Huts by the Harbor

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Like his father Shunzei, Fujiwara Teika (1162-1241) was one of the outstanding poets of medieval Japan. An often admired poem of his pits the drabness of peasant huts in the distance against the lively beauty of seasonal colors, suggesting that the former may be more deserving of attention than the latter:

Gaze out far enough

beyond all cherry blossoms

and scarlet maples,

to those huts by the harbor

fading in the autumn dusk.1

In Teika’s time, cherry blossoms in the spring and scarlet maples in the fall were canonical examples of beauty. Peasant huts, by contrast, were not normally an enjoyed sight at all. Yet looking at them, Teika saw something that moved him. His poem fascinates because working out what that might have been is a challenging task, as is to an even greater extent why he thought the experience important.

Cultural historians and critics have tried to solve those puzzles, with mixed results. In his Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics2, Donald Richie, for example, presents Teika’s poem as one that Japanese commentators have traditionally interpreted as a recommendation of wabi, a Japanese aesthetic ideal that celebrates austerity, simplicity, sometimes deprivation or poverty. “The poet surveying the scene chooses not the pink and festive cherry nor the bright red maple, two favorite […] seasonal sights. Rather, he chooses deep autumn, conventionally the darkest of the seasons, and dusk, that time of day when all that is brilliant disappears into the monochrome of twilight. The implication,” Richie goes on to contend, “is that any accepted idea of elegance as something ornate, complicated, contrived, is wrong. True elegance is found, rather, in the opposites of these qualities.” (p.48)

That sounds good until one wonders what is complicated, never mind contrived, in cherry blossoms or maple leaves, or where the elegance lies in the monochrome of a twilight that blurs lines. Would a colorless world be more beautiful? More elegant? More interesting? And how exactly does the sight of deficiency or poverty recommend itself to the eyes of someone who cares about beauty? By being the absence of excess? That excess offends does not make deficiency delightful.

Richie is borrowing his account of what goes on in Teika’s poem from (some) Japanese interpreters of it. He himself suspects that a preference for wabi may be more social affectation than defensible aesthetic. It reminds him of the reverse snobbery of modern day proletarian chic among economically well-off young people in the West.

The problem with that comparison is that thoughtful adults in the West are aware of the absurdity of reverse snobbery. Were the centuries-old Japanese preference for wabi a mere affectation, then one might reasonably expect a similar sobriety about it in Japanese culture, at least from perceptive thinkers like Teika. Hence unless we assume that he was aesthetically obtuse, we are back to wondering what caused Teika to be moved by the sight of those huts.

But just to be completely fair to Ritchie, a fondness for wabi can easily seem like an affectation. As I shall suggest later, the foundations of wabi as a norm are obscured by centuries of culture change. As a result, plausible explanations of what actually makes wabi worth striving for are thin on the ground even in Japan. And consequently, as is typically true of affectations, such striving appears oddly pointless. Correcting that situation is hard, but until that is done, invoking Teika’s fondness for wabi accomplishes little.

A considerably more complex analysis of Teika’s poem is proposed by William LaFleur, who devotes the fourth chapter of The Karma of Words3 to the nature of yūgen, a peculiar kind of depth that first emerged in, and is characteristic of, Japanese poetry during the medieval period. LaFleur contends that Teika’s poem exemplifies this quality to a superb degree in that there is no understanding it without being, or coming, alive to the feel of a world shaped by convictions central to Tendai Buddhism. Seen through the lenses of those convictions, all reality presents itself as (literally) unfathomable and awareness of it as such induces feelings of awe. By conjuring up that fact about it in an everyday setting without actually mentioning it, Teika’s poem subtly engenders a similar awareness and kind of feeling.

While it cannot do justice to the impressive scholarship of LaFleur’s essay, this summary probably suffices to indicate the need for an argument that might get us from reality presenting itself as unfathomable to our experience of that apparent fact about it being an enjoyable one. After all, one possible response to the realization that reality is unfathomable is anxiety, especially when that realization includes (as it does in Tendai) that I, the beholder of that reality, am no more finally comprehensible to myself than it. In plainer language, the question is in what sense the ultimate incomprehensibility of everything, including myself, may be a source of aesthetic pleasure.

Another version of the same question, at least in this context, is what makes Buddhism aesthetically appealing. While LaFleur’s analysis strikes me as basically right, it implicitly raises that very large question but does not address it, possibly because the question is too large or the issue too remote. But when one considers that some Japanese critics have dismissed Teika’s poetry as excessively intellectual, or as too Buddhist, therefore as short on aesthetic merit, the issue does not appear remote at all. Those critics apparently believe that to the extent that it recommends itself, Buddhism does so more to the mind than to the heart. I find that belief interesting because I read Teika’s poem as implicitly denying it. Teika does not see himself primarily as preaching Buddhist truths, but he does see himself as pointing to experiences on which the appeal to the heart of some of those purported truths essentially depends.

What follows is an exploration of that hypothesis.

Seeing the huts by the harbor can be an extraordinary experience, provided that one sees them in a particular way. And turning back for a moment to the question about what may make wabi aesthetically interesting will bring us closer to understanding what sort of seeing may be involved.

A well known story about the tea master Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) has it that when his employer Hideyoshi asked to see his widely admired garden of morning glories, Rikyu cut down all his precious flowers except one. He then presented that single flower to Hideyoshi. Given what we know of Rikyu otherwise, we may safely surmise him to have been inspired by the idea that by virtue of its singularity and/or relative isolation, one single flower may invite a more intense focus than an entire field of them and that it therefore has the power to induce a more intense awareness and a greater pleasure. As we might put it colloquially today, Rikyu understood that less can sometimes be more.

As an aesthetic ideal, wabi has some roots in that idea, or rather, in that perceptual reality. But as such it is the opposite of what it is occasionally taken to be. It is not the poverty per se of the object of perception that makes that object aesthetically interesting. It is its richness as brought to life by the intense focus of a perception operating in a context of dearth. Differently put, relative barrenness (as in minimalism, for example) captivates only when the deficiency it is provokes a perceptual focus that triggers a more intense awareness of the features of the barren reality. Where one expects decoration, the sheer whiteness or expanse of an empty wall, for instance, may confront the beholder with an aesthetic prominence and presence that it otherwise lacks.

Similarly, the huts by the harbor do not move me aesthetically unless encouraged by a poet, or simply prompted by the reality that they offer nothing that would normally capture my attention, I look at them carefully, focus on them, let my eyes dwell on them, and allow my awareness of them to grow in intensity. Only then can it happen that they start glowing with a presence that in its power and poignancy may exceed that of any beautiful sight, like cherry blossoms, that naturally catches my eye without any effort on my part.

It is likely that is what Teika saw when he looked at those huts. He saw them somewhat as a painter might who adjusts his perception so as to enable himself to paint what he sees, as opposed to what he knows. The adjustment involves seeing without identifying, conceptualizing, or judging. The difference is that the painter’s interest is entirely practical. He wants only to see clearly enough to translate what his eyes tell him into pigments on a canvas. By contrast, the poet’s interest is contemplative and philosophical. After all, the perceptual phenomenon at issue is a rather provocative one.

It is one thing to single out an object that is beautiful to start with and to contend that when focused on, it will seem even more so. Perhaps as an object of focused awareness, the blue of a single morning glory glows more poignantly than that same blue does in an entire field of morning glories, and hence is even more beautiful. It is quite another thing, however, to suggest that something obviously plain or ugly turns beautiful by virtue of being made the focus of awareness. There is something odd about that statement. It is like saying that an ugly thing can be beautiful if only one looks at it the right way, which comes awfully close to being a contradiction. Am I not also looking at the thing in the right way when I recognize its ugliness?

It is true but does not help that Rikyu (of morning glory fame) also believed that the right sort of awareness brings to life aesthetic virtues in an object that, absent that awareness, has none. He insisted on using plain domestic teacups in his tea ceremonies when he could have used exquisite Chinese imports instead. The ceremony included an intense focus on those teacups, presumably with the intent of causing their positive aesthetic qualities to emerge. Similarly, Rikyu’s preferred tea house was a small windowless hut that in its austerity brought to mind a forest Buddhist hermitage. Once again, his purpose was to encourage a perception of the hyper-ordinary as somehow extraordinary. Assuming that he succeeded, we confront the same logical and philosophical puzzles. In what sense is a rustic domestic piece of earthenware aesthetically superior to an exquisite Chinese porcelain cup? Or what is aesthetically captivating in a primitive structure serving as a tea house when other obviously more attractive settings are easily available (as they were in Rikyu’s case)?

It strikes me as a mistake to maintain here, as one may be tempted to do, that Rikyu recognized the aesthetic superiority of the rustic over the refined, or of barren environments over the tastefully appointed. That argument legislates the associated puzzles out of existence. If an exquisite porcelain cup is not really exquisite because exquisiteness effectively consists of rusticity and relatively crude workmanship, then there is no contradiction in thinking or saying that a rustic piece of earthenware is exquisite. The question is why anyone, including Rikyu, would believe such a thing. And if the answer is that the earthenware piece can present itself as exquisite when focused on in a certain way, then the next question is how that appearance can coexist with its normal appearance as crude, assuming that both appearances reflect actual realities. As far as I can see, that question has no answer that does not compromise the possibility of meaningful thought and speech.

The only sense in which the rustic is superior to the refined is that it can present itself as exquisite and in the process bring on important realizations that the refined is less likely to invite. Its superiority, in other words, is more heuristic than aesthetic. Because barrenness can be a more effective teacher in this context than opulence, the real foundations of wabi as a norm probably reside in the same pedagogic neighborhood. And that means that they disappear from view in a culture that no longer values that teaching, or that actually forgets that there is anything worth knowing that barrenness can teach more effectively than its opposite.

One of the important realizations I have in mind is that not all reality encountered in experience fits neatly into the conceptual categories that are the elements of normal thought and speech. There is sometimes a gap between what my experience presents me with and what I am able to recognize clearly, where what counts as recognition is simply a spontaneous, intuitively accurate translation of the content of my experience into words or concepts. That does not mean that my experience on those occasions is meaningless in the sense that I am baffled by it. It is just not meaningful in the same way as ordinary experience, which wears its conceptual meaning on its face, so to speak.

When I insist that the single morning glory is more beautiful than it was a moment ago, when still part of a bouquet of such flowers, I am courting equivocation or logical incoherence. No doubt the single flower moves me more deeply or more intensely. I can experience and feel that, but also that its power to move me is not of the ordinary kind, which is what I make it out to be the moment I refer to it as beauty.

The same is true a fortiori when the logical problem is more obvious, as when a rustic piece of earthenware confronts me as exquisite or when the equivalent of a forest shack starts to feel like the interior of a villa. Instead of resorting to procrustean conceptualizations, I can put my logo-centric mental habits out of gear and let those realities be what they are. Or if I absolutely need to think and talk, I can at least strive to remain aware of my thinking and talking as metaphorical and thus as different from what I ordinarily do when I think or talk.

Another realization that awaits me when I succeed in restraining my logo-centric mental habits is that the effect of my restraint is an increase in the intensity of my experience. I effectively become aware of the strangeness of the familiar, including the strangeness of the being that I myself am. Provided that I can resist the urge to theorize about it, I can savor that more intense experience, enjoy both it, in other words, and the strangeness of the excitement that is that enjoyment.

Because it is not often logically provocative, ordinary experience is unlikely to reveal that world to me. The sight of cherry blossoms or scarlet maples can dazzle me and give me pleasure, but it will neither make me think nor induce in me an enjoyable consciousness of myself as the unfathomable being that I am.

This may be the right place to point out that consciousness of oneself as unfathomable remains enjoyable only to the extent that theorizing chatter about it does not intervene. Gazing at those huts and having them reveal themselves as a compelling sight carries the risk of its occurring to me that the allocation of my attention can make the difference between a thing stepping into the light and its dwelling in everlasting obscurity instead, that much of that allocating occurs pretty much without rhyme or reason, or, in any case, without any consciousness on my part of why I do what I do, and so on, until that train of thought culminates in my realization that it is itself an example of that same apparent arbitrariness at work. That encounter with myself as an irreducible biological spontaneity is more likely to be productive of anxiety than of enjoyment. That I can bring that anxiety under control by reminding myself that unconscious does not mean haphazard, random, or unintelligent, is true, but it does not make it an enjoyable experience to sense myself at the mercy of whatever gyrations my biological intelligence may perform as it deploys my consciousness and its modes.

The same is true of the unfathomability of all parts of reality that resist unproblematic conceptualization. When, prompted by the peculiar logical status of my impression that the drab huts by the harbor are beautiful, I start theorizing about the limits of language, it does not take long for that theorizing to disrupt my peace of mind. If it occurs to me, for example, that the natural home of meaningful language is ordinary experience, and then that the ordinariness of ordinary experience is relatively arbitrary – a complex consequence of human life as lived at this time and in this place, then it becomes a short step to the thought that human sense-making in general is a very precarious business indeed, its foundations so shallow that what may make perfect sense today may make none a year from now. Once again, it is true that I can extricate myself from the disquiet that thought may inspire, perhaps by remembering that this sort of reflection is itself rather exotic, but that does not make these travails enjoyable.

All that being said, it is probably obvious that my situation as a human being is significantly more complex than that my experience invariably presents itself to me as either of one sort or another – as either subject to unproblematic conceptualization or as unsuited to it.

Even when my experience seems totally ordinary, like my enjoying a cup of coffee, I bring to the situation my own circumstances, habits, inclinations, sensibility, and so on, that when taken together tend to make any such situation unique. Uniqueness resists conceptualization. So while I can know quite clearly that I am drinking coffee and enjoying it, there is plenty about the situation that I normally let be and must. But speaking of what happens normally, I am not normally aware of ordinary situations as involving this sort of mix of ways of being conscious of them – partly under clear descriptions and partly not.

When my experience veers from the ordinary, its resistance to conceptualization increases. But that does not normally have the effect of leaving me speechless. I merely sense, or should, that my speech, actual or mental, is veering toward the metaphorical and that I need to be careful. There is nothing wrong with thinking or speaking metaphorically, provided that one knows oneself to be engaged in that and not in unvarnished describing or reporting.

So, going all the way back to where we started, let’s ask again what Teika saw and why he thought his experience noteworthy.

Teika saw the huts by the harbor as a painter would, without conceptualizing, identifying, or judging. He saw the color of shadows that one does not normally notice, their warmth or coolness, for example, as well as the mutual dependence of all the colors and shapes on one another. The natural effect of that kind of perceiving can be a perceived reality that trembles or vibrates. The experience, intense, induced in Teika awareness of the strangeness of the familiar, including that of the familiar that was Teika himself as the perceiver of it.

As for why he considered the experience precious, several answers suggest themselves. One is that he recognized the experience as exotic and at the same time as a paradigmatic revelation. It happens often enough to all of us that even when perceived through the veils of familiarity, reality confronts us as somehow strange and beyond all possibility of ultimate comprehension. Because that reality includes us as perceivers of it and is therefore somewhat unsettling, we tend to flee from the experience, usually into conceptualization, into thought and talk, in other words, that restores the world’s normality. While that takes the sting out of the experience and reduces its intensity, it also distorts the human situation and precludes our making peace with it. For when we thus pretend that we know and understand more than we do, we devalue forms of cognition, like feeling or emotion, in which we confront ourselves in awe as the strange beings we are.

By contrast, letting oneself be, content not always to understand even as one is immersed in the experience of the world and of oneself in it, invites emotion and feeling to take the place of thought and talk. They bring the freedom to be who and what one is, whatever either may be, where the alternative is a perceived need to fit in and to pretend that one is like everyone else, seeing what everyone sees, or what we have all agreed is there or isn’t, if only for the sake of keeping the peace.

Because that freedom is a liberation from the imperialism of everyday ideology, one can love the experience of it. One may consequently be receptive to theorizing about the world and about humans that strives to explain the possibility of the freedom in question and to leave room for it. One way of understanding Buddhism is to see it as such theorizing, albeit of a poetic and metaphorical sort.

Other, philosophically more ambitious, explanations of what may have inspired Teika to share his experience are possible. He may have thought, for example, that our happy receptivity to beauty in general speaks of a human kinship with all reality that transcends our provincial alienation from it. Absent such a kinship, what is beauty to any of us? Why does it matter at all?

One hesitates to speculate that widely in the face of flimsy evidence. There is just this: in Teika’s time, large numbers of people were dying of starvation in the streets, largely as a consequence of human stupidity and political malfeasance. Understandably, he hoped that there was more to the human world than the grotesque spectacle it presented itself as. Seeing those huts in the distance provided him with reasons to hope. But it took considerable speculation to get from that sight to any kind optimism.

© Serge Kappler 2016


1 as translated by William R LaFleur

2 Stonebridge Press, 2007.

3 University of California Press, 1986.

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