The Concept of Zen – Perfection in Imperfection?

Jardin Japonais Compans Zen

A Japanese Tea house (Zen).

“An ancient pond;

A frog leaps in;

The sound of water.”

That is a famous Haiku poem written by a Japanese Zen poet. When you read it, did you visualize the imagery of the pond/leaping frog, did you hear the splash of water? That’s the magic of zen philosophy – it makes you be a part of the creation and enhances your experience, instead of just observing what an artist has created.

“Explicit art ends with itself; suggestive art is as limitless and profound as one’s imagination can make it.” 

Zen, is not only a philosophy, but has been a way of living in Japan for many centuries. One may call zen as the art of controlled hap-hazard. An art of seeing perfection in imperfection. Art of noticing beauty in old/withered materials in its natural form.

But why glorify incompleteness; imperfections; asymmetry;  old, worn-out objects?

“Symmetrical art is a closed form, perfect in itself and frozen in completeness; asymmetrical art invites the observer in, to expand his imagination and to become a part of the process of creation.”

And,

“New objects are assertive and striving for attention; old, worn objects have the quiet, peaceful air that exudes tranquility, dignity, and character.”

Zen artists used to paint monochrome abstract images because they believed that the palette of the mind is richer than the palette of the brush, and what the viewer imagines is more beautiful/expressive/insightful than what any artist can create.

The Japanese extended the philosophy of zen beyond art – one could find it in the way they constructed their houses, in their tea ceremonies, in their rock gardens, in their ceramic vessels, in their poetry, in their plays and even in warfare! I’ll write a separate article on what made the Zen Samurai so fearsome.

Even though we don’t like to admit, there is an irrational/illogical side to our brain. It influences us more often than we realize. While the west focuses on enhancing analytical abilities,

“Zen culture has been devised over the centuries to bring us in touch with our non-rational, non-verbal side. Zen culture’s primary lesson is that we should start trying to experience art and the world around us, rather than analyzing them.”

Zen creations are more than what meets the eye – they used art as an essential step towards contemplation & enlightenment. I am trying to define & analyze Zen, but it can’t be done!

“What exactly can you make of a philosophical system whose teacher answers the question, ‘How do you see things clearly?’, with the answer, ‘I close my eyes’?”

One more interesting information about zen culture comes from its origin – Bodhidharma’s (a 5th/6th Century Indian monk who traveled to China) meditation  – or Dhyan in Sanskrit – was pronounced as Ch’an in China, and was later adopted as Zen by the Japanese.

Our ancestors knew more than what we think they did – after all, they didn’t have the distraction called technology.

Destination Infinity

All quotes have been taken from the book, “Zen Culture” by Thomas Hoover. Read it if you want a good introduction to Zen culture and Japanese history.

Photo credit: Grégory Tonon (Flickr: Zen) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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13 Replies to “The Concept of Zen – Perfection in Imperfection?”

  1. Maybe you find it easy to understand Zen.
    I must admit that I read “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” for months but couldn’t quite understand.
    You have emphasised certain points here, now when Japan king is in India. Maybe you would participate in a Japan event which may be organised by IIT guys.

    1. I have included many quotes from the book (when compared to my own writing) because I am not able to understand it! I should admit that I am intrigued by anything Japanese 🙂

      Destination Infinity

    1. LOL 🙂

      In this book, the author mentions a kind of training where new Zen students are asked some illogical questions – as long as they try to analyze and come up with the ‘correct’ answer, the students won’t clear the course! This meticulous ‘de-analyzation’ training (practiced earlier) might shock most modern people.

      I guess this system (like our ancient systems) required blind faith on the master. To the modern mind, it seems too risky!

      Destination Infinity

  2. I am familiar with the Japanese poet andhis zen stories/theories. That is all. I can never concentrate in these things. I tried to read and understand what you have written here. Hmmm…no, I can’t.

    Our Thirukkural’s one and a half line kurals are nearly easy to understand, if you put your mind into it. I like it a lot. But others…no.

    1. I find it difficult to understand Thirukkural – I need a book with meanings in Simple Tamil to understand the Kurals!

      One difference between the philosophy in Thirukkural and Zen cultures is, the former is preaching (tells something directly), while the latter leaves it to the person who is interpreting it. Zen is more abstract and what you gain out of it purely depends on yourself!

      I am not saying one is better than the other, both are different ways for higher understanding/assimilation of life.

      Destination Infinity
      PS: The book is well written, but my attempt at shrinking it to 500 words back-fired!

  3. I could actually imagine the water splashing as the frog jumped in. The painting is just awesome :-). Sometimes black and white is the best way to go, but sometimes the colour truly adds colour to the painting. Strange are the old ways but it’s nice to know the logic behind those. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. The Zen concept of experience, don’t analyze, is difficult for the modern mind. We try to understand things through logic, but this system tries to make it redundant! Strange indeed.

      Destination Infinity

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