The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Monday, October 08, 2018

Aesthetics of the Dojo

Below is an excerpt from an excellent post at appeared at The Dragon's Orb, regarding the influence of Zen aesthetics on the traditional dojo. The full post may be read here.

In the training halls that come from the Japanese martial lineage we find what was once simple and crude acts of violence elevated to a a high art form that transcends the physical techniques and moves us towards a far deeper practice. These arts that have sprung from Japan emerge from a rich and formal artistic tradition. The formality of Bushido culture, the Zen artistic aesthetic and the rich religious and social philosophies of the East all shape the character of the fine arts that comprise 武道 budo - the martial way. Fredric Lieberman wrote, "To Occidentals, the physical world was an objective reality--to be analyzed, used, mastered. To Orientals, on the contrary, it was a realm of beauty to be admired, but also of mystery and illusion to be pictured by poets, explained by myth-makers and mollified by priestly incantations. This contrast between East and West had incalculable influence on their respective arts, as well as on their philosophies and religions."


武道 Budo was birthed from the Japanese artistic tradition and is directly shaped, like so many of the Japanese arts, by 禅 Zen aesthetic principles. Aesthetics can be seen as an attempt to define principles concerning what is ‘beauty’. I distinctly remember during my time in Japan a calligrapher telling me that in the art of the brush, one must often be taught "what beauty is." I feel strongly that the process of the study of aiki, we are not only learning a martial skill, we are being shown, "what beauty is." We are being educated in a physical embodiment of a philosophy. Everything from the formal training dojos, to the uniform, rankings, calligraphy on the walls, and yes, the character of the techniques themselves are in some large way shaped by the Zen artistic tradition.

Sokyu, in my opinion, writes the most succinct description about the Zen process and how it emerges in the practice of budo.

“Japanese Buddhism teaches the attainment of detachment by the removal of self-consciousness through spiritual concentration. A technique for this is the repetition of a kata (form)…. In essence…practicing an action a certain way, time after time, so that in the end we come into contact with our true nature.”

Despite Sokyu's wonderful insight, I still want to go deeper down the rabbit hole and take a look at the work of Hisamtsu Shinichi , who more clearly defines the characteristics of the Zen aesthetic. Hisamtsu Shinichi (久松 真一 June 5, 1889 – February 27, 1980) was a philosopher, Zen Buddhist scholar, and Japanese 茶道 tea ceremony master. He attempted to break down the aesthetic principles of Zen. These principles can be seen in all of the major classical 道 - do, spirituality through art form. Shinichi Hisamtsu wrote, “The seven characteristics (of Zen aesthetics) are not limited to art in the narrow sense, but rather they include the whole of human existence.”

Zen Aesthetic Principles
不均齊 Fukinsei - creating asymmetry "dynamic relationships"
簡素 Kanso - simplicity
考古 Koko - austere yet bare essentials, basic, weathered
自然 Shizen - naturalness, absence of pretense
幽玄 Yugen - subtly profound grace, not obvious
脱俗 Datsuzoku - unbounded by convention, free
静寂 Seijaku - quiet, calm

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