Yūgen

I am mildly fascinated by the idea that different languages have words that others do not have equivalents for. This reminds us of the limitations of language. We think in words, words we draw from our language. So are our thoughts limited by the bounds of our language? Or is it that language is a reflection of our thoughts?

Yūgen is a Japanese word which I love for this very reason. It has no English counterpart; indeed it has been described as “strictly speaking ‘an untranslatable word'”. Furthermore to this, it is essentially an indescribable word, at least in the context of other words. The original Chinese word from which it evolved, according to Andrew A. Tsubaki, was said to be “”to be so mysteriously faint and profound as to be beyond human perception and under- standing.”

According to Wikipedia, you can try to understand it as:

“a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe… and the sad beauty of human suffering”

Zeami Motokiyo used the following examples to help illuminate us:

“To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds. And, subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo.”

Sun Set
Photo owned by smemon87 (cc)

The Zen master D.T. Suzuki explained:

Yugen is a compound word, each part, yu and gen, meaning “cloudy impenetrability,”

The Zen monk Shotetsu offered this:

“Could it be possible to explain the style of yugen as the feeling you obtain by seeing four or five finely dressed court ladies who are viewing cherry blossoms blooming in full at the courtyard of the South Wing?”

(Suzuki and Shotetsu quotes from Tsubaki). Tsubaki also explains that Yugen is a fundamentally Japanese idea; one that Japanese people have no problem accepting, but that is considered foreign to Westerners. But he also makes the point that this could be due to the fact that in the West we don’t feel the need to name certain aspects of aesthetics.

Alan Watts also alluded to it in The Tao Of Philosophy:

However, when the Chinese Taoists say nature is purposeless this is a compliment. It is much like the idea of the Japanese word yugen. They describe yugen as watching wild geese fly and being hidden in the clouds; as watching a ship vanish behind the distant island; as wandering on and on in a great forest with no thought of return. Haven’t you done this? Haven’t you gone on a walk with no particular purpose in mind? You carry a stick with you and you occasionally hit at old stumps and wander along and sometimes twiddle your thumbs. It is at that moment that you become a perfectly rational human being; you have learned purposelessness.

I guess I like the fact that people ultimately have to explain this word by comparing it to the feeling you get when you see or do other things, such as randomly wandering about hitting things with sticks, or watching geese fly into clouds. Words just don’t cut the mustard. It has its roots in Taoist and Buddhist origins (hence Suzuki and Watts’ interest) which are filled with such notions, that there are things that are just ultimately indescribable. Its useful remembering that our language has its limits, lest we think we can explain everything.

Sunny afternoons sitting on a beach-wall have a whiff of the Yūgen about them, I think.