philosophy of woodworking #1: Some Principles of Zen Aesthetics

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Blog entry by Adam Weis posted 07-09-2009 11:28 PM 4683 reads 0 times favorited 6 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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I have seen many posts on this site that describe a particular piece as “Zen” and while this word is not used in strict historical definition, I thought it might be interesting for some of you to share a bit about what I have learned about Buddhism and how one might be able to bring some Buddhist attitudes into the process of woodworking. So contrary to the title of this little post there isn’t really any such thing as Zen aesthetics. Zen refers to certain strains of practice within Buddhism and does not, as far as I can tell, have any style of design that is integrally linked to it. Excepting a general de-emphasis on iconography, Zen practitioners have mostly shown indifference to their artistic surroundings. Instead what people often understand as “Zen” is more related to general Chinese and Japanese design of a certain period, rather than to any tenets of Zen philosophy. Zen is a development of late medieval China and Japan, which coincides, in very general terms, with periods (Ming in China, and Edo in Japan) that saw a much simpler, more restrained taste in art. One often associates Zen with the Japanese tea ceremony, and the aesthetics integral to it, but this seems to have been more a ritual of the ruling intellectual class than one that had any ties to the Zen religious establishment. Most of what I have read from contemporaneous Zen masters shows a general ambivalence towards the overly-intellectual and indulgent rituals of the elite class. This is true in both China and Japan. Despite my skepticism about there being any Zen aesthetic. There are many things that I draw from Zen and from the Buddhist world in general that have a constant influence on me as a woodworker. It is interesting to note that many of the most revered masters of Zen were also painters, caligraphers, or artists of some sort. When I look at the work of these masters what is most evident to me is not a certain style (although many of them have an unmistakable personal idiom) but a restrained sense of purpose. It is not the intellectual representation of ideas that is important (as in western art) but rather the being of the artist and his ability to act with certainty upon his medium. In other words the art object is inseparable from the artist. This is an aspect of the Buddhist world that I find particularly relevant to my craft as a woodworker. As I work I also study myself, my being, and as I learn new skills I learn them not only intellectually, but physically and emotionally. If I want to produce truly refined work, I know that I will have to learn this craft in a way that teaches me as much about myself as it does about wood.

-- Adam,

6 comments so far

View hObOmOnk's profile


1381 posts in 4693 days

#1 posted 07-10-2009 12:56 AM

Chinese Zen began around the Tang Dynasty, about 600 years before the Ming.

-- 温故知新

View Russel's profile


2199 posts in 4504 days

#2 posted 07-10-2009 01:02 AM

A most interesting perspective. Although, to deny a style is to adopt a style in antithesis. One cannot separate from one ideal without attaching to another. The key is to identify that ideal and determine if there is integrity there. Or, in more Zen terms, one cannot take a journey without a path.

-- Working at Woodworking

View jlsmith5963's profile


297 posts in 3913 days

#3 posted 07-10-2009 01:47 AM

(to bastardize a iconic movie) Isn’t the first rule of Zen not to read about Zen?... lol

-- criticism: the art of analyzing and evaluating the quality of an artistic work...

View tenontim's profile


2131 posts in 4309 days

#4 posted 07-10-2009 03:21 AM

The only time I think about Zen and Buddhism, is when I cut a circle and the cut ends up where it started.

View jlsmith5963's profile


297 posts in 3913 days

#5 posted 07-10-2009 05:47 AM

tenontim, well played…

-- criticism: the art of analyzing and evaluating the quality of an artistic work...

View Mike 's profile


50 posts in 4155 days

#6 posted 03-30-2012 02:29 AM

say nothing, turn wood

-- One does things through mania, through obsession, through an automatic need that escapes understanding.

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