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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
What is Zero (kuu), the core tenet of Buddhism?
This website is named zero = abundance. Based on the concept conceived by the ancient Indian philosophers, we believe that zero, or nothingness/emptiness, is not null as it appears, but is actually a boundless source of inspiration, creation, engagement, and ultimately happiness. The ramification of the zero concept was so profound that the Buddhists dedicated themselves for centuries, if not a thousand years, to cement its principle. Eventually, Zen, a school of Buddhism that thrived in Japan during the Middle Ages, crystallized the essence in the form of various arts, most notably the Zen garden. The beauty was so captivating that it influenced modern minimalist arts, design, architecture and even business philosophy around the world.
In Eastern Asia, the concept of zero is expressed using the Chinese character “空,” which is pronounced “Kuu” in Japanese, and means “sky”, “void” or “emptiness.”
Zero (kuu) and Buddhism
The “zero” (or mathematical zero) as we know it today was first developed in India around 650 AD. It was conceived as a placeholder to recognize “nothingness” to perform complex calculations. The original sign for zero, or dots under the numbers, was also called “sunya” — a concept from ancient Indian philosophy to describe “emptiness,” “void,” or “sky.” While mathematical zero emerged as an essential element to advance science in the modern world, “sunya” has always been a major interest of Asian philosophy and religions. Buddhists have especially devoted themselves to pursue the truth of zero.
Buddha, who found the Buddhism in the 5~6th century BCE, used the word “縁起”(engi) to describe the concept of zero. He used “engi” to teach that everything we perceive is established only because it has relative relationships with other elements or factors. He maintained that all the things we believe exist, do not actually exist, if the definition of “existence” requires uniquely definable substantiality permanently. Since everything constantly changes its status, nothing exists. The “me” of today is one day older than the “me” of yesterday. While I may believe I am sitting on a “chair” as I write this, there is no such thing as an absolute “chair,” because your chair cannot be a chair if mine is a chair. If we accept the general notion of “chair” that can be applied to mine and yours alike to avoid that situation, my chair will lose its unique substantiality. Then the word “chair” becomes empty because it fails to capture the essence that constitutes my chair.
Does this mean that everything on Earth is meaningless? No, it’s actually the opposite. because everything can only be defined through its relationships with other elements and factors. “I” can be non-existent at the same time that I am not non-existent. In the world of “engi,” everything we perceive – including words or our ego – can exist without inconsistency no contradiction because we are “empty.”
Keeping true to his engi teachings, Buddha never wrote down his beliefs. (What’s the point of doing so if everything is relative and would eventually change?) His teaching was passed down by his apprentices after he passed away, who gathered to record their dialogues with Buddha.
But keeping up with the teaching that “nothing is absolute and existential” is challenging. After many groups tried hard to practice exactly what they believed Buddha taught, his followers eventually separated into two major groups: one group pursued a strict religious life, and the other group sought ways to practice Buddhism without abandoning social activities such as working and supporting a family.
The Mahayana Buddhism and Zen
The latter group, the Mahayana (it means “great vehicle” in Sanskrit) branch, had a breakthrough in the 2-3 centuries AD with the emergence of a great philosopher called Nagarjuna who established the foundation of the next generation of Mahayana Buddhism . Nagarjuna produced a solid logic system surrounding “空,” one of the most complicated philosophical concepts.
He further developed Buddha’s “engi” concept and found that all the things around us – both tangible and intangible – can be perceived only because of the relative and mutually influencing relationships with other elements and factors. I exist only because my surroundings shape me, but each element that constitutes my surroundings can exist because my presence. And we collectively exist because of mutual relationships. This is the reason why everything is “empty (kuu).” And because all are kuu, they are inherently temporary, and because they are temporary, words and statements are always contingent. And within kuu emerges solid neutrality.
Just as a pencil or a railroad can be considered short or long depending on a perspective, everything we say is relative. In his most well-known work, “Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way”, Nagarjuna stated that “‘kuu’, as taught by Buddha, means a departure from any perspective. In his world of kuu logic, nothing contradicts or conflicts with each other, because no word has absolute materiality. If a word contains no materiality, no words or statements can collide with each other. As a result, we no longer have a need to argue, which was one of the most important teachings of Buddha.
But how do you practice such a complicated concept, when in reality we live in a world where everyone has their own “absolute” perspectives and does not want to compromise? What was the approach taken by Zen, which emerged in China in the 5~6th century as one of the new schools of Mahayana Buddhism?