Zen aesthetics is guided by seven principles: austerity, simplicity, naturalness, mystery, asymmetry, disruption and tranquility.
- Koko or “austerity” emphasizes absence, emptiness, restraint, exclusion and omission. An uncluttered, somewhat spare appearance accentuates what is present while providing a sense of focus and clarity. The key is to refrain from adding anything that is not absolutely necessary in the first place – easier said than done!
- Kanso (簡素) or “simplicity” reminds us that objects need not be highly decorative or even useful to have appeal. One of the Daoist ideas I find most refreshing is the usefulness of the useless – 无用之用 – which is one of the reasons I enjoy using pieces of found wood or fallen trees that most people would assign to the firewood heap. But whether making a sculptural piece out of a chunk of rough rotting wood or turning a platter out of a precut blank of highly figured exotic redwood, the key to simplicity is to highlight what is essential by eliminating what is unnecessary. The result, even on the most unusually shaped pieces, is fresh, clean, orderly and often – at least I hope – kind of cool and stylish in an intriguing minimalist way.
- Shizen (自然), usually translated as “naturalness,” literally means “so of itself,” again highlighting the essential nature and unadorned state of an object. Obviously, woodworking requires work – some action – to turn a rough block of wood into an art piece. But rather than trying to bend the wood to one’s will, forcing it into a predetermined shape or design, the idea is to let the distinctive features of the particular piece of wood guide the design choices and shape the final outcome in novel and surprising ways. This approach is summed up in yet another paradoxical Daoist idea: 无为而无不为 – do nothing and yet nothing is left undone. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve a balance between the potentiality and uniqueness of the wood and the intentionality and creativity of the artist by incorporating natural elements into the design while avoiding pretense and artificiality. Many of my pieces not only incorporate but highlight bark inclusions, cracks, natural edges, insect holes, spalting, rot and decay. Top and bottom surfaces may be left unfinished to reveal chainsaw marks or weather patterns, and to contrast with and focus attention on the smooth, worked, inlaid surfaces. Pieces are turned while the wood is still green and left to warp as they dry in a way that is anticipated and controllable to some extent yet spontaneous and unpredictable as well. As my son’s precocious middle school friend Leah once said, “I like pieces that show the mark of nature.”
- Fukinsei (不均整) One of the hallmarks of Zen art is asymmetry or irregularity. Nature is seldom perfectly symmetrical, as becomes apparent if you take a close look at the branches of a tree or the wings of a butterfly. Aesthetically, asymmetry is more challenging and exciting than perfect symmetry. Asymmetrical designs often appear at first glance unfinished. The Zen circle or enso, for example, is not a perfect, complete circle with uniformly thick lines but an incomplete, open circle with broken lines of varying thickness, which invites viewers to participate in the creative process by engaging with the piece to discover for themselves a sense of harmony and balance, to complete the circle as it were. The irregularities and imperfections in wood allow for dynamic asymmetrical designs even for pieces turned on the lathe. For instance, by taking advantage of the color differences in the sap wood and heartwood, an element of asymmetry and irregularity is possible even in a finial.
- Yugen (幽玄) refers to mystery, a deep profundity which cannot be explained or captured in words. The Daoist classic Daodejing by Lao Zi states – 道可道非常道 – the way that can be articulated is not the ultimate way. Zen designs are often suggestive, subtle and symbolic, and, in yet another paradox, filled with open space. What is not present (无) is as important as what is present (有). Too much detail and precision renders the scene stagnant and stifles the creative process for the viewer seeking to engage with and find meaning in the piece. Better to suggest, insinuate and imply, and let the viewer fill in the blanks.
- Datsuzoku (脱俗) entails casting aside mundane convention, daily habit, and the formulaic to allow for a creative breakthrough. All artists face the challenge of finding new sources of creativity. It is all too easy to fall back on tried and true methods and designs. Datsuzoku – what I like to think of as disruption or creative destruction – challenges one to innovate, whether in terms of concepts, materials, designs or techniques. But it also directs one inward to deeper engagement with a particular piece to fully realize its potential in a way that is fresh and bold and yet in keeping with the nature or essence of the piece itself. The result is that after a long period of reflection and struggle, new, oftentimes surprising, insights appear – you wake up in the middle of the night with one of those ‘aha! moments’ – and the way forward is suddenly clear.
- Seijaku (静寂) refers to tranquility, solitude, the quiet before the creative storm. Jing or quietness is also part of the apophatic meditative process central to Daoism and Zen where one seeks to empty the mind and stop the runaway train of thoughts and emotions and images.
While Zen art is informed by the interplay of these seven principles, to treat them as dogma or to consciously seek to apply each principle to any given piece would be inconsistent with the essential spirit of Zen and violate the principle of datsuzoku. The process is more intuitive, with the principles operating at a subliminal level. Since each piece is different, a thing unto itself, different principles will play a more prominent role in different pieces. As a result, some pieces are simple and sparse in design, while others call for more elaborate patterns and decoration; some are elegant and refined, others are rough and blunt; some are sanded to a fine grit and finished with glossy lacquer, while others are lightly sanded and left unfinished; some are smaller pieces meant for indoor display, others are larger pieces meant for outdoor display.