Japanese aesthetics are known for its simple and minimalist design details and unique appreciation of natural beauty. There have been a couple of decisive moments in history that helped cement those qualities. “History of Japanese Aesthetics” reviews social backdrops of 1) Heian, 2) Kamakura, 3) Muromachi and 4) Edo period and discuss how they affected the formation and crystallization of Japanese aesthetics.
You are on 2) Kamakura period.
Kamakura era (1192-1333): Conflict between grace and brutality
In the previous chapter, we reviewed how blood line-centric aristocracy ruled ancient Japanese society, and how aristocrats, who didn’t have their own soldiers, tried to stay away from bloody wars and took pride in leading culture full of grace, and cementing unique aesthetics of mono no aware. Such devotion to pure beauty saw culmination with the emergence of Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241), who explored modern French symbolism-like aesthetically crystalized waka poems. His style was so revolutionary that he is widely considered the father of Japanese aesthetics that led all the way to modern era.
But a country cannot be led by a bunch of escapists. Soon, regional military leaders started cementing local influence in various parts of Japan and was threatening the aristocrats in then-capital Kyoto, who tried to downplay samurai as brutal, rough people with no culture. Eventually in 1192, the Minamoto’s, regional military clan in Eastern Japan, declared that they were the leader of the samurais around the country, and a dual power regime that had both shogun (the head of samurai) and emperor (the head of aristocrats) started. This era is called Kamakura era (1192-1333) because Minamoto’s were headquartered in Kamakura (about 50km from Tokyo). Ever since, shogun kept increasing its power as a dictator until Japan finally decided to modernize the country in the middle of the 19th century. But with the first legitimate shogun, the political system during Kamakura was nothing but unstable. Conflicts occurred everywhere, inconsistent policies were promulgated only to be later revised both by both Kamakura administration and Kyoto aristocrats, causing tremendous sufferings among people.
Interesting facts: Teika was from a high-ranking aristocrat family and was an ambitious bureaucrat. As stubborn and uncompromising as he was for his pursuit for art and beauty, he was also stubborn about his career. As the society became volatile and power struggle among aristocrats and military elites got ugly and nasty, Teika couldn’t stay away from troubles and failed to keep getting promoted. Disappointed, he eventually abandoned his ambition and became a Buddhism priest when he was 71.
Teika was not alone. Amid excruciating social turbulence, the majority of the public was left in poverty and feeling desperate, and concerned people were disillusioned and weary with the power struggle that didn’t bring nothing but destruction. Artists abandoned social life and became hermits in order to avoid the ugliness of the reality and pursue beauty in nature. Kamakura culture was “hermit culture.”
隠遁文学・無常 (Hermit literature and crystallization of “mujo“)
Some of the works done by the “hermit” artists during the Kamakura era are considered one of the best in Japanese history. They had keen/critical eyes to reveal contradictive nature of human relationships, and had abilities to elevate those observations into profoundly philosophical yet lyrical pieces of art.
西行 (Saigyo) 1118-1190
Saigyo was born into a high-ranking samurai family, and was promised a bright future. But he decided to abandon his career at the age of 23 and became a priest-wanderer-poet. He traveled throughout the country, living in so-called so-an, a small, bucolic makeshift hut, and wrote many waka poems, many of them honestly confessed his dilemma between the attachment for what he’d given up – love, family among others – and the yearnings for solitude and pure, ininterrupted natural beauty.
Saigyo especially loved – or rather was obsessed with – sakura (cherry blossoms), and lived in the Yoshino mountains in Nara prefecture for three years. Yoshino is still famous for its plentiful sakura trees that cover entire mountain ranges. Though astonishingly beautiful, the Japanese consider sakura as a symbol of mujo beauty because the petals last barely a week before they are quickly blown away.
Although nature is beautiful, it could have been frightening to live alone in the vast mountain where unknown and dangerous animals, critters, and mysterious spirits roamed freely. Food must have been difficult to find, nights were menacing, wind rattled his hut, rain down poured to soak his clothes and snow froze his skin. But he patiently waited for the sakura season by embracing Buddhism as the spiritual support. Once sakura started blooming, the entire mountains would magically be covered by faintly pink sakura petals, as if the world transformed into something else. Saigyo must have tried to embrace the mesmerizing duality in nature – beauty and threats, graciousness and mercilessness, and pleasure and pain.
At the end of enchanting yet painful journey in solitude, Saigyo wrote a waka that almost dictated his death:
ねかはくは 花のしたにて 春しなん そのきさらきの もちつきのころ
I wish if I could die beneath a full moon and cherry blossoms, the exact season Buddha “abandoned his body.”
Saigyo actually passed away only one day after the date Buddha is believed to have passed away. After his lone adventure in the world full of “mujo,” he wished so badly to dissolve into nature and be embraced by Buddha’s mercy. And he did it.
鴨 長明 (Kamo no Chomei, 1155-1216)
鴨長明 (Kamo no Chomei, 1155- 1216) was born in a high ranking shrine administrator family. Like Saigyo, he started his career with bright hope, but as his family became involved in turf war, he never could get the posts he wanted. While he was recognized for his waka writing talent (which was large part of the social skills among high class back then), he was disillusioned by competition-ridden society and decided to abandon social life. He settled in a rural part of Kyoto, lived in a so-and and wrote “方丈記 (Hojo-ki, anAaccount of my Hut) in 1212,” one of the oldest and finest memoirs in Japanese literature. Hojo-ki has a famous introduction that perfectly summarizes the mujo sentiments in Kamakura era:
The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubbles that float in the pools, now forming, are not of long duration.
Translation by Donald Keene
It is eye-opening that Kamo no Chomei was already feeling the same stress we modern people feel today in almost a thousand years ago.
If you are born into lower class, you need to cave in to people in power. If you are poor, you have to feel embarrassed when you see your rich neighbor.
If you chose to in a popular district, you have to risk getting involved in fire. But if you chose to live in a remote area, you have to sacrifice convenience. You could be easily robbed.
You become greedy as you get promotion, but you are despised otherwise.
You can’t stop worrying about your fortune, but you can’t stop feeling resentful if you don’t have it.
You lose your self if you rely too much on someone else, but your affection to someone you take care of could narrow your life options.
You feel stressed when you always try to follow common sense or social norm, but else you would be treated as a crazy person.
At the end of the day, there is no place in this world where you can feel completely relaxed and yourself.
Whereas most of us try to accept the society as is and take care of the stress by themselves, Kamo no Chomei had no hesitation to leave them behind to pursue peace of mind.
Hermit crabs are wise enough to choose small shells. Ospreys live in remote beaches. They don’t like to be around people. Neither do I.
The more you know about this world and how things work, the more desire you would feel for tranquility and serenity that cannot be interrupted by anyone. It is a lot more pleasing to be have no wishes so that you have no stress.
吉田兼好 (Yoshida Kenko, 1283? – 1352?)
Maybe the biggest name of hermit culture in the era is Yoshida Kenko, who wrote 徒然草 (Turezure-gusa, Essay in idleness). Like Kamo no Chomei, Kenko was born into a high-ranking shrine administrator family and started a career as a bureaucrat. However, he decided to abandon his social status when he was about 30, and after that, he devoted himself in Buddhism and writing. (But we don’t know much about his life)
The introduction of Essay in idleness so famous that probably every Japanese could recite it. However, the meaning is a little more ambiguous due to the choice of the words that could be interpreted in different ways.
What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realize I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts have entered my head.
Translation by Donald Keene
“Tsurezure” is an ancient word that is no longer used, but it survived as a dialect in the region I grew up, where people used it to describe a situation in which you have no engagements, no obligations nor anything particular to do. It’s a subtle feeling of being left out, although you are rather okay to accept it. Tsurezure is an ambiguous, absent and vacant state of mind for which you can’t easily decide if it’s a positive or negative feeling. You just feel it. It’s revolutionary that Kenko was already sensing such profound/metaphysical feeling of vanity like Marcel Proust. Kenko jolted down whatever emerged to his mind as he pursued his “doing nothing” practice challenging the social norms, which often become overwhelming, crazy or outlandish.
The field of Adashino is always wet, and the soot from Toribe Mountain never stops rising. There will be no oohs and ahhs in our life if it was eternal. Our life is priceless exactly because it has an ending.
NOTE: Adashino and Toribe Mountains are places in Kyoto that have been used to incriminate and bury dead people.
平家物語 (Heike Monogatari, The Tale of Heike)
The Tale of Heike is believed to have been written during the Kamakura era, but the author is unknown. Reflecting the fierce competition among opposing military clans, the tale tells a grand saga of the Heike clan, which ascent to the power quickly, and then declined and was tragically defeated by the Genji clan. But even the Genji were not an absolute winner or hero: the Genji leader ends up being assassinated by the family member who was resentful about his success. The saga consistently reminds readers that we live in the world of “mujo,” in which there are no winners nor losers and everything eventually goes away. The introduction of the Tale of Heike is still very popular today because of its poetic rhythm that soberly yet beautifully describes the true face of “mujo.”
猛き者も遂にはほろびぬ、 偏 ひとへ に風の前の塵におなじ。
The Jetavana Temple bells
ring the passing of all things.
Twinned sal trees, white in full flower,
declare the great man’s certain fall.
The arrogant do not long endure:
They are like a dream one night in spring.
The bold and brave perish in the end:
They are as dust before the wind.
Translation by Royall Tyler
鎌倉新仏教 (New school of Buddhism emerged during Kamakura Era)
It’s also important to know that new schools of Buddhism emerged during the Kamakura era in order to salvage and console non-elite, powerless people, whose lives were severely affected by poverty and warfare. There are six notable Kamakura schools, of which two are Zen. Although they had different platforms, all six schools were enthusiastically accepted by people since they taught them that they were embraced and forgiven by the mercy of Buddha regardless of their social status. Buddhism had been academics endeavor for intellectuals because you needed to be able to read many texts imported from China, but for first time in the history of Japanese Buddhism,, the leaders of the six schools sincerely attempted to face cruel reality people at the bottom of the social ladder suffered. It had significant impacts on a philosophical level, and you know how Zen played critical roles in elevating Japanese aesthetics into crystallized abstraction.
|浄土宗 (Jodo shu)||法然 (Honen, 1133-1212)||After hard training and relentless studies, Honen finally decided that Buddha’s mercy was open to everyone including people who couldn’t even read the scripture. He started the nembutsu, which was a short chant that could be practiced by anyone.|
|浄土真宗 (Jodo shinshu)||親鸞 (Shinran, 1173-1262)||Shinran elevated Honen’s teaching to a new level, and declared that even people who didn’t do any religious practices were forgiven by profound mercy of Buddha.|
|時宗 (Jishu)||一遍 (Ippen 1239-1289)||Ippen opened the Buddhism even for the poorest of the poor. He toured around the country and used dance and chants as a means so that even illiterate people could understand Buddha’s teaching. During the Muromachi era, artists that came from socially discriminated class used Jishu priest status to be accepted by the society.|
|法華宗 (Hokke shu)||日蓮 (NIchiren, 1222-1282)||Nichiren maintained that the Hokke-kyo scripture was the only teaching to be strictly followed, and pursued uncompromising practices. Kenji Miyazawa, one of the most prominent authors in the early 20th century who wrote “Night of Galactic Railroad” was an enthusiastic Hokke-shu practitioner.|
|臨済宗 (Rinzai shu), Zen||栄西 (Eizai 1141-1215)||Rinzai-shu is known for Zazen (sitting meditation) and Zen riddles. It was supported by military dynasty during the Kamakura and Muromachi era, and prestigious Rinzai Temples became the center for intellectual/artistic endeavors. High ranking RInzai priest were highly sought as mentors and diplomats.|
|曹洞宗 (Soto shu), Zen||道元 (Dogen, 1200-1253)||Soto shu is yet another Zen school that solely focuses on meditation. Unlike RInzai-shu, that found support from influential military leaders, the followers of Soto shu was largely peasants. Steve Jobs practiced Soto shu.|
In the next chapter, we discuss the influence of new Buddhism to Japanese culture/aesthetics of wabi-sabi.