Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail) [ * ]

What to Learn from Eastern Aesthetics *

Grazia MARCHIANÒ [ # ]

In my introduction to East and West in Aesthetics, a collection of writings by various authors that I have recently edited in the 'The Lotus and Rose' series (Pisa-Rome, Istituto Editoriali Internazionali, 1997), I attempted to identify not just the roses that have fostered the enlarging of the aesthetic ecumene in the last fifty years, but the thorns as well, that is to say the different forms of resistance put up by the international aesthetic community to acknowledging Asian aesthetics as an intrinsic part of a shared speculative heritage since its very beginnings. The period I considered covers the last fifty years from the death in 1947 of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, the Anglo-Sinhalese thinker who opened the way in the West to a deeper understanding of Indian philosophy and history of art, to this year, in which two important symposia have taken place: the 35th ICANAS Conference in Oriental Studies at the University of Budapest - a stocktaking of the state of the art in 20th century Oriental studies - and the more circumscribed but richly promising Pacific Rim Conference in Transcultural Aesthetics at the University of Sydney, which owed its success largely to the efforts and enthusiasm of Catherine Runcie.

A third event worthy of mention is the forthcoming publication in the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, of the entry for 'Comparative Aesthetics' contributed by Eliot Deutsch, of the University of Honolulu, a leading figure in the renaissance of Asian studies in aesthetics in the second part of this century. These studies, however, as we all know, have their respective specialist niches in our universities but are not part of the official aesthetics programmes. To give one small example, the M.A. aesthetics programme of the Graduate Research Centre in the Humanities of the University of Sussex offers a core course on the philosophy of art from Plato to Kant, and issues in the philosophy of art after Kant. I have no first-hand information about M.A. and Ph.D. courses at Ottawa, but am all too well acquainted with the Italian situation, having myself attempted, as yet unsuccessfully, to activate a doctorate in comparative aesthetics. In the last four years, I have managed to circulate in Italian academic circles some twelve volumes dealing with Oriental and comparative aesthetics; but this has not prevented those books from being regarded somewhat as curiosities by the majority of my colleagues. A recent publication by an authoritative colleague of mine is entitled Aesthetics of the 20th Century. Its author seems to take it for granted that the European and Anglo-American areas that he examines include the whole of twentieth century aesthetics.

This attitude clearly has historical roots. Martin Heidegger's view that philosophy was the invention of the Greek mind has deep roots in European consciousness, and has, to all effects, been universally endorsed. When Japan, at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868), took the historic decision to set under way the process of modernization after 150 years of proud isolation, expanding its horizons to embrace the 'newness' of the West and its cultural models, it was obliged to adapt its traditional lexis to Western concepts or even to coin new words. But, even as late as 1873, a suitable word to define philosophy in the European sense had not yet been found. A first suggestion, in Confucian terms, was "way of Man", a symmetrical counterpart to "way of Heaven". Philosophy was, in other words, the doctrine which, thanks to reason, (Jap.ri), opens man's way to Heaven. The "linkage of the hundred sciences" was also taken into consideration. Finally, the group of linguists guided by the statesman Nishi Amane, who in his youth had followed the new habit of studying philosophy in Holland and Germany, came up with the alternative that seemed most appropriate and most in key with the new Zeitgeist; and tetsugaku, which is a literal translation of the Greek word "philosophy", was the term officially adopted in 1874.

In the West, the critical reception of Eastern philosophies and aesthetics has occurred under the sign of otherness, with all that this term has come to mean in cultural anthropology. The time presaged by Leibniz when Asian thought would illuminate the mental horizons of the West has evidently not yet come about to the point whereby the spirit of an ecumene may be said to have successfully erased the stigma of otherness. I do, however, believe that comparative studies have made and can continue to make an important contribution to the ecumenicity of aesthetic research. Eliot Deutsch himself, in the entry I referred to earlier, underlines the two fronts on which the specialist in such studies works: "On the scholarship side...the comparativist is faced with a number of hermeneutic or interpretative problems, the most important of which is how to engage the aesthetic thought and art of another culture in ways which do not, on the one hand, superficially assimilate it to one's own cultural experience and, on the other, alienate it in such a way as to make it only an exotic curiosity." And "On the creative side, the comparativist is faced with the task...of appropriating what one learns from another culture and tradition in such a way as to allow it at once to deepen one's understanding of human aesthetic experience and extend the ways in which that experience can be enriched and made intelligible".

In this survey I shall try to sketch an epistemology of aesthetic experience based on Indian, Chinese and Japanese sources. By 'sources' I mean not just theories and perspectives which are specifically aesthetic and presumably subsequent to the 2nd century AD, but any trace or element capable of throwing light on the ways in which this peculiar human experience has acquired theoretical weight in India, China and Japan.

Aesthetic emotion may be sparked by any one thing, natural or artificial, and therefore art cannot be said to be its exclusive source. The Indian, Chinese and Japanese texts all agree on this point, and this allows an epistemology of aesthetic experience based on them to accept, with some reserve, the thesis widely accredited by historians of aesthetics that the emergence of art as a worldwide phenomenon should be prior to the birth of aesthetic consciousness. If we are ready to assume that aesthetic consciousness took shape the moment that man began to consider his inner nature an extension of universal nature and in a sympathetic relation to the latter (Welch 1957), there is no reason to identify that moment with the emergence of art. On the contrary, fundamental human feelings such as dismay and wonder have excellent reason to be conjectured on the basis of the growth of aesthetic consciousness.

But here we touch on an intriguing point. Whether the Greek mind was inclined to see wonder as the beginning of philosophy, and philosophy as the most comprehensive way to explore reality, for the Asiatic mind wonder is the beginning of a sensitivity to things, and sensitivity to things (Jap. mono no awarè) is the most comprehensive way to be in the world and to make the world be in oneself. I shall come back to that presently.

By aesthetic experience Indian rhetoricians, who have been systematically exploring it since the 7th century, mean a dynamics of subjective consciousness which does not identify itself with the source of pleasure by which it is triggered, but becomes a totally absorbing experience. Whoever experiences this process is absorbed in it to the point of transcending his own limited subjectivity. The climax reached through the transcendence of pleasure is described as 'selfless sympathy' (Sanskrit. sahrdayatâ). The concept of selfless sympathy is based on two poles which the classical Indian mind considers wholly compatible: the first is 'heart' (hrid), conceived as the root-source of emotion; the other is selflessness, the dimension where subjectivity and pleasure are transcended. Aesthetic experience is therefore a process leading from selfish attachment to the source of pleasure to an unafflicted mental state.

To explain what this consists of, the Indian rhetoricians use a canonic example taken from the epic poem Râmâyana and its author, the poet-sage Vâlmîki (2nd century BC). One day when the sage was moving in the garden of his hermitage a hunter killed a male crane when it was in mating union with the female bird. This caused great sorrow to the female partner, expressed in its moaning cries, and the event moved the sage to curse the hunter for his insensitive action. The epic Râmâyana starts with this curse, composed in a stanza: "Oh hunter, may you never find peace for everlasting years since you killed one of the mating pair of cranes" (I.2.15). The idea is that the sorrow of the sage is unafflicted by any self-attachment since the stimulant or cause of his emotion, i.e. the death of the male bird, does not harm the sage personally. It is due to his selfless sympathy (sahrdayatâ) and it is in such cases that the emotions as mental states attain the status of pure consciousness1. Therefore, the aesthetic experience in poetry would basically be the experience of this unafflicted mental state which is otherwise called rasa(taste, flavour). 'Rasa' in the Rg Veda means juice, sap, essence, marrow, and in keeping with the general tenor of the Rg Veda it seems that it was meant in a botanical sense. In the Upanishads, rasa did not yet mean aesthetic emotion as it came to be called later on, but referred rather to the core or essence of one's being. It was in Bharata's Nâtya Shâstra (attributed to the I-II century AD), the first organic treatise on art and drama, that rasawas made the cornerstone of aesthetic experience.

It is not possible here to go into the technical aspects, logical subtleties and epistemological implications of Indian aesthetic theory, centred as it is on a bundle of key concepts such as rasa (taste, flavour), dhvani (poetic resonance), alamkâra and lakshana (poetic ornaments and marks), sphota (blossoming, sprouting utterance), or sabda (sound), considered as a bridge between the physical and the metaphysical2. But for the purposes of this comparative survey it is enough to bear in mind that in Indian theory emphasis is laid on the subjective dimension of aesthetic experience, i.e. what is inwardly felt by the experiencer and thereby transformed into an overwhelming experience of non-duality (Sanskrit advaita).

If we turn now to the shape taken by aesthetic experience in China from the beginning of the 7th century (T'ang epoch), and in Japan from the end of the 8th century (Nara epoch), we see that the emphasis shifts from the human plane to nature and the cosmos. In the traditional Chinese vision omnipervasive cosmic energy (Chinese ch'i, Japanese qi) permeates and equalizes Earth-Man-Heaven, connected as a triad.

The Chinese painter's attuned immersion in the spirit of the landscape he is painting is made of the same stuff as Indian selfless sympathy. But now sympathy is felt to flow from living nature, and the painter's inner nature responds to it in a circularity between an outsideness made insideness and an insideness made outsideness. Why is it so? Because Chinese and Japanese traditional notions of nature are comprehensive and yet insubstantial to such an extent as to allow the creative circle between insideness and outsideness to take place and be poetically effective.

The Chinese term ziran (Jap. shizen) does not denote anything objective like the Greek physis, the Latin natura, or the Russian priroda, nor anything created or produced by any divine entity whatsoever. In its pristine adverbial form which appears in the Tao-te-ching, ziran expresses the original dynamic spontaneity of cosmic energy3. The painter's goal is the same: that his brushstroke be filled with the movement of life.

The most brilliant period of Chinese landscape painting coincides with the favour granted to Taoism by the T'angs. Around the end of the 5th century, the Taoist painter Hsieh-Ho drew up six rules for painting, which have since become canonical. The first one, chi'-yun shen-tung, in Lawrence Binyon's translation with Eliot Deutsch's commentary, is as follows: "rhythmic vitality (or spiritual rhythm) expressed in the movement of life". Deutsch explains: "The canon demands that the artist identify himself completely with a spiritual vitality or movement of life that is ubiquitous in nature and that this subtle natural-spiritual rhythm, by means of a highly disciplined spontaneous mastery of the medium, resound in his work"4.

The Chinese term for landscape, shan-shui, is actually a synecdoche, the pair of ideograms literally meaning: "mountains-waters".

The liquid element interacting with the rocky solidity of the mountain conveys the Chinese and Japanese idea of landscape. Shan-shui is not, I should stress, a 'view' in the English sense of landscape but the thing itself: a piece of living nature in which the true spirit of landscape is sealed. Chinese and Japanese aesthetics of painting embody these principles, painting being aimed not at the imitation of outer forms but at the painter's being absorbed by tones and atmospheres. At this point the texts say that the artist should avoid direct observation - looking with the eyes - in favour of indirect observing - looking, as it were, through the eyes.

Looking through the eyes makes wonder persist in the heart, granting it innocence and spontaneity. This is what is meant in Chinese by 'natural mind' (Chinese benxin). Xin, 'mind', is written with the same ideogram as 'heart'. Consequently 'mind-heart' would be a heartfelt mind and at the same time a mindful heart. Taoism stresses how important it is for the mind-heart to be receptive to the heavenly principle, and attuned with the cosmic Way (Tao).

In early Taoist texts as well as in the Japanese Records of Ancient Matters (Kojiki), one meets with a number of terms which will subsequently be at the centre of aesthetic conceptualizations. These terms regard aspects and natural phenomena of a primordial world, obscure and chaotic, close to being a cosmos, that is a whole structured according to laws and measures - which the Greek mind of classical times saw as preconditions for beauty.

In Kojiki, the cosmogony reaches its acme when the ancestral gods Izanagi and Izanami, after standing upon the Floating Bridge linking Earth and Heaven, make an island by stirring with a heavenly jeweled spear the salt in the sea, and a primal sound like a croaking comes out of that stirring: koworo, koworo. That onomatopoeic sound was to be the prototype of that of a musical instrument and a model for composition later on5. Shinto rituals are actually scanned on timbres and dance movements which seem to evoke and dramatize intercourses between natural forces. The dynamics of gestures and sounds evolves from absolute motionlessness and silence.

A not entirely fortuitous association of ideas bewteen natural sounds and vital force reminds me of the episode that Kenzaburo Oe recalls in his Nobel Prize speech given in Stockholm in 19946.

Oe's first child Hikari was born mentally handicapped. 'As a baby,' recounts the author, 'he responded only to the chirping of wild birds and never to human voices. One summer, when he was six years old, we were staying at our country cottage. Hikari heard a pair of water rails calling from the lake beyond a grove, and with the voice of a commentator on a recording of birdsong he said:  those are water rails . These were the first words my son had ever uttered', concluded Oe, adding that Hikari subsequently became a composer and his faculties recovered to the point of allowing him to live an almost normal life. The voice of the birds had passed through the child's wall of silence, endowing him, in a certain sense, with a new birth.

In the sequel to Oe's speech he compares his idea of beauty as something ambiguous, ambivalent and vague with the idea expounded by Yasunari Kawabata twenty-six years earlier on that same platform as a Nobel laureate in the speech entitled 'Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself'. Oe quotes its concluding remarks in Edward Seidensticker's translation:

'My works have been described as works of emptiness, but it is not to be taken for the nihilism of the West. The spiritual foundation would seem to be quite different. Dogen (the 13th century Soto monk and poet) entitled his poem about the seasons  Innate Reality , and even as he sang of the beauty of the seasons he was deeply immersed in Zen'7.

Taking his distance somewhat from Kawabata's position, Oe feels more attuned to William Butler Yeats's poetic vision, permeated as it is by a sense of vacillating ambiguity; and in fact 'Vacillation' is the title of the poem from which Oe quotes:

'A tree there is that from its topmost bough
Is half all glittering flame and half all green
Abounding foliage moistened with the dew...'
('Vacillation', II: 1-3)8  

The differences between Kawabata's and Oe's aesthetic visions are not as important for the present purposes as the poetics of both writers pivoted on the idea of beauty conceived not as an aesthetic ideal of remote perfection but rather as a lightning-swift leap into identification with things, where we are re-absorbed and made one with them.

Writing about night as an aesthetic category, Tomonobu Imamichi, the comparativist philosopher from Tokyo, remarks that the mental situation arising from an attuned contemplation of moonlight on a starry night is a total experience of beauty to the degree to which it is bathed in egolessness. The linguistic form in which that experience is conveyed, says Imamichi, is a proposition without a subject:  is beautiful , i.e. the linguistic form taken by the inner feeling of a total experience of beauty. Everything which becomes a subject of this half-sentence...will become beautiful because the implicit predicate is 'beautiful'. We should have in ourselves the moonlight. As Imamichi concludes, 'we must be unified with night as a productive aesthetic category'9.

The vocabularies of Japanese literary aesthetics such as that compiled in the Sixties by Hisamatsu Sen'ichi10 provide a wide range of aesthetic stereotypes with their oscillating meanings through the five periods of Japanese history: Antiquity (prior to the composition of Kojiki in the 8th century); Middle Antiquity, through the Nara and Heian eras up to the middle of the 12th century; the Medieval Period, through the Kamakura, Muromachi and Momoyama eras up to 1603; the recent past, up to 1868; and the Modern Period, from the beginning of the Meiji era through this century.

Sincerity, mysterious profundity, pathos, sublime beauty and emotional beauty, melancholy, loneliness were among the most valued aesthetic ideals through Middle Antiquity and the Medieval period.

Like Indian rasas, springing from selfless sympathy, those multi-ranged feelings were considered an expansion of inner sensitivity to things. Norinaga Motoori, a contemporary of A.G. Baumgarten, was the first scholar in Japan to place the mono no awarè within the framework of a speculative inquiry, and this is one of the main reasons for the general consensus among critics in considering him the founder of modern aesthetics in Japan.

If Baumgarten had no doubts as to the pre-eminence of philosophy over poetry, Norinaga had no hesitation in declaring the pre-eminence of poetry over philosophy. In his major work, Isonokami sasamegoto, poetry is praised as the human chant of the heart and, at the same time, since it is the 'voice' of every living being, poetry is universal:

'Not only men, but even birds and animals, all beings capable of feeling make poetry with their voices'11.

Through Norinaga's work one can trace a theorem of aesthetic cognition whose lineaments would appear to be enantiomorphic compared with those of Baumgarten: poetry against philosophy; feeling against reason; the centrality of nature against the centrality of the human sphere.

It is not easy, at this point, to draw to a conclusion, for now would be the moment to embark on a minute comparative exploration of Asian and Western aesthetic perspectives. Asian humanism is the result of a philosophical, artistic and religious koine in which human creativity has reached peaks of excellence. All the more reason, then, why this common heritage should be safeguarded and entrusted to the memory of future generations.


* The original version of this paper was given to the British Society of Aesthetics at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford in August 1997.

1. This assumption is stressed by Ananta C. Sukla in his 'Dhvani as a Pivot in Sanskrit Literary Aesthetics' in Grazia Marchianò (ed.), East and West in Aesthetics, Pisa-Rome, Istituti Editoriali Internazionali, 1997.

2. For a comprehensive survey of Indian aesthetic theory from an epistemological angle, see Harsha V. Dehejia, The Advaita of Art, Foreword by K. Vatsyayan, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1996.

3. For a comparative analysis of the semantics of 'nature' in Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and Chinese philosophical contexts, may I refer to my work in Italian, Sugli orienti del pensiero. La natura illuminata e la sua estetica, vols. I,II, Soveria Mannelli, Rubbettino, 1994.

4. Eliot Deutsch, 'Comparative Aesthetics', in Michael Kelly (ed.), Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Oxford, OUP, (entry in print).

5. An analysis of the aesthetic implications in this cosmogonical sequence is by Noriko Hashimoto, 'The Semantic Transformation on an Axiological Concept' in Grazia Marchianò (ed.), East and West in Aesthetics, (see note 1).

6. Kenzaburo Oe, Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself , tr. K. Yanagishita, Tôkyô, Kodansha International, 1995.

7. Ibid., p.113.

8. Ibid., p.115.

9. Tomonobu Imamichi, 'The night as category. One angle of comparative study in aesthetics' in East and West in Aesthetics, (see note 1).

10. Sen'ichi Hisamatsu, The Vocabulary of Japanese Literary Aesthetics, Tôkyô, Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1963.

11. Hino Tatsuo (ed.), Motoori Norinaga Shû, Tôkyô, 1983, p.252. This passage is cited in Nicoletta Spadavecchia, 'Mottori Norinaga: Il mono no aware' in Il Giappone, vol. XXV, 1985, 1987.

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