Yūgen (幽玄) – Traditional Japanese Aesthetics Culture

Japanese aesthetic ideals are most heavily influenced by Japanese Buddhism. From the Buddhist tradition, all things are considered as either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness. This “nothingness” isn’t empty space. It is quite a space of potentiality. If the seas represent possible then each thing is similar to a wave originating from it and returning to it. There are no permanent waves. There are not any perfect waves. At no point is a tide complete, even at its peak. Nature is regarded as a dynamic whole which is to be honored and appreciated.

Yūgen (幽玄)

In this regard, the notion of “art” (or its conceptual equal) is also rather distinct from Western customs… These ideals, along with many others, underpin much of Japanese cultural and aesthetic norms.. Therefore, while seen as a philosophy in Western societies, the notion of aesthetics in Japan is regarded as an integral part of everyday life.

Yugen is an important concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics. The exact translation of the word depends on the context. Yugen is not an allusion to another world. It is about this world, this experience…

“To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds…” ~Zeami Motokiyo

Wabi and sabi refers to a mindful approach to everyday life. Over time their meanings overlapped and converged until they are unified into wabi-sabi (侘寂), the aesthetic defined as the beauty of things “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Things in bud, or things in decay, as it were, are more evocative of wabi-sabi than things in full bloom because they suggest the transience of things. As things come and go, they show signs of their coming or going and these signs are considered to be beautiful.

In this, beauty is an altered state of consciousness and can be seen in the mundane and simple. The signatures of nature can be so subtle that it takes a quiet mind and a cultivated eye to discern them. In Zen philosophy there are seven aesthetic principles for achieving wabi-sabi.

Fukinsei (不均整): asymmetry, irregularity; Kanso (簡素): simplicity; Koko: basic, weathered; Shizen (自然): without pretense, natural; Yugen (幽玄): subtly profound grace, not obvious; Datsuzoku (脱俗): unbounded by convention, free; Seijaku (静寂): tranquility, stillness.

Each of these things are found in nature but can suggest virtues of human character and appropriateness of behaviour. This, in turn suggests that virtue can be instilled through an appreciation of, and practice in, the arts. Hence, aesthetic ideals have an ethical connotation and pervade much of the Japanese culture.”