From a Mountain Temple
the sound of a bell struck fumblingly
vanishes in the mist
—Yosano Buson

Moon setting, a crow caws, the sky filled with frost
Maples by the river, fishermen’s lights, the traveler faces a sad sleep
Outside City of Suchow, from the Cold Mountain Temple
Sound of the midnight bell reaches the traveler’s boat
—Cheung Chi

“The principles of Zen aesthetics found in the art of the traditional Japanese garden, have many lessons for us, though they are unknown to most people. The principles are interconnected and overlap; it’s not possible to simply put the ideas in separate boxes.”

Helpful Introductions to Japanese Esthetics:


Other Important Principles of Japanese Esthetics:

Simplicity or elimination of clutter – Kanso (簡素)

Things are expressed in a plain, simple, natural manner. Reminds us to think not in terms of decoration but in terms of clarity, a kind of clarity that may be achieved through omission or exclusion of the non-essential.

Kanso dictates that beauty and utility need not be overstated, overly decorative, or fanciful. The overall effect is fresh, clean, and neat.          

Asymmetry or Irregularity – Fukinsei (不均整)

The idea of controlling balance in a composition via irregularity and asymmetry is a central tenet of the Zen aesthetic. The enso (“Zen circle”) in brush painting, for example, is often drawn as an incomplete circle, symbolizing the imperfection that is part of existence. In graphic design too asymmetrical balance is a dynamic, beautiful thing. Try looking for (or creating) beauty in balanced asymmetry. Nature itself is full of beauty and harmonious relationships that are asymmetrical yet balanced. This is a dynamic beauty that attracts and engages.

The goal of fukinsei is to convey the symmetry of the natural world through clearly asymmetrical and incomplete renderings. The effect is that the viewer supplies the missing symmetry and participates in the creative act.

Naturalness – Shizen (自然)

Absence of pretense or artificiality, full creative intent unforced. Ironically, the spontaneous nature of the Japanese garden that the viewer perceives is not accidental. This is a reminder that design is not an accident, even when we are trying to create a natural-feeling environment. It is not a raw nature as such but one with more purpose and intention.

The goal of shizen is to strike a balance between being “of nature” yet distinct from it–to be viewed as being without pretense or artifice, while seeming intentional rather than accidental or haphazard.

Subtlety – Yugen (幽玄)

Profundity or suggestion rather than revelation. A Japanese garden, for example, can be said to be a collection of subtleties and symbolic elements. Photographers and designers can surely think of many ways to visually imply more by not showing the whole, that is, showing more by showing less.

The principle of yugen captures the Zen view that precision and finiteness are at odds with nature, implying stagnation and loss of life, and that the power of suggestion is often stronger than that of full disclosure. Leaving something to the imagination piques our curiosity and can move us to action.

Break from routine – Datsuzoku (脱俗)

Freedom from habit or formula. Escape from daily routine or the ordinary. Unworldly. Transcending the conventional. This principles describes the feeling of surprise and a bit of amazement when one realizes they can have freedom from the conventional. Professor Tierney says that the Japanese garden itself, “…made with the raw materials of nature and its success in revealing the essence of natural things to us is an ultimate surprise. Many surprises await at almost every turn in a Japanese Garden.”

Datsuzoku signifies a certain reprieve from convention. When a well-worn pattern is broken, creativity and resourcefulness emerge.

Stillness, Tranquility – Seijaku (静寂)

Energized calm (quite), solitude. This is related to the feeling you may have when in a Japanese garden. The opposite feeling to one expressed by seijaku would be noise and disturbance. 

The principle of seijaku deals with the actual content of datsuzoku. To the Zen practitioner, it is in states of active calm, tranquillity, solitude, and quietude that we find the essence of creative energy.

Austerity – Shibui/Shibumi (渋味)

Beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant to be and not elaborated upon. Direct and simple way, without being flashy. Elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. The term is sometimes used today to describe something cool but beautifully minimalist, including technology and some consumer products. (Shibui literally means bitter tasting).

Koko emphasizes restraint, exclusion, and omission. The goal is to present something that both appears spare and imparts a sense of focus and clarity.

“The quality we call beauty must always grow from the realities of life, and out ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover the beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows to beauty’s end. And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows…it has nothing else.”
Tanizaka Jun’ichiro

I read this before my past trip to Kyoto. Shadows then became a focal point wherever I found myself.

When the discussion of Japanese esthetics comes up, people will often refer to this contemporary Japanese appraisal of wabi sabi which is found in the influential essay In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki.