The Chrysanthemum and the Sword
The Zen Influence on Japanese Culture
Minamoto Yoritomo with a sword
Cover of Ruth Benedict's "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"
Toyotomi Hideyoshi on a horse
A set of three samurai swords
The Sword
The Gempei War proved to be a great turning point in Japanese history. The victor, Minamoto Yoritomo, remained in his eastern headquarters at Kamakura, which came to be known as a bakufu, or military “tent government.” The imperial court remained far away to the west, in the old capital Kyoto (Heian). Yet Japan was not divided between them — at least, not into two separate parts, although the erosion of central government power continued. Yoritomo claimed direct authority only over his own network of vassal warriors, or “housemen.” He solidified his hold over these warriors by also claiming the right to reward them with appointments as estate stewards throughout Japan. But the emperor, in Kyoto, remained the font of legitimate government.
       In 1192, Yoritomo received from the emperor the title Sei-i-tai-shogun, or “Great General Pacifying the Barbarians.” This is commonly shortened simply to shogun. ... It is clear that in the last decades of the twelfth century, Japan had crossed some important threshold, moving from the Heian age of centralized, civilian, aristocratic rule to a time of increasingly decentralized military rule in the age of the shoguns. As a sign of the radically changed times, between 1200 and 1840, no Japanese emperor appears to have actually held what we think of now as the standard imperial title, Tenno [天皇
]. (HEA, 159)
Kamakura Bakufu (Shogunate)
1185 Founded by Minamoto Yoritomo
1219 Usurped by the Hojo
1274/1281 Mongol Invasions
Ashikaga Bakufu (Shogunate)
1333-1336 Emperor Go-Daigo: Kemmu Restoration
1336 Ashikaga Bakufu founded by Ashikaga Takauji
1467-1568 Onin War/Sengoku (Warring States) Era
Chrysanthemum crest of the imperial family
The Chrysanthemum
The victory of the Minamoto clan, which established its capital at Kamakura in the east, did not cause the aristocratic society of the Heian capital to collapse immediately. Members of the emperor’s court led much the same lives as before, as we know from their diaries and the poetry they composed, whether on the conventionally admired sights of nature or bittersweet memories of love. But with the foundation of the new capital by the shogun Minamoto Yoritomo, warriors (bushi) now dominated the scene, and the literature of the medieval period came to be characterized by accounts of the warfare that the samurai waged rather than by the writings of the court.
"Japanese aesthetic concepts"
Kyokusui no En: poetry/drinking game from the Heian period (originally from China)
Kanji for MiyabiAesthetic attitudes soon changed in similar ways, and the new masters of Japan imposed their own criteria of taste. Nonetheless, these changes tended to be softened by the influence of miyabi [elegance, refinement, courtliness], and even the fiercest warlord was to be much more likely to compose poetry on the beauty of falling cherry blossoms than on the joys of victory in battle. ... The distinctive aesthetic standards in literature and art that eventually emerged did not represent a sharp break with the past so much as an intensifying and darkening of Heian ideals. The seemingly endless warfare gave new meaning to the uncertainty of life, which also was a frequent theme in the writings of the Heian courtiers, who saw death in the falling of blossoms or in a moment of parting, but still there was a difference. The court lady who in the past had brooded over a lover’s neglect was now likely to suffer more immediate grief on learning he had been killed in battle. In some diaries, women described their emotions on seeing their lover’s head on a pike being paraded through the streets.
Yugen: An awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and mysterious for words"
The aesthetic ideals that pervaded the poetry, drama, painting, gardens, tea ceremony, and many other activities of the medieval period cannot be evoked by one single word, but yugen is perhaps the most characteristic. The term yugen was used to evoke the profound, remote, and mysterious, those things that cannot easily be grasped or expressed in words. ... The Japanese of the medieval period courted ambiguity, leaving empty spaces in their compositions for readers or spectators to fill in according to their intuitive understanding of the ultimate meaning of the poem or play. ...
Kanji for yugen
Yugen may be comprehended by the mind, but it cannot be expressed in words. Its quality may be suggested by the sight of a thin cloud veiling the moon or by autumn mist swathing the scarlet leaves on a mountainside.
Yugen: lake and mountains in the mist
If one is asked where in these sights lies the yugen, one cannot say, and it is not surprising that a man who does not understand this truth is likely to prefer the sight of a perfectly clear, cloudless sky. It is quite impossible to explain wherein lies the interest or the remarkable nature of yugen.
Sesshu's "splashed ink" landscape
Even though it may be impossible to explain yugen, we can intuitively sense it. “It is just as when we look at the sky of an autumn dusk. It has no sound or color, and yet, though we do not understand why, we somehow find ourselves moved to tears.” (Sources of Japanese Tradition, 364-366)
enso (Zen painting of a circle)

& Kinkakuji

Comparison of Ginkakuji (Silver Pavillion) and Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion)
Kanji for "sabi"During the medieval period, another aesthetic ideal, sabi, joined yugen. Sabi is a very old word, found as far back as the Manyoshu, in which it has the meaning of “to be desolate.” It later acquired the meaning of “to grow old” and is related to the phrase “to grow rusty.” In The Tale of the Heike, we find it used in the sentence “It was a place old with moss-covered boulders, and he thought it would be pleasant to live there.” It seems likely that already by this time (the thirteenth century), sabi suggested not only “old” but the taking of pleasure in what was old, faded, or lonely. To achieve yugen, art had sometimes been stripped of its color and glitter lest these externals distract. For instance, a bowl of highly polished silver reflects more than it suggests, but one of oxidized silver has the mysterious beauty of stillness, as Zeami realized when he used for stillness the simile of snow piled in a silver bowl. Or one may prize such a bowl for the tarnished quality itself, its oldness and its imperfection, and this is the point at which we feel sabi.
fallen cherry blossoms
We find a beautiful statement of sabi in Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa) by Yoshida Kenko (1283?-1352?) when he asks
cherry blossomsAre we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of the spring — these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration. ... People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural; but only an exceptionally insensitive man would say, “This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms. There is nothing worth seeing now.” (SJT, 367-8)
cherry blossoms with the moon in the background
enso (Zen painting of a circle)
Wabi-sabi: a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete
Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty. ... The closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably “rustic.” Webster’s defines “rustic” as “simple, artless, or unsophisticated ... [with] surfaces rough or irregular.” While “rustic” represents only a limited dimension of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, it is the initial impression many people have when they first see a wabi-sabi expression. ... Originally, the Japanese words “wabi” and “sabi” had quite different meanings. “Sabi” originally meant “chill,” “lean,” or “withered.” “Wabi” originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state. Around the 14th century, the meanings of both words began to evolve in the direction of more positive aesthetic values. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the poetically inclined, this kind of life fostered an appreciation of the minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. In turn, unprepossessing simplicity took on new meaning as the basis for a new, pure beauty. (Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, 21-22) Although wabi-sabi quickly permeated almost every aspect of sophisticated Japanese culture and taste, it reached its most comprehensive realization within the context of the tea ceremony ... [which] became an eclectic social art form combining, among other things, the skills of architecture, interior and garden design, flower arranging, painting, food preparation, and performance. The accomplished tea practitioner was someone who could orchestrate all these elements — and the guests in attendance — into a quietly exciting artistic event that thematically cohered. At its artistic zenith, realizing the universe of wabi-sabi in its fullness was the underlying goal of tea.
tea bowl
aged scrollThe first recorded wabi-sabi tea master was Murata Shuko (a.k.a. Murata Juko, 1423-1502), a Zen monk from Nara. Around this time in secular society, tea had become an elite pastime indulged in, in no small part, because of the prestige associated with ownership of elegant foreign-made tea-related objects. Shuko, in opposition to this fashion, used intentionally understated, locally produced utensils whenever possible. ... About a hundred years after Shuko’s innovation, wabi-sabi was brought to its apotheosis by Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591). ... Rikyu, along with nine other tea masters, helped [Toyotomi] Hideyoshi by procuring and appraising tea-related objects and by interpreting the complex protocol of tea and tea utensils used in formal situations. Although the late 16th century was a period of almost continuous warfare, it was also a time of creativity and invention in the arts. In tea there was considerable experimentation with objects, architectural space, and the ritual itself. It was in the midst of this cultural flux that Rikyu secured his most enduring aesthetic triumph: to unequivocally place crude, anonymous, indigenous Japanese and Korean folkcraft — things wabi-sabi — on the same artistic level, or even higher than, slick, perfect, Chinese treasures. Rikyu also created a new kind of tea room based on the prototype of a farmer’s hut of rough mud walls, thatched roof, and misshapen exposed wood structural elements. Rikyu then compressed this room down to an astounding two tatami mats, a mere thirty-nine square feet.
Unfortunately, Rikyu’s turn toward simple, modest, and natural values was not well appreciated by his employer. Hideyoshi, a man of peasant origins, was suspicious of Rikyu’s taste for what could also be called the ugly and the obscure. Was Rikyu cynically offering the emperor some new clothes? Hideyoshi’s aesthetic ideal, it should be noted, was the ultimate expression of Chinese gorgeousness: the gold-leafed tea room. Rikyu’s aesthetic challenge created a rift in their relationship that, among other things — Hideyoshi’s jealousy of Rikyu’s growing acclaim, Rikyu’s political indiscretions and tea utensil profiteering — finally prompted Hideyoshi to order Rikyu’s ritual suicide at the age of seventy. (Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, 31-34)
Hideyoshi's golden tea room
Hideyoshi's armor
When tea is made with water drawn from the depths of Mind

Whose bottom is beyond measure,
We really have what is called cha-no-yu (i.e. tea ceremony).

(Toyotomi Hideyoshi; Zen and Japanese Culture, 280)
tea bowl

Why were the samurai drawn to Zen ...
and how did this influence Japanese culture?
Scroll with the words: "Zen is just getting rid of the discriminating mind"
Bamboo page divider

Zen & the Martial Arts

Poster for the film "One Shot, One Life"
Woodblock print of Sanjusangendo's archery tournament

Annual Archery Tournament at Sanjusangendo

enso (Zen painting of a circle)
Zen painting of Bodhidharma

Zen & the Art of Painting/Calligraphy

enso (Zen painting of a circle)
Kaiseki (Zen cuisine)

Zen & the Art of Cooking

enso (Zen painting of a circle)
Noh (traditional Japanese theater)

Zen & the Art of Noh

enso (Zen painting of a circle)
Japanese garden

Zen & the Art of Gardening

Click for Zen rock garden slide show

enso (Zen painting of a circle)

Ikebana (flower arrangement)

Zen & the Art of Ikebana

Ikebana (Zen flower arrangement)