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Major Conceptions of Nature in China and Japan

by Barnhill, David L. last modified Feb 11, 2011 09:31 AM

1. The turning of the seasons.
2. The inevitable passing away of things.
3. Creative, chaotic, beautiful change.
4. The process of things coming into being

1. The turning of the seasons
We are always within a particular season, which is always temporary and in process of becoming another season.
Each season has its own distinctive characteristics.
Animals, plants, people, and human cultural activities co-exist as parts of the turning seasons.

2. The passing away of things
Mujō : impermanence.
Aware : a bittersweet sorrow at the transience of beauty.
Various forms

  • Passing away of seasons
    Steady aging of beauty
    The rise and fall of glory
    The imminence of sudden death and destruction

3. The unpredictable, creative, and beautiful changes of nature

The unpredictable (“chaotic”) changes from moment to moment that are beautiful and spontaneously skillful like a cosmic artist.

The “Creative” ( zōka)

4. The process of things coming into being

“Nonbeing”: a creative, formless dimension of reality beyond space and time, beyond our senses and intellect.

Things arise into form and then disappear again like waves rising from the ocean and then falling away.



1. A metaphysics of interrelatedness.
2. Dynamic interrelationships.
3. Ideal: fulfill one’s niche; fit harmoniously into the system.

1. A metaphysics of interrelatedness

The Western ecological view as metaphysics: the universe is fundamentally a net of relationships and a dynamic system of mutual conditioning.

Interrelatedness is primary, distinctness secondary: our distinctness is our unique set of interrelationships.

“Interbeing”: each of us “interexists” with others.

2. Dynamic interrelatedness

The system is dynamic and ever-changing.

Individuals: everyone’s set of relationships changes from moment to moment.

Whole: each moment is a new web of interdependence.


All things share these aspects of change: people, plants & animals, mountains & rivers. We are all part of one system.

3. Ideal: deeply fitting in

One’s social and spiritual goal is to fulfill one’s particular niche in the system. This is one’s fulfillment.

Such a fitting-in grounds one in the universe; you find your place rather than impose your desires.

The overriding goal is the harmony of the system (not self-benefit or justice)



An “adverbial” concept of nature.

All things have an inner nature. To act according to your inner nature is to be natural.

Humans tend to act on their desires or intentional will rather than their inner nature.

This causes inner disharmony, anxiety, and clumsiness.

It also causes outer disharmony: social disorder.

The ideal is to act spontaneously out our true nature.

However, this requires great discipline of spiritual practice over long periods of time.

The same is true of other living things. To see the true nature of a pine tree, we need to see an old tree buffeted by cliff winds. Or we need to train it in order to reveal its true nature.

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by Barnhill, David L. last modified Feb 11, 2011 09:31 AM