Foundation Stones of Cha-do Conitinued: The Seven Artistic Principles of Zen

There are Seven distinct artistic principles that were co opted by Zen Buddhism when it became a prominent cultural force in feudal Japan. These artistic concepts were extant during earlier times; and known to exist in the knowledge base of China and Korea. Zen monks codified and adopted them. These principles have ideograms in Chinese and Korean script. Since I am working on Japanese models, they shall be examined from this perspective. Please understand that these concepts were well known to the Japanese court nobility; and were also well known to other older sects of Buddhism different from Zen. These principles are quite valuable since each of them can be expressed in works of art, architecture (also an art form), poetry, painting, ceramics, weaving, etc. See if you can encounter them in a Japanese garden (landscape art) or other other art form of your choice.

1.FUKINSEI–Asymmetry or dis-symmetry; suggesting things which are irregular. The opposite of geometric circles and squares. but still balanced- lever and fulcrum -with a heavy weight close to the fulcrum and a light weight on the far opposite side.

2.KANSO–Simplicity; without gaudiness, not heavy or gross; clean, neat, and fresh, yet reserved, frank and truthful; not ornate.

3.KOKO–Austerity; maturity, reduction to bare bones, basic essentials, lack of sensuousness, refers to things that are aged, weathered, venerable.

4.SHIZEN–Naturalness, artlessness, absence of pretense and artificiality; it does not mean raw nature–it involves full creative intent, but should not be forced; unselfconsciousness, true naturalness that is a negation of the naive and accidental.

5.YUGEN–Subtly profound; suggestion rather than total revelation; things not wholly revealed but partly hidden from view; shadow and darkness; hence Yugen involves the shadow areas of a garden.

6.DATSUZOKU–Unworldliness; freedom from use of compass and rulers. freedom from worldly attachments, bondage, and restrictive laws. It involves transcendence of conventional usage. It is often a surprise element or an astonishing characteristic.

7.SEIJAKU– Quietness, solitude, calmness and silence; opposite of disturbance; The saying “stillness is activity”. This characteristic should be strongly felt in a Japanese garden or other art form.

I have borrowed the descriptions from a booklet written by the late Dr. Lennox Teirney named “The Nature of Japanese Garden Art”. I wish to honor him for his work in teaching the arts of Asia and Japan to me.

pictures for visual description are as follows:


Stone lantern at Portland Japanese Garden








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