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Zen in the Contemporary World: Finding Beauty and Meaning in Open Spaces

Photo by Pepe Nero (Source)

What does it mean to live by intuition? In modern Western spaces, rationality governs society and the individual. But constantly relying on it may not always be the best driving force after all. To others, there is the art of letting things run their course according to nature. Instead, it is imperative to realize that peace and completeness are rooted in “not knowing,” and that the essence of life will be revealed not through words, opinions, or making sense of things.

That is the practice and state of Zen: to forego the egoistic desire to rationalize everything, and focus on the “truth” found only in the state of unawareness.

This does not mean, however, that one should live life mindlessly or emptily. On the contrary, Zen requires deep, intense discipline by detaching oneself from the ego. Zen is therefore viewed as a paradox: a state of ultimate freedom achieved only through enormous self-restraint. To achieve Zen is to keep a mental state of ‘don’t-know,’ as coined by the great Zen teacher and master Seung Sahn.

Contrary to popular belief, Zen is not a philosophy, a concept, or a doctrine. It is a state of mind, something to be—and should be—achieved. Renowned Zen scholar and author D.T. Suzuki wrote in Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series:

“…while we know not definitely what the ultimate purport of life is, there is something in it that makes us feel infinitely blessed in the living of it and remain quite contented with it in all its evolution, without raising questions or entertaining pessimistic doubts.”

Even in art, such is the expression of Zen: simplicity, quietude, and the perfect condition of not being in constant motion.

Finding Essence in Imperfection

In Zen, words—and images—are rendered useless, for they are not an essential part of one’s spiritual endeavors to achieve enlightenment. Still, they remain essential, if only as forms of expression and celebration. 

Zen does not concern itself with the conventional sense of beauty. Here, aesthetics are conveyed through the principle of wabi-sabi which, loosely and very simplistically translated, means finding beauty in imperfection, incompletion, rusticity, and melancholy. 

A pot aged by time and circumstance is more beautiful than a masterfully crafted one from the finest materials. A wilted flower holds just as much—if not more—meaning than a freshly bloomed one. Old things are infinitely more poignant than grand, ostentatious things. To live with wabi-sabi in mind is to find truth within things that are dirtied, broken, old, or misshapen.

As such, wabi-sabi does not aim to engage the senses and the aesthetic eye. Rather, it is to aid the individual to contemplate on the essence of the piece itself; to be aware of natural forces rather than to meet an unachievable state of perfection.

A History of Zen in Visual Art

The philosophy of wabi-sabi is expressed in many art forms, not just traditional ones: ikebana or flower arrangement, calligraphy, tea ceremonies, and the like. Of course, it can also be seen in visual art—and Zen has a rich history of it.

Zen Buddhism originally traces its roots from India, but was brought to China around the 6th to 7th century C.E. where it was then called Ch’an. During the following periods, Zen Buddhism was met with persecution, although it was able to persevere. Despite this, Zen was eventually spread to other areas in East Asia, and by the 12th century C.E. Zen was widely practiced in Korea and Japan.

In Japan, Zen was very enthusiastically welcomed, so much so that a lot of the country’s aesthetic and philosophical influences trace their roots back to it. Ink monochromatic paintings were among the most common forms of visual art. The use of black ink was typical—but not necessarily a rule—because it was simplistic and versatile. This monochromatic style also allowed the portrayal of contrasting spaces and objects (or physical forms).

The Sixth Patriarch of Zen at the Moment of Enlightenment, Kano Tan’yū (Source)

Zen artworks weren’t mediums for individual expressions or personal insights. This is, again, another essential characteristic of Zen: to detach oneself from the ego and egoistic thoughts. Thus Zen art is less about the individual and more about shared concepts from teachings and literature.

Artists drew inspiration from distinguished Zen figures (such as patriarchs and masters), things and objects, as well as natural landscapes. Artists preferred to depict mountains, plants and flowers, birds, and bodies of water. Most of these illustrations also included haikus to accompany the overarching theme of the image.

Orchids, Bamboo, Briars, and Rocks, Tesshū Tokusai (Source)

The concept of nature is central in Zen art and literature because nature, in and of itself, is Zen. Suzuki further wrote about it in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, advising the individual to practice discipline as if they were “an inanimate object of nature”:

“Putting your simple faith in this, discipline yourself accordingly; let your body and mind be turned into an inanimate object of nature like a stone or a piece of wood; when a state of perfect motionlessness and unawareness is obtained all the signs of life will depart and also every trace of limitation will vanish. Not a single idea will disturb your consciousness, when lo! all of a sudden you will come to realize a light abounding in full gladness.”

Nature itself is thus a reflection of the nature of mankind, which is why there is so much emphasis placed on it. Here, there is only one essence: one of unawareness, the same way man shares no thoughts and holds no great opinion. It is in this single essence that the universe is “one.”

Ensō, Hakuin Ekaku (Source)

Hitsuzendō calligraphy (“the way of the brush”) also became another popular art form over time. Here, the paintings were less illustrative with imagery, and instead filled with characters, words, and symbols. 

One of the most common symbols drawn in these paintings was the ensō, a single- or double-drawn circular brush stroke. It is sometimes referred to as the “circle of togetherness.” These figures are versatile, fluid, and balanced in their simplicity—simultaneously complete, yet never-ending.

Zen in Today’s World

The characteristics and values of these aesthetics are so great of an influence in the contemporary world that Zen became a new genre of interior design in itself. It is widely admired and utilized not only by Zen practitioners in East Asia, but by people all around the world. Many, it seems, find merit and potential in this culture of minimalism—even in urban spaces.

As an interior design style, Zen emphasizes openness, neutrality, and natural light. Wood, plants, and big windows are characteristic of these interior spaces; they invite and prompt one to be in a state of tranquility and balance. And as such, they are ideal areas for meditation and introspection.

These ideas, adopted into visual concepts, are still rooted in the fundamental intent of Zen: to find value in “less” and incompletion, to minimize noise and clutter from the external world, and to encourage an individual to be one with nature.

But these spaces are anything but “empty,” despite all these contrasting elements. Instead, they are whole, they are complete—like Zen itself. Zen does not concern itself with the idea of emptiness, but the idea of knowing truth and completion are found beyond the physical forms of things.

“Zen is a live fact, it is not like an inorganic rock or like an empty space,” said Suzuki in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. “To come into contact with this living fact—nay, to take hold of it in every phase of life—is the aim of all Zen discipline.”
Zen, as an art form or as an action or goal, remains timelier than ever. It can be a response—and a challenge—to the ever-growing culture of materialism, where matter is prioritized over essence. Today’s world relies on attachment to possessions, an unachievable state of “perfection,” and the desire to put self-driven thoughts and ideas at the forefront of all. Perhaps the principles behind Zen can help put life in perspective, both for the individual and the world at large.

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