Yūgen, Profound Grace
This term was first found in Chinese texts (as much of Japanese philosophy tends to be) and was later evolved into a more solid concept in Japanese aesthetics (the nature of art, beauty and taste; sometimes the study of sensory and/or emotional values). Yūgen originally meant “dim,” “deep,” “dark” or “mysterious.”
A famous poet, Kamo no Chōmei (1212), wrote about yūgen in this way: “It is like an autumn evening under a colourless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.”
Another description is by Hume: “When looking at autumn mountains through mist, the view may be indistinct yet have great depth. Although few autumn leaves may be visible through the mist, the view is alluring. The limitless vista created in imagination far surpasses anything one can see more clearly.”
It can also be described as “an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and powerful for words.”
This concept has been used in various types of poetry over the years including waka poetry and it’s own form known simply as yūgen. It has been used in Noh theatre (traditional Japanese theatre) and dramatic theory (Kadensho). To attain yūgen, or profound grace, in the arts takes many years of dedicated practice. It is a sort of highly refined culture or way of being or relating in and to the world. When acquired, one has a sense of “higher naturalness,” with a sense of something even perhaps supernatural.
However, as abstract as speaking of things beyond semantics may be, yūgen does not refer to another world or plane of existence, but rather it is about experience in this world, namely the mysterious beauty of the universe and the juxtaposed sad beauty of human suffering.
I’d like to break down these two concepts. In art we are exploring yūgen through the abstract methods of music, painting, poetry, drama, etc. We are always hinting at something which cannot be named, expressing feelings and sensations, thoughts, wonder, even awe. But beyond all that is a sense of lack of fulfillment. It is argued that we require art to fulfill some sort of longing or absence which cannot be filled with non-abstract things. We all know there are deeper meaning to things than may first appear. We’ve all heard the saying “do not judge a book by its cover.” The way things appear may not be the way things truly are.
In juxtaposition of this, we have this concept of the sad beauty of human suffering.
This relates to the Buddhist idea of samsara, or cycle of birth, life, and death. In this philosophy, suffering is not a necessary human condition, but one which is meant to be transcended. The Buddhist doctrine of experience as an expression of dharma was an emerging idea in Japan when the concept of yūgen was being developed. This holds to the idea that all phenomenal worldly experiences are fundamentally expressions of Buddhist law, which inherently implies that all experiences can be a means to enlightenment (ceasing of suffering) which ends the cycle of samsara through specific realization or awakening to truth.
There are two schools of Buddhism which emerged in this time. The first was Tendai, a school of Mahayana Buddhism, which claims that each and every sense phenomenon, when realized to be ‘just as it is’ is a means to enlightenment which is intrinsic in all things. The second is the school of Shingon, a school of Vajrayana Buddhism, which believes that through the help of a genuine teacher and through training the Three Mysteries (body, speech, and mind) we can recognize the Buddha-nature, or enlightenment, which is already existent within each one of us, for the benefit of ourselves as well as others.
These both come back to the idea of yūgen as they work with both the inner worlds and outer worlds of deeper meaning or purpose. If you’ve ever experienced a tea ceremony or geisha dance, you have perhaps experienced a bit of yūgen in expression. Yūgen is both the subtle and the profound. It values the power to evoke rather than the ability to state directly, and perhaps expresses that which cannot be stated or experienced directly.
“Cannot the beauty of Grace be compared to the image of a swan holding a flower in its bill, I wonder?”
It is through these poetic experiences, the philosophers argue, which we tap into something perhaps greater than ourselves. It evokes a sense of humility and humbleness. A sense of unity, maybe. It can manifest in grace within us and also the inherent grace of nature. Beauty in itself is controversial and relative, but perhaps yūgen is more closely related to an essence.
Were they on to something? What do you think? I open the floor.