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Nature - East Asian Aesthetics and Nature (ERN)

by Barnhill, David L. last modified Nov 21, 2010 07:03 PM

Published in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. Ed. Bron Taylor. London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2005.

Chinese aesthetics

Chinese aesthetics, influenced strongly by Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, manifests a distinctive and complex view of nature. The basic assumption is that the world of phenomena manifests the Dao, the Way of nature. The Dao is not a separate reality but rather the patterned processes of the natural world, or perhaps the disposition of the universe to act in a patterned, harmoniously interactive way. The human ideal is to understand the Dao and act in harmony with it.

This view of nature can appropriately be called “organic” for various reasons. First, all of reality is included. There is no separate, transcendent realm; heaven, earth, and humans (the “Triad”) are all fully part of nature. Second, nature is self-creative. Rather than a separate creator who made the world in the past, nature by itself displays ongoing creation. Zaohua, the “Creative,” acts in spontaneous and unpredictable ways but is always skillful in creating the beauty and harmony of the natural world.

Third, all things – including rocks and water -- have vitality, called in Chinese qi, literally the “breath” of life. Fourth, each phenomenon has an individual nature, and this consists not of some essence but of a distinctive power (de), spirit (shen), and pattern of growth. And finally, all phenomena are organically interrelated. The world is one continuous field of qi, with each phenomenon not a separate thing but rather a temporary form within it, like a whirlpool in a stream.

Art is the evocation of the spirit of phenomena, rather than a depiction of surface reality. Painters, for instance, are supposed to capture the specific qi or “spirit resonance” of things. If the artist does, then the painting itself will exhibit qi and be instance of zaohua. The artist participates in nature’s creativity.

In order to accomplish this, the artist or poet must go through meditative practices that consist fundamentally of two things: removing the delusion of a separate self and the desires it produces, and concentrating upon the subject until there is a direct communion with it. That communion is described metaphorically in various, for instance, as “entering into” the rock or tree, or as allowing the phenomenon to enter into the artist, resulting in the “complete bamboo in the breast.” Literary treatises such as the The Poetic Exposition on Literature (Wen fu) by Lu Ji (261-303) and the The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons (Wenxin diaolong, ca. 523) by Liu Xie (465-522) spoke of a “spirit journey” in which the poet’s inner spirit roamed out into the world. Such communing with nature is possible because we are within nature’s field of qi and thus ontologically continuous with all other things as.

Thus a major aesthetic concern was the relationship between self and nature, inner and outer. The Chinese saw nature as an ongoing dynamic of stimulus and response among all things, and humans were included in this. Emotions arise in reaction to circumstance, and from the earliest statement of poetics, the “Great Preface” to the Book of Song (Shi jing) [first century c.e.?], poetry was seen as a voicing of that response. It was assumed that there was a strong correlation between “scene” (jing) and “emotional response” (qing), and the great poet achieved a unity of the two.

Because humans are a part of nature, human culture is not seen as something separate from nature or unnatural. This was particularly stressed in the first chapter of The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons. The term for both literature and culture is wen. Originally the term meant the pattern a phenomenon makes, e.g., the particular sound a pine makes in the wind, the colors of a tiger, the shapes of a cloud. Human culture -- literature and art in particular -- is the wen of humans. The words written by a poet are essentially no different from the tracks a bird makes in sand. Culture is, thus, natural, but that naturalness is realized only if the person acts as nature does, with spontaneity according to one’s true inner nature rather than based on the desires of the ego-self.

This view gives humans a paradoxical status within nature. We are the only phenomena that fail to exhibit naturalness. However, humans also are given an exalted status within nature, for if an artist creates in a natural way, then the “mind of nature” is revealed and the transformations of nature are brought to “completion.” Thus we have a responsibility to act in a natural way. If we act on the basis of our personal desires or if we delude ourselves into thinking we are separate from nature, then nature’s transformations cannot reach fulfillment and disharmony results.

The notion of nature at work here is different from what we are used to in the West. Although there are numerous different meanings of our word “nature,” two meanings have been particularly influential. One we could call “dualistic”: nature is whatever humans have not created or manipulated. The opposite of this notion of nature would be “culture” or “human,” and a skyscraper or toxic waste would be considered unnatural. The second notion of nature we could call “monistic”: nature is whatever exists in our world. A skyscraper or toxic waste are in this sense natural, and the “natural” sciences can study them. Here the opposite of nature would be the “supernatural.” Chinese aesthetics is based on a third, “adverbial” notion of nature. As in the monistic notion of nature, humans are “essentially” a part of nature. However, existentially humans may act unnaturally if they don’t act spontaneously according to their nature. The opposite of this sense of the natural is the artificial, the forced, and inevitably the disharmonious. Thus human culture may or may not manifest the mind of nature. Essentially humans are natural, but existentially the natural is only a possibility. We must work to realize it.


Japanese aesthetics

Japanese literary aesthetics are rooted in both Shinto and Buddhism. In Shinto, nature is characterized by places of spiritual power, mystery, and beauty. Moreover, the agricultural year is ritualized according to seasons, with special religious festivals celebrating the particular character of the season. Thus nature has places ritually set-off as divine and also involves a natural process of seasonal change that we are actively enmeshed in.

Buddhism offered a view of nature that emphasized impermanence and interrelationship. All things are transient and unstable, and they are radically interdependent. Reality is “empty” of the permanence and self-subsistent independence we normally associate with it. But as the Heart Sutra states, “emptiness is form and form is emptiness”: the phenomenal world is also ultimate reality, a vast dynamic field of interrelationships. The problem is that our delusion about permanence and discreteness involves a sense of separation from the world and leads to desires and attachments and thus suffering. The ideal is an experience of oneness with the world, a realization of its sacred nature, deep contentment, and a spontaneous way of acting devoid of desires.

The first major statement of Japanese poetics is the introduction to the Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern (Kokinwakshū, ca. 920). It reflects the sense of intimate connection between humans and nature found in Shinto and Chinese aesthetics. Poetry is a natural reaction to what is emotionally moving in a particular moment, with nature and love being the two main contexts for deep feeling. To be human is to be moved by nature’s beauty and to express one’s emotions, and thus poetry is as natural as a bird’s song. Artistic expression of emotion arose as a refinement and fulfillment of our natural movements.

A focus on nature, a recognition of the transience of all things of beauty, and the ideal of tranquility formed the basis of many Japanese aesthetic ideals. The most fundamental aesthetic idea may be mono-no-aware, the “pathos of things.” It involves an exquisite sensitivity to impermanence, whether it is the falling of leaves or one’s own process of aging. A kind of sweet sorrow arises from the simultaneous affirmation of beauty and a recognition of its passing away. Included is a sense of acceptance, resulting in a tranquil sorrow that comes from seeing and conforming to the essential quality of life. Thus aware refers both an objective condition of reality and an emotional state of mind.

Yūgen (“mysterious depth”) is an ideal that was particularly prominent in the medieval period (1186-1603) when aesthetics were particularly influenced by Zen Buddhism. Although yūgen was interpreted in various ways over the centuries, it generally refers to the inexhaustible richness of reality that defies human conception. The world has a dimension of mystery that we can only indirectly feel or intuit. Because of this sense of wonder and depth, yūgen often is characterized by a feeling of sorrowful, calm yearning for a beauty that cannot be fully grasped. As the poet Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204) stated, a deep intuition into yūgen can be attained through shikan, “tranquility and insight,” a Buddhist form of meditation on the vast and ever-changing net of interrelationships that characterize the world. It is suggested in poetry by images that have a reverberations of meaning that create an indefinable atmosphere. For Kamo no Chōmei (1155-1216), the profound subtlety of yūgen can be found in an autumn evening when, looking up at a limitless sky empty of color, we are inexplicably moved to tears.

A different type of poetic idea that is relevant to the Japanese view of nature is hon’i (“poetic essences”). Plants and animals as well as famous scenes in nature tended to be associated with particular qualities. A tree, a bird, and a particular landscape were thought to have a kind of “true nature” that poets were expected to grasp and then suggest in their poetry. In most cases, these qualities were also linked to particular seasons. The poetic essence of the bird chidori (plover), for instance, is melancholy. This correlation stemmed from the sorrowful sound of its call and from being found along the coast, which was considered a place distant from the capital, thus suggesting loneliness. Because of its association with sadness and its tendency to flock during the desolation of winter, it is a “winter” image (despite being a year-round resident of Japan). While those in the modern West might feel that this aesthetic puts artificial limitations on our responses to nature, to the traditional Japanese it is a way of recognizing the essential nature of things and cultivating a sensitivity that responds to their depth and subtlety.

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by Barnhill, David L. last modified Nov 21, 2010 07:03 PM