Uncarved Block, Unbleached Silk

A delightful seminar in which Alan introduces his listeners to the details of Japanese and Chinese aesthetics.


Now, what I want to talk to you about this afternoon are some of the aesthetic principles underlying both Chinese and Japanese arts, and their deriving from these Taoistic and Buddhistic philosophies that have inspired them, and to speak about them fairly technically. In the language of Taoism there are certain words used which are the foundations of their aesthetic ideas. One of these words is the “uncarved block,” and another is “unbleached silk.” And as I already intimated in talking to you about the Taoist view of the relationship of man and nature, the Taoists make a distinction between the natural and the artificial, and seem to be all on the side of the natural and rather against the artificial—although you must be cautioned against taking this too seriously, too literally. You might say, of course, that the distinction between the artificial and the natural is an artificial distinction, because, really and truly, a human building is no more nor less artificial than a bird’s nest.


But the Taoists use a kind of art and a kind of poetry which you could call indicative—that is to say: while understanding that everything that man does is natural, some things that he does a more natural than others; that is to say, they look more natural, they go that way. And so the idea of unbleached silk means silk in the raw: raw silk, natural silk. And so, in the same way, the uncarved block is the sort of stone that would be selected for a Chinese or Japanese garden. Chinese stones tend, as I see it, to be rather more elaborate, rather more fussy, than Japanese stones. And I think that, in the art of bonseki (which means “growing rocks”), the Japanese are a bit more sophisticated than the Chinese—although this doesn’t often happen. But the Japanese are masters of growing rocks. So this rock that you would find in a Japanese garden is the uncarved block, even though it may have been—what has happened, really, it’s what we call in the West objet trouvé, where the artist, instead of making something, selects it. He finds a glorious thing and shares his finding with other people, and that finding is a work of art.


And, you see, that is connected with the whole thought in this tradition of aesthetics in the Far East: that superb art is a work of nature. It is not something imposed upon nature—even though, as you’ve seen in many Japanese gardens, that there is very complex espalier work on trees, and that an enormous amount of pruning and trimming is done. And, in fact, the discipline of the garden is amazingly complicated, and requires a great deal of care. But the object always is, through the discipline of the art, to make the garden seem more natural than it would look if you left it to itself. You understand that? It is to work upon nature with skill and craft, but to move in the direction in which nature is already going. So that the uncarved block may be extended into a sculpture. But what the carver—to make the block uncarved, even when the sculpture is finished—what the sculptor is going to ask the block in the first place is: “What do you want to become?” In other words: along what lines have you already started in the direction of a sculpture? And I will cooperate with you and bring it to completion.


So that’s the principle, really, you see, that underlies jūdō. Jūdō means “the gentle way,” “the gentle Tao,” and it is the art of going along with nature. It is also called wú wéi, or mui, in Japanese. And doing nothing, literally; not being—because, after all, it’s man’s nature to act. You can’t do nothing literally. But to act mui without… really, it’s as to act without feeling that your actions are separate from nature. When you feel that everything you do is simply part of the course of things, then the way in which you do things is changed. You wouldn’t think so. It isn’t logical that it should be. But nevertheless, if you really feel that you can’t deviate from the Tao—that it lies behind everything that you do—your type of action and your style of behavior will in fact be changed, and it will tend to be in the direction of your seeming to other people in some ways to be more passive than you might ordinarily be.


And the difficulty here is that Westerners—when they hear about Buddhism and Taoism and the sort of thing—they interpret it one-sidedly as passivity and don’t see that what sometimes looks like passivity is cleverness. As businessmen often know: if you leave letters unanswered for a month, when you return to them, many of them have already answered themselves. And sometimes, when you sit and do nothing, you avoid making very serious mistakes which would have arisen if you had acted prematurely; if you had done something about it. I’ve practiced this inactivity of this kind for many years and have always been accused of being lucky. Because when I should have done something and been up and at it, I just went and sat and did nothing. And then, when it turned out all right, this is terrible! Just like—no, I know you haven’t said that. That’s why I’m still married to you! Yeah, yeah, that’s right.


But anyway, this is so, isn’t it? So this tendency to look inactive and to go in the direction, in the arts, of a kind of primitivity which we know in the word shibui—the quality called shibui in Japan is a certain kind of sophisticated primitivity. Listen to these contradictions, these paradoxes: the “sophisticated primitivity,” “controlled accident,” where, you see, man and nature are really collaborating. Man as the controller, the reasoner, the logical being, and yet at the same time not ruining life by making it all logic and all control. To have logic and to have control—that is to say, in short: to have order—you have to have randomness. Because where there is no randomness, order cannot manifest itself.


Well now, in the vocabulary of Japanese aesthetics, there are a number of terms which you should understand thoroughly, and which are basic. The first is sabi. And that goes along with something that rhymes with it: wabi. So that, often, Japanese people speak of wabi-sabi, or sabi-wabi, as a kind of mood of a certain art feeling or of Zen taste. And then there is aware, which I’ve mentioned in passing, as another kind of mood. There is yūgen. There is fūryū. Such words which designate the basic moods of painting and poetry and so on.


Now, to begin with sabi: the basic feeling of sabi is loneliness. One of the great paintings that illustrate sabi is the lonely crow on a tree branch. It is the feeling of the hermit. It is the feeling which the garden artist tries to create when, in a crowded country, he wants to give you the sensation of being way off in a mountain landscape. So this sense, you see, of solitariness, of being able to wander off on your own, is sabi, and is a thing, of course, that any sane person has to have. One has to have privacy. You have to have space in which to be alone, so as not to become a rubber stamp.


You see, it’s often thought that Eastern philosophy is against individuality. And this is not true. The unity of man in the universe is not a loss, or a merging, of personality in something impersonal. It’s more like the fact that, when individuality, when personality, is known and experienced as an expression of the whole cosmos, then the person becomes more individual, not less individual. But he becomes individual in a non-strident way; in a way that has in it the spirit of the uncarved block and the unbleached silk. And so one of the qualities of this is solitariness. The great Chinese poem which has sabi in it preeminently is Asking for the Master:

I asked the boy beneath the pines,

He says, “The master’s gone alone,

Herb-gathering somewhere on the Mount,

Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.”


So the whole idea, you see, of Zen is that wherever you stand—if you realize Zen—you create a mountain. Everywhere is the mountain solitude, even in the middle of an uproar. This is sabi. And for this reason, then, an enormous amount of the subject matter of Far Eastern painting and poetry is solitude and the love of solitude.


Now there is, next, wabi. This is a more difficult idea. Let’s imagine that you are feeling very bad about something: you’re depressed, the world is too much with you, just… you’re sick of life. And then, quite surprisingly, you notice a small weed growing underneath a hedge. And this weed is really, after all, not just to be dismissed as a weed, but some rather lovely design that is in the nature of this plant. Or, supposing you are bothered by financial uproar, wars, politics, and everything like that, and you are sitting on a beach, and you become aware of the water endlessly crossing pebbles, and you get a sense that this goes on for ever and ever and ever: it is long before you were thought of, long before all human history, empires, schemes, and so on, and will endure long after. But it’s something that strikes you that is very simple, very ordinary—like the water on the pebbles, or like the little weed under the hedge—that suggests a kind of amazing eternal reliability of nature. The very humble form goes on and on and on, and whatever human beings may do, this everlasting sanity persists. Now, that strange flip from the mood of depression to the mood of a certain consolation in this weed is wabi.


Now, don’t let me be too dictatorial. I’m trying to explain these things through examples rather than through trying to give you philosophical definitions. It’s better to give examples than to pin it down with abstract terminologies. Wabi comes out in the haiku very much:

A brushwood gate,

And for a lock

this nail.

This is wabi. This is all there is. The path comes to an end among the parsley. Which has a touch of yūgen, but but also wabi, because the parsley is just… well, everybody has parsley in the garden.


Now, next, this word aware, A-W-A-R-E, is very much connected with the Buddhist feeling for the transience of life: that everything is change and nothing at all can be held onto or possessed. This feeling of transience is at the root of the philosophy of poverty that exists in Buddhism, and it has a curious difference in it from the Christian philosophy of poverty as, say, explained by Saint Francis of Assisi. It’s cognate to it, it’s like it, but a little subtle difference. Somehow, one feels (in the Christian emphasis on poverty) that poverty contrasts with richness as good to evil—in other words, poverty is unpleasant, but it’s something you ought to share with the poor who live unpleasant lives. So if you are to expiate your sins, well, you ought to be poor and to live roughly. And so, for this reason, in Buddhism one would not say so much “poverty” as one would say “simplicity:” not going without, not clinging to things because it’s good for you, but because it is actually the happiest way to live. Because nothing is more terrifying than the state of chronic anxiety which one has if you are subject to the illusion that something or other in life could be held onto and safeguarded. And nothing can. So the acceptance of everything flowing away is absolutely basic to freedom; to being an unsui: a cloud-water person who drifts like cloud and flows like water.


But in this we mustn’t take ourselves too ridiculously. I mean, naturally, all human beings have in them certain clinging. So you can’t let go totally. You wouldn’t be human if you did. You can’t be just a leaf on the wind or just a ball in a mountain stream—to use a Zen poetic phrase—because if you were that, you wouldn’t be human. Just as I pointed out that a person with no emotions, who has completely controlled his emotions, is a stone Buddha, so a person who would be completely let go would also be some kind of an inanimate object. So Zen very definitely emphasizes being human, being perfectly human, as its ideal. And so, to be perfectly human one must have not a state of absolute detachment, but a state of detachment which contains a little bit of resistance. A certain clinging, still.


They say in India of a jivanmukta (a man who is liberated in this world) that he has to cultivate a few mild bad habits in order to stay in the body. Because if he were absolutely perfect he would disappear from manifestation. And so the great yogi—maybe he smokes a cigarette, or has a bad temper occasionally: something that keeps him human. And that little thing is very important. It’s like the salt in a stew. It grounds him. Well, this is another way of saying that even a very great sage, a great Buddha, will have in him a touch of regret that life is fleeting, because if he doesn’t have that touch of regret, he’s not human and he’s incapable of compassion towards people who regret very much that life is fleeting.


So the mood aware is that touch of regret, of nostalgia, of—you know that poem which speaks of the feeling of a banquet hall, deserted? Here it is: there’s been a great banquet, you know, and all the guests have gone home, and there are empty glasses and dirty plates and crushed napkins and all sorts of things all over, and somehow the echo of voices and merriment is still there. And so this mood, aware, comes up. So even a very great person should feel that, because the prize otherwise is not to be human. So, for this reason, Buddhist and Taoist poetry is not unemotional, it’s not dehumanized, and so somehow speaks very much to us as people, and does not have in it the feeling that we ought instead to turn into saints or supermen. That’s the humane thing about this philosophy of life.


The next word, the special term, is fūryū. Fūryū means literally: “wind flow.” (風) is the character for “wind,” ryū (流) means “flowing.” And the dictionaries translate it “elegance,” and this won’t do. Fūryū—first of all, you must remember that the word “wind” is used in Chinese and Japanese alike to indicate atmosphere; the atmosphere of a place. So when a person has, say, a certain school of poetry or philosophy, it’s called the family wind. That means that the atmosphere, the slant, the attitude, of this particular school. So that meaning of “wind,” “atmosphere,” comes into the expression fūryū.


And fūryū is like this. Here is a man, fishing, and he’s sitting in the evening in the twilight on the edge of a river with his fishing rod in a lonely little boat tied up by the bank. Now, if this man is fishing with his mind intent simply on catching fish, this is not fūryū. But if he’s also digging the atmosphere, it’s fūryū. To flow with the wind, you see? To dig the atmosphere. American offers the most beautiful possibilities of translation in our incomparable slang for some Oriental ideas. Fūryū is there, you know, to get with it, to flow with it—and not (again, you see) in the sense of the merely passive leaf flowing on the wind. But fūryū has in it, you see, a touch of self-consciousness, like that man fishing.


Now, you would think (if you studied Taoist philosophy) that this would be very bad. Zhuang Zhou somewhere says that a comfortable belt is one that you don’t feel, and you’re unaware of it. That’s not the most comfortable belt. Like comfortable shoes: would you be completely unconscious of comfortable shoes? No! Something better than comfortable shoes are shoes that you know are comfortable. So, in the same way, self-consciousness adds something to life. It’s one thing to be happy and not know it. It’s another thing to be happy and to know it. It’s like: one’s voice in the shower room or bathtub has more resonance than one’s voice in the open air. And that’s why temples, and cathedrals, and resonating boxes for guitars and drums, and things, are created to give this little quality of echo. For all echo is a certain kind of feedback which enables you to reflect upon what you’re doing and to know that you know. So one might say that ordinary people are Buddhas, but they don’t know it. And the Buddha is one who knows he’s a Buddha—only, they don’t let you settle for this comfortably and easily, because, really, to know is also defined as not to know. In the Upanishads it is said that if you know what Brahman is, you have yet some study to be done, for those who know Brahman do not know Brahman, and those who do not know Brahman really know.


Now, all this paradoxical language is intended to keep you confused so that you can’t say, “I’ve got it.” But this position, you see, is not one-sided. There is something about being human, about being self-conscious, you see, that is not a mistake of nature, not a completely evil fall into self-awareness, but self-awareness—although it creates all kinds of problems, because through self-awareness the human being is in some sense a self-frustrating mechanism: he knows that he is going to die. And the price of being able to control the future is to know that, in the long run, you won’t be able to, and worry about that. But also with self-consciousness goes the possibility of resonance, of realization, of becoming enlightened, liberated, and knowing it, and therefore able to enjoy it.


So fūryū adds this to the dimension of going with it. Something more than the mere passivity of going with, but knowing that you’re going. But it does at the same time—it isn’t entirely wrong that the dictionaries have translated it “elegance.” You could say it fūryū is “style”—when we say somebody really has style. But this designates a particular kind of style. It is the style of what one might call the elegant poor man. The aristocratic bum. The the rich pauper, you see? Now, you find that a good deal in the things that we’ve been seeing. We’ve gone to many temples where nobody really owns anything, and yet, in a way, they’re luxurious. This is fūryū.


The next word, yūgen


How do you spell fūryū?



I have spoken about yūgen, but I haven’t told you the basic symbol of yūgen is the flower which grows from a rock. And so there is something about that which is improbable, mysterious, contradictory, that a flower could come out of a rock. But yūgen, more than any other of these terms, defies translation. The two characters (which I shall draw for you shortly) are rather interesting. One, the first character (幽), shows the basic form of a mountain. And then the mountain is combined with characters indicating dark; darkness. You see, in the character for mountain (which is simply 山, like this) there are these things, see? The valleys. And the dark is put in the valley, you see, in each case. You get so the idea of the deep valley.


There’s a poem which says,

The wind drops but the petals keep falling,

The bird calls and the mountain becomes more mysterious.

Little sounds emphasizing silence,

Little motions emphasizing stillness.

This quality, you see, is in this word . Gen (玄) is in Chinese shuan, which means the original deep, deep, mysterious darkness out of which everything arises; the depth. Jakob Böhme would say Ungrund. In the Book of Genesis: “And darkness covered the face of the deep, or the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Those waters of chaos, the primeval blackness, which is the same blackness as your head. You know how your head appears invisible to your eyes? That is gen. It is darker than darkness, because it is blacker than black, you see? It is practically nothingness. It’s so mysterious.


So when you put these two characters together you get yūgen. And so yūgen is, first of all, suggestiveness. I was looking around one of the temples a few days ago, where I noticed that you couldn’t figure out how big it was, or it didn’t seem to have any limits. Because always wall, say, of a room, seemed to be a screen which led to something else beyond. And at the back of every garden there seemed to be a little gate that led to some other courtyard. And everything led into something else. And I said to the priest, “I don’t know whether I’m going to go exploring or not, or just leave it alone and think that, well here I left Kyōto and I never did find out what was through that little gate. And so what?” Forever there will be magic behind there, which I didn’t define, I didn’t draw in. And so this whole temple was was done that way. All sorts of suggestions of little avenues disappearing, like a mountain path winding up among the trees: where does it go? True, if you follow it you will eventually go up out of Kyōto here, and get down to Ōtsu. And, you know, you find yourself back in the suburbs. But there is the sense of that disappearing mountain path (like we’ve got going up here) that it goes to the place. And everybody has in the back of their minds an image of the place that you want to go to. Or some—not really an image, though. It’s always slightly indefinite. There’s the certain feeling of: there ought to be somewhere the thing I’ve always wanted.


We get disappointed, of course, because as we get older we feel that perhaps that doesn’t exist at all. That one just has to put up with the second best, or with something—half a loaf is better than no bread. But still, I find that Far Eastern art is very, very full of hints about what is sometimes called horaisan. Horaisan is the magical island somewhere out in the Pacific which is the paradise island. And all these Chinese paintings of wonderful floating pagodas, and terraces with scholars sitting around drinking wine, and so on, are hints of the paradise world. And that somewhere, then, these little steps lead up to that thing. And you’ve seen these steps. Japan is full of them. You just go along in the train, you look up the hills, and there are arches, toriis, steps disappearing into the hills—all of which suggests the feeling: out there is that thing. So yūgen, as it were, comes around full circle to sabi. The wonderful lonely place at the end of the road, where there won’t be any mother-in-law to bother you, any of that sort of dreadful social difficulty, but solitude which befits a bearded old gentleman.


Now, of course, you see, all these things are symbols. On one level, they’re very human, and they reflect our perhaps childish and immature desires to be really alone, to have that paradise thing. And realistic people say, “Well, you ought not to bother yourself or fool yourself with such fantasies.” And nowadays I find that we feel very guilty about thinking of paradise, of horaisan, or whatever it is; the enchanted garden. They think, “Nu-uh! Reality is what you read about in the newspapers and you’ve got to face it.” And everything is unpleasant, basically. There’s the hard boiled school of zoologists, for example, who insist that birds hate flying. You know, everybody has always envied a bird and wanted be able to glide along with wings, you know? And so there comes up somebody (who is usually some wretched academician) who says, “No, we’ve discovered by measurements that birds loathe flying.” I say, “You must feel very satisfactory when you found that out. because you’ve smashed an ideal.”

Oh for the wings of a dove,

Far away would I roam.

In the wilderness build me a nest

And remain there forever at rest.

I’m quoting the Psalms. But apparently doves just hate this chore of flying!


Now, it is just in the same way as it’s ridiculous to try to be so inhuman as never to feel any regrets about the passing of time and of life, and so on. It’s likewise inhuman not to have the paradise fantasy of the mysterious place around the corner, just over the crest of the hill, just behind the island in the distance. You see? Because that place is really the big joke. That’s you. That’s why you have found that, at the end of the line, when you get through the last torii and up the last stairway, you are liable to be confronted with a mirror. And so everybody is seeking, seeking, seeking, seeking, seeking for that thing that you’ve got to have, you see? Well, you got it! But nobody’s going to believe this. But there it is: the real thing that you are is the paradise land that you’re looking for at the end of the line. And it’s far, far more reliable than any kind of an external scene which you could love, and cling to, and hold on to. Of course, the whole fascination of life is that that seems perfectly incredible.


So I think these terms are the crucial ones. Let me repeat them briefly. You’ve got, firstly: the uncarved block and the unbleached silk. These are the prototypes. Then you have sabi: the mood of solitariness. Wabi: the flip from disillusion with everything to the sudden recognition of how faithful the weeds are, how the sparrows chirping in the eaves suddenly take your mind away from important and dreadful business. Aware: the regret of the passing of life, which somehow makes that very passing beautiful. Fūryū: getting with it and living with style—that is to say, with rich poverty, elegant simplicity. Yūgen: the aesthetic equivalent of… well, let me put it this way: there was a philosopher by the name of van der Leeuw who once said that the mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced. That’s yūgen. And that mystery—that deep, deep, ever so deep thing which is before all worlds—is you; the unrecognized Self.

So let’s have a brief intermission.

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