Yūgen (幽玄)

11 min readJun 3, 2020


Plum tree ~ Kanō Sanraku, early 17th century

~ I have long struggled with a conception of my own spirituality. Coming out of a religious upbringing, for a long time I paid such a thing as spirituality — of an immaterial, intangible world beyond us, of the “sacred dimensions of subjective experience,” during life or after death — no mind at all. Over time, as I became (re)engaged in artistic expression and creation and in the aesthetics of film, literature and music, I adopted such experiences with an attitude not unlike spirituality. They became more important, more powerful — to me, subjectively — than they ‘really’ were, in the real world, objectively, and to anyone else. Artistic expression and its ability to cut to the core of the human condition with language or with audiovisual phenoms, or transcend it entirely, communicating the heart of its message across cultures and eras, qualifies it as sacred, in my humble opinion.

Much the same, simply being outside, in the realm of even a modicum of natural landscape, carries the capacity for kinds of conscious transformation. Being ‘in nature,’ whatever that may mean for us today who are so used to being inside and away from it, can return us somewhere sacred. Walking through a forest can be a profoundly spiritual experience, if you let it.

Weasel & Wild Strawberries ~ Katayama Bokuyo, 1928

Why is this? What makes art and nature so compelling?

Perhaps, more importantly, why do I feel the need to classify these joys as experiences akin to “spirituality” at all?

Answering the second inquiry first — I think it has something to do with that nameless yearning within, to have faith, to believe in something greater than yourself, to feel like you are part something grand and meaningful. To consider there are intangible forces beyond us, only capable of temporary understanding or influence, indifferent or benevolent to our machinations as human beings, is to place ourselves into a universe of less chaos, less terror. To believe in God, in reincarnation, in an eternal ebb and flow to the universe’s action, is to establish a more existentially secure foundation to your transient existence here in this world. Such faith expels nihilism from our minds and propels meaningfulness into our hearts. Making a religion of art and nature means to no longer be haunted by death so closely; by magnifying the moments of our presence in this world through heartfelt connection to creation, within and without humanity, is to appreciate our transience and no longer fear it. Something like that… Perhaps this spiritual yearning is just human nature; it’s in our DNA to tranquilize our minds from dark, hopeless thoughts so that we continue to eat and fuck.

As to the first question, I am reminded of a prologue passage from a Stephen King novella, “The Body” (which later became the film Stand By Me).

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are things you get ashamed of, because words make them smaller. When they were in your head they were limitless; but when they come out they seem to be no bigger than normal things. But that’s not all. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried; they are clues that could guide your enemies to a prize they would love to steal. It’s hard and painful for you to talk about these things … and then people just look at you strangely. They haven’t understood what you’ve said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it.”

~ Stephen King, The Body

These ‘most important things’ are different for everyone — but everyone has them, whatever they may be. The power of art is to give these things within us a medium, to maybe become expressed to others. And the others, in receiving these ‘secret hearts’, processing them, relating to them, passing them on — these creations affirm their power unto us and them. Artistic expression, often more than simple conversation, allows for the secret heart to be revealed, if only because it is layered beneath the face-values and fictions of the canvas. “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures” and so on.

Similarly, an experience in nature, to the degree that it produces those nameless and intangible effects within us, perhaps never to be put into words, is what marks it for the same spiritualistic treatment. We implicitly understand that any true faith in a God or in anything else is a deeply personal relationship, unique, individualized, and perhaps ultimately inexpressible in its fullness as a phenomena within us. Why do we so effortlessly love the ineffable? We most recall the things for which we have no description, and they seem to stay with us commensurate to the amount of time they remain unsaid. It may be because when we articulate something, describe it and name it, we lessen its power. Perhaps the mystery is necessary, it is inherent to the whole stimuli. Maybe these things will forever defy articulation.

But it is still important, and even fun, to try.

Given the ethereal, ambivalent nature of these kinds of experiences — of nature, of art, of the unseen, silent every day joys and sorrows of living — potentially describing and classifying them has grown in importance for me. It brings to mind The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966) by the late, great Alan Watts. In it, Watts discusses his thesis regarding the human condition and the conception of our ‘ego’, which traps us into wide varieties of cyclically destructive behavior and misery in modern society.

The B∞k ~ Alan Watts

There is a passage I never forgot where he discusses a core tenet of human nature, concerning what we choose to notice and why:

What governs what we choose to notice? The first (which we shall have to qualify later) is whatever seems advantageous or disadvantageous for our survival, our social status, and the security of our egos. The second, again working simultaneously with the first, is the pattern and the logic of all the notation symbols which we have learned from others, from our society and our culture. It is hard indeed to notice anything for which the languages available to us (whether verbal, mathematical, or musical) have no description. This is why we borrow words from foreign languages. There is no English word for a type of feeling which the Japanese call yūgen, and we can only understand by opening our minds to situations in which Japanese people use the word.

“To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds…”
Zeami Motokiyo

All these are yūgen, but what have they in common?


These types of experiences that Zeami describes and Watts highlights are of special interest to us. They capture this intangible spirituality, of a fleeting image or a sound or smell, something beautiful and then ended, with only traces of its memory left to us. I would call them a style of Satori (悟り).

Learning about yūgen, this deep awareness of the natural world and its beauteous sights and sounds — provided an actual word (much like satori) to describe a practically indescribable experience. Reading about it again now has sent me on a nascent trail of discovery into the world of Japanese aesthetics.

~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_aesthetics

~ https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/japanese-aesthetics/

Pine Trees screens (Shōrin-zu byōbu, 松林図 屏風) by Hasegawa Tōhaku, c.1595

A cavalcade of ancient ideals to describe such things as I have been talking about here, to pair alongside yūgen, becomes known to me.

  • Mono no aware: the Pathos of Things ~ Mono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things”, and also translated as “an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera”, is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常, mujō), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life. “Mono-no aware: the ephemeral nature of beauty — the quietly elated, bittersweet feeling of having been witness to the dazzling circus of life — knowing that none of it can last. It’s basically about being both saddened and appreciative of transience — and also about the relationship between life and death. In Japan, there are four very distinct seasons, and you really become aware of life and mortality and transience. You become aware of how significant those moments are.”
  • Wabi: Simple, Austere Beauty / Sabi: Rustic Patina ~ Wabi and sabi refers to a mindful approach to everyday life. Over time their meanings overlapped and converged until they are unified into Wabi-sabi, the aesthetic defined as the beauty of things “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. Things in bud, or things in decay, as it were, are more evocative of wabi-sabi than things in full bloom because they suggest the transience of things. As things come and go, they show signs of their coming or going, and these signs are considered to be beautiful. In this, beauty is an altered state of consciousness and can be seen in the mundane and simple. The signatures of nature can be so subtle that it takes a quiet mind and a cultivated eye to discern them.
  • Yūgen: Mysterious Grace / Yūgen and Landscape Painting ~ Yūgen suggests that which is beyond what can be said, but it is not an allusion to another world. It is about this world, this experience. Yūgen is said to mean “a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe … and the sad beauty of human suffering”.
  • Iki: Refined Style ~ Iki (いき, often written 粋) is a traditional aesthetic ideal in Japan. The basis of iki is thought to have formed among urbane mercantile class (Chōnin) in Edo in the Tokugawa period (1603–1868). Iki is an expression of simplicity, sophistication, spontaneity, and originality. It is ephemeral, straightforward, measured, and unselfconscious. Iki is not overly refined, pretentious, complicated. Iki may signify a personal trait, or artificial phenomena exhibiting human will or consciousness. Iki is not used to describe natural phenomena, but may be expressed in human appreciation of natural beauty, or in the nature of human beings. The phrase iki is generally used in Japanese culture to describe qualities that are aesthetically appealing and when applied to a person, what they do, or have, constitutes a high compliment. Iki is not found in nature. While similar to wabi-sabi in that it disregards perfection, iki is a broad term that encompasses various characteristics related to refinement with flair. The tasteful manifestation of sensuality can be iki. Etymologically, iki has a root that means pure and unadulterated. However, it also carries a connotation of having an appetite for life.
  • Kire: Cutting ~ A distinctive notion in Japanese aesthetic discourse is that of the “cut” (kire) or, “cut-continuity” (kire-tsuzuki). The “cut” is a basic trope in the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism, especially as exemplified in the teachings of the Zen master Hakuin (1686–1769). For Hakuin the aim of “seeing into one’s own nature” can only be realized if one has “cut off the root of life”: “You must be prepared to let go your hold when hanging from a sheer precipice, to die and return again to life.”
  • Shibui (渋い) (adjective), shibumi (渋み) (noun), or shibusa (渋さ) (noun) are Japanese words which refer to a particular aesthetic or beauty of simple, subtle, and unobtrusive beauty.
  • Jo-ha-kyū (序破急) is a concept of modulation and movement applied in a wide variety of traditional Japanese arts. Roughly translated to “beginning, break, rapid”, it implies a tempo that begins slowly, accelerates, and then ends swiftly. This concept is applied to elements of the Japanese tea ceremony, to kendō, to the traditional theatre, to Gagaku, and to the traditional collaborative linked verse forms renga and renku (haikai no renga).
  • Geidō (芸道) refers to the various traditional Japanese arts disciplines: Noh (能) (theater), kadō (華道) (Japanese flower arrangement), shodō (書道) (Japanese calligraphy), Sadō (茶道) (Japanese tea ceremony), and yakimono (焼物) (Japanese pottery). All of these disciplines carry an ethical and aesthetic connotation and teach an appreciation of the process of creation.
  • Ensō ~ (円相) is a Japanese word meaning “circle”. It symbolizes the Absolute, enlightenment, strength, elegance, the Universe, and the void; it also may be taken to symbolize the Japanese aesthetic itself. Zen Buddhist calligraphists may “believe that the character of the artist is fully exposed in how she or he draws an ensō. Only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true ensō. Some artists will practice drawing an ensō daily, as a kind of spiritual exercise.”
The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mt Fuji ~ Katsushika Hokusai

Full of ancient history and meaningfulness that one cannot begin to grasp at without heavy observations and potential experience, these aesthetic ideals from ‘the land of the rising sun’ coalesce into a path for the mind to clarify the transcendent forces of subjective experience. In English, in America especially, we do not seem to have the words, the capacity, or the time, to define such things as this. Perhaps directly because of this glaring absence within the culture of which I was raised, to me they illustrate something especially powerful. They provide a framework, a potential system for a person to unselfconsciously yet lucidly express the intangible, the ineffable, the spiritual. In Japanese culture, they are interchangeably utilized to characterize natural phenomena and artistic expression, as well as personal lifestyle choices in fashion, craftsmanship, interior design, martial arts.

Ensō ~ Kanjuro Shibata XX Enso ca. 2000

By my eye, and to semi-answer Mr. Watts’ question concerning ‘commonalities’ — they each in their own way deal with ambiguity, impermanence, and diametrically conflicting notions becoming melded into human comprehension. All the most challenging stuff of life. They express in language and in physical arts and acts the inexplicable melding of opposing forces. Light and dark. Life and death. Creation and destruction … and the whole spectrum of growth and decay in between such extreme states of origin and ending.

Hanami (“blossom viewing”) parties at Himeji Castle

A sad truth is that however much they may intrigue me, I may never understand these things. Despite their promising aptitude to diagnose the emotions and the longings for those forces greater than us, they are still foreign to me. I was not brought up within their ethos. I do not personally know anyone that practices such things in their life or trade. These ideals taken as a whole create a methodology for me to try to understand, to take these conceptions into my thinking and behavior and build them into the art of my life in some small way. As signifiers to a form of hidden spirituality, they provide a way for me to more conscientiously engage these nameless feelings within. Like The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, they provide a name and a vivid face to unexpressed joys and sorrows, whose obscurity only amplifies their intensity. More than anything else, these notions make me sorrowfully yearn for a world where such cultural manifestations are more widely known, shared, and passed on to future generations. At the end of these musings here, I cannot help but be painfully aware of the ephemeral constitution of these revelations I have made today and the painstaking work it will require for them to ever become second nature to my heart and mind… ~

Lake Kawaguchi ~ Tsuchiya Koitsu