Chapter 3-2: Bonsai – the art of condensation

In the art of bonsai, a single tree is supposed to represent the condensed essence of the vast nature. There are five major types of bonsai: pines and oaks (evergreen), other plants (deciduous), flowers, fruits and grass. Find out more.

Chapter 4: Abundance by absence

Chapter 6: Abundance by decay

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Chapter 5: Abundance by ambiguity

Clear definitions are good.

Clear decisions are also good.

They are good because explicit, indisputable definitions accelerate fair and efficient distribution and allocation of resources.  Without clear definitions, any contract will become ineffective, and we will be thrown into chaotic dispute over ownership, on just about anything.

The ability to make clear decisions means strong leadership, and strong leadership is necessary to achieve a robust society and economy, which can outperform competitors.

If that’s the case, ambiguity is the enemy of a modern economy and strong leadership, which have been driving dramatic advancement in the modern society.  Ambiguity is bad because it blurs boundaries, creates uncertainties, and puts you in a vulnerable position.

But then, ambiguity is actually one of the signature characteristics of Japanese aesthetics.

Ambiguity blurs boundaries. When physical properties become blurred, there emerges a blank space that cannot be defined as A or B.  It is called “yohaku” in Japanese aesthetics.  Yohaku means space intentionally left blank, or unoccupied.

The above picture, by Tohaku Hasegawa (1539-1610), is one of the most recognized ink paintings in Japanese history, which exhibits enormous yohaku.  Tohaku lived in the era when other prominent Zen-inspired arts, such as ikebana (flower arrangement) or tea ceremony, cemented their foundations.  He was influenced by Sesshu, a highly acclaimed Zen painter, and had Sen no Rikyu (father of wabi-cha, or wabi tea ceremony) as one of his patrons.  So, Zen style “less is more” aesthetics are definitely in his work.

Titled “Shorinzu (pine trees),” this painting is actually done on a pair of byobu (folding screen panels).  This is the left panel.  Shorinzu is striking in multiple ways: first, it only captures pine trees – a single object – on such a large canvas.  There isn’t even a bird or clouds. The focus is solely on pine trees, and everything else is in ambiguities surrounding pine trees – only as potentials.  It is a bit like ikebana.

We are first drawn to a couple of trees in front, painted using savage tone with thick black ink. We can almost feel the sharpness of the needles.  Then the impression quickly dissolves into surrounding vagueness, because other trees are painted using a much lighter tone and blurred profile.  In Japan, pine tree woods are often found along the coast lines.  Since weather changes quickly by the coast, this painting suggests that it might have captured the moment early in the morning, when fog/mist was covering the trees. Or may be it was sprinkling rain.  In my memory, pine woods by the coast is always associated with a strong wind.  I can almost hear the wind blowing against the trees: a bit sad, solemn and solitary.  But it only emphasizes the boundless resilience of nature.

Abundant space, vagueness and blur, placed surrounding savage trees, unleashes our imagination. It makes us feel, think, and become absorbed in the vast beauty of nature.

Haiku, the world’s shortest poem, is also an art of yohaku.  Instead of using many words to describe the beauty of nature (haiku traditionally limits its theme to nature), haiku only allows the writer to use 17 syllables.  Around 17 syllables emerge enormous yohaku.  Creators and readers unleash their imagination to fill the yohaku, letting unbound beauty emerge.

Similar to yohaku, 間(ma) is also a critical Japanese aesthetic that embraces ambiguity. Ma is carefully created intervals between structural parts.  Whereas yohaku typically implies blank on a paper, or space, “ma” can also be temporal.  Ma is often found in Japanese traditional music or theater.

Nou established its foundation in the 14th century by Kan-ami and Zeami, a father and a son, who incorporated another Japanese aesthetics of ambiguity, “yugen,” in Nou.  Yugen is rather difficult to define, but it means something between our world and the other world, life and death, artificial and natural, logical and chaotic, existence and non-existence, real and spiritual, or definable and undefinable.  Yugen is something you cannot clearly see or describe, but something you feel, which is unfathomable.

In order to express such a vast, ambiguous notion, Nou (and accompanying music) uses substantial “ma.”  Although Nou is not easily understood because you need to have some background knowledge, at least probably you could tell it has a strangely slow tempo, and a similarly strange unstable pitch.

If we try to express temporal “ma,” we could have used rests.  But you would soon realize that rests wouldn’t work – because the “ma” in Nou cannot be counted clearly.  When it sounds like four counts, it could actually be 4 1/4 or 3 9/8, or whatever.  “Ma” is not mechanical or mathematical.  And it’s because it’s placed to express ambiguity – ambiguity blurs boundaries.  If we define a “ma” like a rest, four, two or 1/4 counts, it’s no longer ambiguous.

“Ma” can only be determined through relative relationships – musicians and dancers communicate silently and create “ma” collectively.  And that’s where “yugen” emerges – something unfathomable you cannot capture.

We now have to question: where do these aesthetics of ambiguity come from? Why are they a natural part of Japanese aesthetics, or Japanese traditional culture, but not part of, say, European culture?

Zero and Technology: re-think our relationship with resources

Up until the Middle Ages, all the “devices” that humans would invent were man-made and man-powered.  Humans had to rely 100% on their physical and cognitive abilities to improve their relationship with nature. Those devices were often inefficient and unproductive to face powerful nature. 

After the Middle Ages, humans have entered a new era totally different from the previous one: it’s an area of potent devices which have completely overcome the limitation associated with humans’ body.  Through the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution and all other great waves of invention, humans have discovered various sources of power and potential detached from humans’ physical/cognitive capacities. They performed far more effective and efficient than humans. With those external drivers, humans started to see exponential growth in every aspect of their activities; disasters tamed, diseases eradicated, production increased and civilization expanded.

In this project, we define “technology” as any means, emerged after the Middle Ages, that enabled humans to leverage external power/potential so as our abilities are not constrained by our own physical/cognitive limitations.

Roughly speaking, pre-Middle Ages are pre-technology era, and post-Middle Ages are the era of technology. Middle Ages are the turning point.  Up until the Middle Ages, humans were probably more like the animals in the wild: highly alert, observing the environment with obsessive attention and mobilizing all the abilities granted to their bodies.  But once humans entered the era of technology, they started to give up those extraordinary abilities one by one because they no longer needed them.

Conceptual change in humans’ physical/cognitive abilities over time

In pre-technology era, humans were ineffective towards the threats posed by nature. Nature would force humans to obey it. But when we entered the era of technology, the dynamics completely changed. Humans obtained enough power to alter nature and have it obey them. For the most part, we recognize what technology achieved as great accomplishments and progress. Thanks to technological advancement, humans obtained enormous amount of freedom and opportunities to flourish and pursue happiness.

While it is obvious that technology has been unleashing our potential in an amazing pace, we don’t ask this question much: what happened to our own ability? What about our physical capabilities and cognitive potential?

We can no longer navigate in the middle of thick nature without compasses or GPS, as the Inuit people would still do.  We can no longer read the sky with our own eyes to develop unbelievably accurate calendar as Mayans’. We can no longer build enormous architecture that would last more than 1,300 years using only woods and axes, like Japanese woodworkers did in the 7th century

You might say, “We don’t need to do those kinds of skills anymore, because technology would do them for you.” Sure. That’s the whole point of technology.  Less pain, more pleasure for us.  And since technology is so good at achieving it, we keep outsourcing more and more works outside our body so as we don’t have to do them by ourselves.

If every-accelerating trajectory towards less pain and more pleasure is the golden recipe for deep- rooted satisfaction and happiness, we don’t need this project.  We will simply let the technology guide us.  However, we all know that it’s not always the case. We know that “money can’t buy me love.” But why is that? Why can’t we buy – with excess money enabled by technological advancement — everything we need to feel satisfied and happy?
Remember the hypothesis for Zero = abundance:  satisfaction is a function of pain/pleasure and arousal. While technology is very good at controlling pain/pleasure level to pamper us, it hasn’t been paying much attention to arousal — both physical and cognitive — for us to feel achieved AND satisfied.  Money can’t buy me love because love is cognitive and cannot be enhanced by technology.
We will make a deep-dive into the relationship of Zero and technology to examine how our pain/pleasure dosage and arousal level intersects through modern technologies and how it’s affecting our sense of satisfaction and happiness.  The first category is “Zero and architecture” because architecture is the central piece of our technology, and also because I would like to introduce you to “House Vision,” an exciting movement from Japan that attempts to shape our next-generation quality of life using “the act of living” as a lab open to, and accessible by all of us. 

Chapter 4: Abundance by absence

We reviewed subtraction and condensation so far.
Let’s move on to “absence,” which is an advanced form of subtraction or condensation.  Absence is closer to ZERO.

Kare-sansui, or Zen rock garden, lets the infinite beauty of nature emerge by intentionally doing away with green and water,  the elements considered to be essential for an authentic garden.  

Those elements are crystallized and concentrated in a few stones and small mounds covered with mosses.  Because the essential elements of the garden are missing,  we can unleash our imagination.

Ryoanji Rock Garden:  Image By Cquest – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

Now try this famous cognitive science experiment.

Norman Slamecka, a widely recognized cognitive scientist, once conducted a famous research by having groups of people memorize pairs of antonyms using flash cards.  The first group was given the cards with words printed in full, and the second was given the ones that showed only the first letter of the second word.

Surprisingly enough, the group with the missing letters memorized better than the first group, simply “by forcing their minds to fill in a blank” (Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage).

The same effect happens with a Kare-sansui garden.  Kare-sansui forces visitors’ minds to fill in the blank with their own imagination.

When you unleash your own creativity and imagination to fill the void, what emerges is powerful and abundant. 

Chapter 3: Abundance by condensation

In the previous chapter we leveraged subtraction to test “more,” or quantitative excessiveness.  We now turn to “big,” the excessiveness in size.

Nature is big.  And nature is beautiful because it’s magnificent and embracing.  If you want to possess the beauty of nature, what would you do?

Zero category

Zero can take various forms; in this project we look at the Middle Ages in Japan, where Zen-inspired Zero culture crystallized. (Please see below for the sources of images)

We start our journey toward Zero by subtracting things from “more.” As you can see in the image above, Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) defies our assumptions that more flowers brings us more abundance.  By reducing them to the ultimate essentials, Ikebana allows for  infinite beauty to emerge.  Follow the links below to experience how subtraction awakens our senses and capacities, and activates them for autonomous, deep satisfaction.

We then question “big,” another value we admire, by condensing it into “small.” Bonsai is a miniature representation of how vast nature was reduced in size to be “apprehandable” by humans.  Although we usually don’t think twice and we assume “the bigger the better” for many products and services,  this can often make customers feel alienated and disengaged.  Find more about how condensation can make our lives engaging, and how condensation can inspire/excite customers when using many types of products and services.

Next we dive in to the world of absence” in Zero = abundance 201.  Void, created by absence, is an important catalyst to unleash our imagination and creativity, as demonstrated by Kare-sansui (Zen rock garden).  When our imagination and creativity is fully activated, our satisfaction is amplified.

Ambiguity emerges when boundaries of ownership blur or dissolve.  Japanese traditional architecture smoothly dissolves into the environment through the combination of engawa (veranda) and shoji (very thin partition with paper screen).  Whereas boundaries have been playing important roles to claim ownership for “more,” new chemistries materialize when multiple elements blend in.

Who decided that all products have to start depreciating once they are manufactured and shipped?  Time leaves something special on everything that exists on Earth.  As the decaying process leads to new lives and potential, products can acquire new values as they age.  Nou, Japanese traditional theater, focuses on old people because old people are believed to possess unique perspectives and beauty.

Images used in this page

Subtraction:  Ikebana courtesy of Ikenobo
Condensation: Bonsai “Shinpai” courtesy of © Nippon Bonsai Association, Japan
Absence: Ryoan-ji, by Cquest (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Ambiguity: Katsura Rikyu (Katsura Imperial Villa), courtesy of The Imperial Household Agency website
Decay: Noh mask, Uba (a noble old woman). Tokyo National Museum C-155. by Kakidai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Zero (kuu): the core tenet of Zen Buddhism