Yugen and the Philosophy of Eremitism

While Japanese aesthetics used the term yugen, derived from the Chinese, to describe the mystery, literally the "dimness," the ontological reality behind phenomena, the backdrop, context, or setting.

An observer cannot readily package or circumscribe this philosophical concept, in part because yugen yields its insight through conscious and pursued attentiveness and openness. Identified as one of the seven basic principles of Zen, yugen comes to mean "subtle profundity," an experience of profundity or mystery of circumstance or object that cannot be expressed in words, hence an ideal philosophical term for an aesthetic experience, but also an ideal aesthetic term for a philosophical experience. The attentiveness elicited by yugen is expressed in art and poetry, where the experience is subtle and profound and not easily expressed in words.

The origins of yugen in Japan are in part Chinese philosophy, but elements of its expression appear as a matter of course in Japanese literature. Thus, for example, the monk-poet Saigyo (1118-1190) presented images and themes in his poems but also openly expressed his feelings of grief, melancholy, and wrestling with Buddhist psychology. The construction of poem around images and concluding feelings anticipate yugen. The preeminent haiku poet Basho would describe himself as merely plodding in Saigyo's path. The Hojoki of Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216), written in 1212, presents Kamo's reflections on his hermit life, the world, and nature, all brushed with yugen, expressed as melancholy.

However, yugen was consciously developed by Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443), who virtually established the Noh drama as a literary genre. For the drama, Zeami sought to express subtle profundity in the element of grace and beauty, where yugen established a hidden beauty to the play's theme, a beauty more aesthetic and deep that enriched the bare plot and action of the play.

Philosopher and historian T. D. Suzuki (1870-1966) originally described yugen as "intuitive prehension," but eventually preferred the simpler description of "feeling." As Suzuki puts it, yugen is "the experience the human mind has when it is identified with the totality of things, or when the finite becomes conscious of the infinite residing in it." The experienced moment of such feeling engenders "the most primary feeling which lies at the basis of every form of psychic functioning we are capable of." Profound mystery is thus perceived or felt from the most profound source in the human mind, which Suzuki identifies in Zen tradition as mushin, "no-mind."

Yugen is perhaps perceived as a small product of enlightenment or satori, where a configuration of beauty, bound in its evanescence, strikes the observer and elicits feeling. Such concepts will engender in Japanese artists and poets a sense of both awareness but also detachment, the latter a  refraining from contriving a feeling, which aesthetically will reveal itself to be inferior art. The haiku of Basho represented the culmination of the long historical struggle to purge poetry of contrivance and artificiality, to reach a form that would scan immediately in its simplicity and aesthetic character, directly imparting the poet's feeling, perception, and capturing, of yugen.

British literary historian R. H. Blyth identified the element of mystery in yugen as originally closely synonymous with Rinzai's "profound essence" and the religious and philosophical basis of yugen. The transition to feeling required literary context, where feelings could be actively demonstrated and not simply described. The first major poets after Saigyo to address yugen are Sogi and Sosetsu, then the Ushin School of poets. But the mature consciousness of yugen culminates in the late seventeenth-century haiku of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694).

Early Basho argued for yugen insight in poetry not as a mere element of poetry but intrinsic to the authenticity of the successful poem. This success was only achieved when the poet identified with nature itself:

"You must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one -- when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there.  However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural -- if the object and your self are separate -- then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit."

In this passage, Basho makes oblique reference to yugen as the "hidden glimmering" of nature's object. At the same time he offers direct instruction (perhaps to his many disciples) concerning a prerequisite to good poetry, one that he himself ardently pursued. In his preface to The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, Basho reiterates his advice about identification with nature, mentioning paragons of art:

Saigyo in traditional poetry, Sogi in linked verse, Sesshu in painting, Rikyu in tea ceremony, and indeed all who have achieved real excellence in any art possess one thing in common, that is, a mind to obey nature, to be one with nature, throughout the four seasons of the year. ... The first lesson for the artist is to learn how to overcome barbarism and animality, to follow nature, to be one with nature.

Contemporary critics have identified many technical aspects of writing successful haiku poetry: techniques such as association, comparison, metaphor, simile, and the like. These techniques are common to most poetic forms. Similarly, elements of Japanese aesthetics, from yugen to wabi to sabi, can be itemized as descriptive forms to take into account when crafting a poem, just as can structural techniques. Basho shows us that neither techniques nor aesthetic elements by themselves address the authenticity of a poem, which must be derived from the identification with nature and express a sense of the mystery of being that is inspired by that identification.

The link of yugen to authentic expression is the link to eremitism, wherein the lives of the poets and writers, from Saigyo to Kamo no Chomei to Basho to Ryokan -- all hermits -- is the authentic pursuit of the way, emulating the way of life and in this case sharing Zen Buddhist thought. In Basho's case, wandering became his path to awareness, though it probably took a physical toll, for the journeying in cold, rain, and hardship may have shortened his life to fifty years. In 1693 he wrote:

If someone comes to see me, I have to waste my words in vain. If I leave my house to visit others, I waste their time in vain. ... Therefore, I have decided to live in complete isolation with a firmly closed door. My solitude shall be my company, and my poverty my wealth. Already a man of fifty, I should be able to maintain this self-imposed discipline.

He added this verse:

Only for morning glories
I open my door--
During the daytime I keep it
tightly barred.

Yet he took himself on a last journey, reluctantly, perhaps, penning this verse:

Autumn drawing near,
My heart of itself
Inclines to a cosy room
Of four-and-a-half mats.



Basho quotations from Matsuo Basho: The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches; translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa. London: Penguin, 1966. Additional references: R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku (2 vols.). Tokyo: The Hokuseido Press, 1964; T. D. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959.