Yūgen: Mysterious Grace
The term yūgen appeared first in Chinese philosophical texts, where it has the meaning of “dark,” or “mysterious.” Mysteriousness in one form or another, is thematic of all Japanese aesthetics which favor allusiveness over explicitness and imperfection over completeness, but yūgen takes the mystery to a whole new next level.
Yūgen is the cornerstone of of Nō drama, one of the world’s great theater traditions, and Zeami Motokiyo (c. 1363 – c. 1443), it’s most accomplished actor. For Zeami, yūgen figures as “the highest principle” in No drama. The forms of diction, gestures, gaits, and dance movements of No are all highly stylized and extremely unnatural where mastery is something rare, attained only after decades of dedicated practice of the art.
This writer is reminded of a quote by Lee Jun-fan, known to his fans as Bruce Lee:
“Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick”.
Like Zeami Motokiyo, who dedicated his life to No drama, Mr. Lee had set himself to the same arduous path. . . to become a master. For anyone of us who has had the rare opportunity to witness mastery, its character is nothing short of “oneness” with that which is mastered.
The Japanese author Kamo no Chōmei wrote the following as a characterization of yūgen:
“When looking at autumn mountains through mist, the view may be indistinct yet have great depth. Although few autumn leaves may be visible through the mist, the view is alluring. The limitless vista created in imagination far surpasses anything one can see more clearly.”
The Yūgen aesthetic is an open invitation to use our imagination to witness mastery everywhere, in perfection and non-perfection alike. It is a portal to existential redemption . . . which is why as Kamo no Chōmei also writes this characterization:
“It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.”
Japanese artist in the United States. Tamao Nakayama was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, and moved to the U.S. when she was 25 years old. She is still deeply influenced by the Japanese aesthetic, and the belief that ‘less is more’. She is a minimalist abstract artist. She paints and sculpts.