of the creator is entirely hidden, yet one also senses an underlying order or logic to the stone placements. There is a freedom from the intellect. Idea does not dominate the scene, this is the work of someone drawing up water from a deep, dark wellspring. Much of Shigemori’s earlier work does seem to be dominated by a conscious intent to ‘create something’, to give the viewer an idea or symbolic content to relate to. In contrast to the arrangement at Matsuo Taisha, the karesansui garden at Raikyū-ji in Bitchu Takahasi (Okayama Prefecture) feels mannered and lacking in a certain subtlety. This garden was created around the early part of the 17th century and is attributed to Kobori Enshu. It is not to say the garden lacks beauty and repose, it has both those qualities, but on viewing the garden we are aware of what Enshu is representing in the garden scenery, namely the Crane and Turtle motifs. Where the garden scenery moves us too quickly towards an idea then we become fixed on the idea, and see and respond to the garden through the prism of idea, and less through the medium of pure feeling.
Raikyu-ji, Okayama prefecture
Zeami Motokiyo世阿弥 元清 (c.1363 – 1443), often cited as the originator of Noh drama, also wrote on aesthetics, and he described yūgen as ‘contemplating the flight of geese seen and lost among the clouds’. This reveals another aspect to aesthetics in Japan in general in that a quality also can be said to contain an element of wistfulness, or perhaps a longing for the concrete. But as we have noted above yūgen implies change and movement, emotionally we might well wish for things to remain as they are, but the very essence of being alive is that things are in a constant process of change and development. A garden exemplifies this process of transformation; it is one of the very qualities that snags our attention, and draws us into awareness. The Japanese garden is capable of a highly refined expression of this mysterious process, change within seemingly changelessness.