part 3: The Japanese sense of Aesthetics

The concept of mono no aware that I discussed in part 2 finds expression in Japanese art and literature including in the works of the latest Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. Even though the concept originated in the Heian Era (8th-12th century), it started gaining prominence in Japanese culture with the works of the 18th century scholar Motoori Norinaga.

The sweetest songs are those that tell us of our saddest thoughts (PB Shelly). But songs or no songs, the sadness about the passing of beautiful things and pleasant moments may have an underlying elusive shade of sweetness. Maybe, that is what mono no aware is all about.

The Heian Era also saw the origin of the three art forms of Japanese refinements: kado, kodo, and chado. Kado is the native name for the Japanese art of flower arrangement which is also known as ikebana. Kodo is appreciating the subtle variations of incense and chado is the famous Japanese tea ceremony. The origin and refinement of all the three forms bear the influence of Buddhism.

I am fascinated by the Japanese tea ceremony. It is said that a Buddhist monk discovered tea. While dhyan which traveled from India became a refined form of meditation and culture known as Zen after reaching Japan, the simple act of taking tea to remain alert and ward off cold developed into a kind of religion reaching its Zenith during the time of emperor Hideyoshi and tea master Sen No Rikyu.

Chado can be loosely translated as the way of the tea. Detailed attention is given to the choice of the utensils, the movements of the host and the guests. The decoration inside is austere following the principle of wabi-sabi. There are four basic elements of the ritual: harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility. Care is taken to see that the location of the tea house, its surroundings, its interior and the objects inside are all in harmony. One has to bow down or crawl to reach inside, kneel down and bow to the hanging scroll and sit down in tatami. It is like going inside a temple. A special connection between the host and the guest is made when they honour each other. Purity is obtained when the actions of the host seem spontaneous, not rehashed. The overall effect is meditative, tranquil bringing all participants to here and now.

Another concept of aesthetics associated with Japanese art, literature, and culture is yugen. The underlying principle is that certain deeper truths cannot be explicitly expressed and can only be alluded to or hinted at. Even those that can be explicitly expressed can achieve a sublime and mysterious status by being alluded to thus deepening their effect.

I started this series with a clarification about the poetry form haiku. Some readers have opined that we cannot be too strict about the form of poetry that has undergone change over the centuries. Agreed. However, it should not water down to a lamentation about the low office wage with no reference to nature or with nothing to juxtapose. To end this series, here a few of my favourite haikus:

Come come ! I call ...
but the fireflies 
flash way
into the darkness (Onitsura)

Watching the spring moon
rise
I no longer bother
about the mountains (Kyorai)
(hint: the spring moon is more transient than the mountain)

What does this mean?
Chrysanthemums
and jonquils
blooming together (shiki)

The leaves never know
which leaf
will be first to fall..
does the wind know? (Soseki)

Preach away cricket
it doesn't matter to me
I know 
it's autumn (Soseki)

There goes a beggar
naked
except for his robes
of heaven and earth (Kikaku)

Since I first became 
a hermit
The frogs have sung 
only of old age (Issa)

Day darken!
frogs say by day
at night they cry bring light
old grumblers (Buson)

How can a creature 
be so hated
as a winter fly
yet live so long (kikaku)

Among these lovely 
cherry blossoms
a woodpecker
hunts for a dead tree (Joso)

If my grumbling wife
were still alive
I just might enjoy
tonight's moon (Issa)

Over the ruins 
of a shrine
a chestnut tree
still lifts its candles (Basho)

An old silent pond
into the pond
a frog jumps
splash ! silence again (Basho)
(This seemingly simple haiku has hundreds of translations and interpretations. All I can say is while reading this haiku if you get a feeling of here and now, you need not bother the hundred intellectual interpretations of the poem)

 

By the way, I enjoyed these hilarious haikus written by Sri Uma Shankar Pandey on his blog.

My next book, an anthology of poems which will be released shortly, will include some micro poems. Let me assure you I will not claim those as haikus. 😀

 

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “part 3: The Japanese sense of Aesthetics

  1. You never cease to surprise me with the depth of your vision. Besotted by growing disquiet of late, my soul has been an aching diver scouring for those elusive drops of tranquility that seem to come naturally to the Japanese sensibility. Perhaps I am drifting farther from my roots, or is it the times that have turned turbulent and I have merely fallen out of synch? Those are all powerful haikus, tender and fresh as dew drops, encapsulating meanings infinitely larger than their spheres. It is hard to choose a favourite, but I particularly love the one about old age.

    I am both thrilled and embarrassed by your reference to my mock-haikus. All I was trying to do was to satirise the blogging intelligentsia who keep shooting fusillades of haikus at the barest drop of a hat, to be followed by serpents strings of compliments. I feel honoured, nonetheless.

    I will wait for your book of poems.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am so glad I came upon your blog through Indivine. What a treasure trove this is! Japanese indeed have a very refined sense of aesthetics, not everyone can understand or appreciate because it is so subtle. The haikus are amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I went to Japan this year and came back a little disillusioned by the overwhelming modernism. Only when I visited small villages I could appreciate that ideas like those of zen, kado, kodo, chado may still have a place in Japanese society. Perhaps to learn about the role of traditional ideas in today’s Japan, one needs to talk to and spend time with Japanese persons (I was there for work in an international group and we interacted little with the Japanese).
    Thanks for a very stimulating blog post.

    Like

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