Zen & Japanese Culture
The Chrysanthemum & the Sword

The Sword
The Ashikaga shoguns who replaced the Kamakura rulers came to power in this way. Emperor Go-Daigo (1287-1339, r. 1318-1339), more ambitious than his immediate predecessors, plotted to replace the Kamakura shoguns with direct imperial rule. A complicated civil war, with much switching of sides, ensued. In 1333 Ashikaga Takauji, supporting the emperor, decisively overthrew the Hojo “regents” and their forces to take Kyoto.
       But soon the new conqueror had a falling out with Go-Daigo, who had unwisely refused to make him shogun. By 1335 open war broke out between Ashikaga, who proclaimed himself shogun, and Go-Daigo, who was forced to flee the capital. ... The Ashikaga period, also called the Muromachi after the district of Kyoto where that house set up its palace, was troubled. After Takauji the Ashikaga shoguns were ineffectual rulers; the imperial schism was a sore point, and their power steadily drained away until some sixty regional warlords, as often as not fighting one another, had virtually free reign. 
(IJR, 152)
The Chrysanthemum
Nonetheless, their day was a cultural high point, for the Ashikaga made up for political failure in patronage of the arts, above all those connected with Zen. Despite horrendous conditions outside monastery and palace walls, Zen culture reached its golden age under Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) and Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1435-1490; shogun 1449-1473). The latter withdrew from active political leadership as the terrible Onin war destroyed much of Kyoto in a dispute over his successor, retiring in 1473 to become the great architect of what is known as Higashiyama (“Eastern Mountains”) culture. His residence, on the eastern side of Kyoto, faced the Higashiyama range. There he built the Ginkakuji (“Silver Pavilion Temple”; the famous Kinkakuji, or “Golden Pavilion Temple” was built by his grandfather, Yoshimitsu), encouraged Zen gardening, practiced the “tea ceremony,” watched No drama, promoted Zen floral arrangement (ikebana), and painting. (IJR, 153)


The aesthetic ideals that pervaded the poetry, drama, painting, gardens, tea ceremony, and many other artistic 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 of spectators to fill in according to their intuitive understanding of the ultimate meaning of the poem or play. ...
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. 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.
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.” (SJT, 365-6)
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.

We find a beautiful statement of sabi in Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa) by Yoshida Kenko (1283?-1352?) when he asks
Are 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)


Zen & the Martial Arts
Annual Archery Tournament at Sanjusangendo

Zen & the Art of Painting/Calligraphy

Zen & the Art of Cooking

Zen & the Art of Ikebana

Zen & the Art of Noh

Zen & the Art of Gardening


Zen & the Art of Tea

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)