Zen and the 7 principles of beauty.

zen garden

While browsing through the websites I’m following on this forum, I stumbled upon a quote Oscar Wilde made in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890);

Veil after veil of thin dusky gauze is lifted,
and by degrees the forms and colors of things worth of pursuing
are restored to them, and we watch the dawn
remaking the world in its antique pattern.

It is a well known fact that Oscar Wilde was a famous libertarian with hedonist tendencies, who believed that beauty is the only value worth of pursuing in life. But here he demonstrated that he also had a more profound understanding of the true nature of beauty.

Where Dorian Gray, a young man who forfeited his soul to remain young and beautiful forever, could be easily proclaimed as the patron genius of today’s beauty industry, Oscar Wilde describes in this fragment the temporary and creative nature of beauty.

All people, a  couple of psychopaths set aside, have an intuitive appreciation of beauty that depends much upon their own values and abilities for perception. We rarely think about it on a conscious level, but most of us will recognize a beautiful person or circumstance upon first glimpse.

At this point I would like to elaborate a little upon the two kinds of beauty we know; natural beauty and elegant aesthetics. The first is a the result of a force nature while the second one is man made and finds its source in the aesthetically attitude of its creator.

While the beauty industry wants to impregnate us with the thought that beauty is a question of “looks and youth”, elegant beauty is the product of a lateral thinking process by a creative person.

A concept of how this process works, is best described by the seven principles of Zen aesthetics found in the art of traditional Japanese gardening. The principles are interconnected and overlap; it’s not possible to simply put the ideas in separate boxes. They are;

Kanso (簡素) Simplicity or elimination of clutter. Things are expressed in a plain, simple, natural manner. Reminds us to think not in terms of decoration but in terms of clarity, a kind of clarity that may be achieved through omission or exclusion of the non-essential.

Fukinsei (不均整) Asymmetry or irregularity. The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso (“Zen circle”) in brush painting, for example, is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence. In graphic design too asymmetrical balance is a dynamic, beautiful thing. Try looking for (or creating) beauty in balanced asymmetry. Nature itself is full of beauty and harmonious relationships that are asymmetrical yet balanced. This is a dynamic beauty that attracts and engages.

Shibui/Shibumi (渋味)Beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant to be and not elaborated upon. Direct and simple way, without being flashy. Elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. The term is sometimes used today to describe something cool but beautifully minimalist, including technology and some consumer products. (Shibui literally means bitter tasting).

Shizen (自然) Naturalness. An absence of pretense or artificiality, full creative intent unforced. Ironically, the spontaneous nature of the Japanese garden that the viewer perceives is not accidental. This is a reminder that design is not an accident, even when we are trying to create a natural-feeling environment. It is not a raw nature as such but one with more purpose and intention.

Yugen (幽玄)Profundity or suggestion rather than revelation. A Japanese garden, for example, can be said to be a collection of subtleties and symbolic elements. Photographers and designers can surely think of many ways to visually imply more by not showing the whole, that is, showing more by showing less.

Datsuzoku (脱俗) Freedom from habit or formula. Escape from daily routine or the ordinary. Unworldly. Transcending the conventional. This principle describes the feeling of surprise and a bit of amazement when one realizes they can have freedom from the conventional. Professor Tierney says that the Japanese garden itself, “…made with the raw materials of nature and its success in revealing the essence of natural things to us is an ultimate surprise. Many surprises await at almost every turn in a Japanese Garden.”

Seijaku (静寂)Tranquility or an energized calm (quite), stillness, solitude. This is related to the feeling you may have when in a Japanese garden. The opposite feeling to one expressed by seijaku would be noise and disturbance. How might we bring a feeling of “active calm” and stillness to ephemeral designs outside the Zen arts?

Concluding remark.

The above cited gardening principles can easily be expanded to other aspects of our daily life in order to turn our whole life and surroundings into a work of art in progress.

2 Comments

  1. Roger Scruton’s work occupies itself mostly with the sociological and philosophical aspects of art from a conservative point of view. He rarely goes into the issues of what makes something beautiful by using objective parameters.

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