The art of second wave positive psychology:
Harnessing Zen aesthetics to explore the dialectics of flourishing
International Journal of Wellbeing, 6(2), 14-29. doi: 10.5502/ijw.v6i2.2
Note: this paper may not match the final version in the International Journal of Wellbeing.
Abstract: In recent years, a “second wave” of positive psychology has been emerging,
characterised, above all, by an awareness and appreciation of the dialectical nature of
flourishing. This paper offers a philosophical foundation for this second wave, based on
Eastern philosophy, and, in particular, Zen aesthetics. Part one introduces Zen, including its
key philosophical ideas and practices, as well as two antecedent traditions that helped to form
it, namely, Buddhism and Taoism. Part two then elucidates three aesthetic principles that are
integral to Zen: mono no aware (pathos of life), wabi-sabi (desolate beauty), and yūgen
(profound grace). The paper discusses how these principles could be of value to positive
psychology in fostering dialectical understanding and appreciation, thus highlighting future
directions for the field.
Keywords: aesthetics, philosophy, Zen; flourishing, dialectics
Positive psychology (PP) initially defined itself by a focus on “positive” aspects of human
functioning (Linley & Joseph, 2004). This focus carried the implicit (and often explicit)
message that positive phenomena were inherently desirable, and should be sought, and
conversely that “negative” aspects of life were intrinsically undesirable, and should be
eschewed. However, critical theorists from inside (e.g., Wong, 2011) and outside (e.g., Held,
2004) the field have highlighted flaws in this message. For instance, McNulty and Fincham
(2011) argued that the value of any given phenomenon inextricably depends upon the
dynamics of context. Ostensibly positive qualities can be detrimental in certain situations,
e.g., “excessive optimism” is linked to health risk behaviours (Norem & Cantor, 1986).
Conversely, seemingly negative qualities can be conducive to flourishing if harnessed
skilfully; for instance, as Seligman (1990, p. 292) put it, one must be “able to use
pessimism’s keen sense of reality when we need it.” Such observations call into question the
validity of categorically classifying phenomena as either positive or negative. Indeed, there
is much critical debate within the field generally around the very notion of the “positive,” as
exemplified by the recent articles by James Pawelski (2016a, 2016b). For instance, Lazarus
(2003) pointed out that many emotional states are actually “co-valenced,” involving a
complex blend of light and dark elements. A classic example is love, which is, as Bauman
(2013, p. 6) puts it, “that most sublime of all human conditions, one in which fear blends with
joy into an alloy that no longer allows its ingredients to separate.”
However, although these critical observations have challenged PP, they have not
undermined it. Rather, we have seen the emergence of what Held (2004) calls a “second
wave” within the field , which Wong (2011) refers to as PP “2.0.” This second wave still
focuses on the same fundamental meta-concepts around which the field initially crystallised,
from wellbeing to flourishing. However, it does so in ways that embrace the critical points
raised above, developing a more nuanced understanding of the complex dynamics of so-
called positive and negative aspects of experience (see Lomas & Ivtzan, 2015; Ivtzan, Lomas,
Hefferon, & Worth, 2015). Summarising this second wave approach, Wong suggests it is
characterised by a deep appreciation of the dialectical nature of flourishing. Although
“dialectics” encompasses a range of meanings, it essentially refers to the dynamic “tension of
opposition between two interacting forces or elements” (Merriam-Webster, 2014). For
instance, dialectics can refer to the way in which conceptual opposites, although diametrically
opposed, are also intimately connected and co-creating; e.g., “good” can only be recognised
by counterposing it with “bad.” Thus, second wave PP recognises that flourishing involves
“inevitable dialectics between positive and negative aspects of living” (Ryff & Singer, 2003,
p. 272). This includes a creative and generative tension between polarities like freedom and
restriction (Schwartz, 2000), optimism and pessimism (Norem & Cantor, 1986), anger and
forgiveness (McNulty & Fincham, 2011), boredom and curiosity/creativity (Lomas, 2016a),
and even happiness and sadness (Ahmed, 2010).
So, second wave PP recognises that the good life does not involve being a “well-
defended fortress, invulnerable to the vicissitudes of life,” as King (2001, pp. 53-54) puts it,
but, rather, appreciating and even embracing the complex and ambivalent nature of life.
Given this, one of the key tasks facing PP is to explore ideas and practices that might help us
– PP as a field, and, indeed, people generally – to cultivate this kind of appreciation. To this
end, this paper proffers one potential resource that might facilitate this, namely, aesthetics – a
branch of philosophy concerning the nature and forms of beauty (Brady, 2013). Efforts are
already underway within PP to recognise the role of the arts in promoting flourishing, as seen
in Lomas’ (2016b) notion of “positive art.” However, in terms of developing an appreciation
of dialectics specifically, there may be much to be gained from exploring the aesthetic
principles propounded by Eastern philosophy in particular. (Indeed, this approach aligns
with attempts more broadly within PP to engage with and learn from non-Western cultures;
see e.g., Lomas, 2015; Lomas 2016d.) Whilst Eastern philosophy encompasses a multitude
of traditions, these share a deep understanding of dialectics, as does Eastern culture generally
(Schimmack, Oishi, & Diener, 2002). Moreover, these traditions have embraced art and
aesthetics as a vehicle for expressing their spiritual insights, and thus also aesthetic
appreciation as a potent means of cultivating such insights.
This pivotal role of art and aesthetics is encapsulated in one of the archetypal symbols
of the East, the yin-yang motif associated with Taoism. This is the ultimate dialectical
symbol, capturing in stark, beautiful simplicity the way that opposites – light and dark,
positive and negative – exist within a dynamic “mutually constituting relationship”
(Sameroff, 2010, p. 9). Taoism, and Buddhism more generally, both have an appreciation of
dialectics at their core, and, moreover, have both used art and aesthetics to convey their
spiritual insights in this regard, as discussed further below (in part one). However, it is
arguably in Zen where the engagement with dialectics through art/aesthetics truly comes to
fruition. As such, this paper will focus on the aesthetic philosophy of Zen in particular. The
paper is in two parts. Part one introduces Zen, including some of its key philosophical ideas.
Part two then focuses on its aesthetic principles, examining how these could be used within
PP to foster an appreciation of dialectics.
This first part briefly introduces Zen, thereby preparing the groundwork for the discussion of
its aesthetic principles in part two. Zen was the intermingled product of numerous Eastern
traditions, particularly the confluence of Buddhism and Taoism. It is beyond the scope of
this paper to give anything more than a cursory introduction to these immense traditions.
Nevertheless, our appreciation of Zen will be enhanced if we can gain some sense of the
tributaries that combined to create this particular stream of thought and practice. Thus, I shall
touch briefly upon Buddhism and Taoism, before finishing by introducing Zen itself.
I shall begin here by discussing Buddhism. A more detailed account would preface this by
exploring the way Buddhism itself grew directly out of Brahmanism – the multitude of
religious beliefs and practices in the Indian subcontinent, stretching back into unrecorded
antiquity, that today are labelled as “Hinduism” (King, 1999) – much as Christianity emerged
out of Judaism. However, it shall suffice to note here that Gautama Siddhartha, better known
by the honorific “Buddha” (“Enlightened one”), lived and taught in a cultural context – circa
480-400 BCE, or possibly even earlier (Coningham et al., 2013), in present-day Nepal – that
was entirely suffused with Brahmanism. However, so significant and innovative was his
experience and interpretation of the Brahmanical dharma (“laws” or “teachings”) that his
subsequent followers endowed his teachings with the status of a new religious tradition
While there are many complex nuances to the Buddha’s adaptation of Vedanta (the
key Brahmanical texts), Gombrich (2006) suggests that one point stands out: whereas the
Vedanta is fundamentally essentialist, the Buddha promulgated a form of anti-essentialism.
He taught that existence is characterised by three lakshanas (“marks of conditioned
existence”): anicca (impermanence), anattā (insubstantiality), and dukkha
(dissatisfaction/suffering). He argued for the inherent “emptiness” of existence (Burton,
2001); not in the nihilistic sense that nothing is real, but, rather, that all phenomena are empty
of a fixed, enduring, independent nature, but instead are transitory (anicca) and
interdependent (anattā). These observations also apply to persons themselves, therefore, in
contrast to the essentialist Vedic notion of the atman, the Buddha spoke of anatman (i.e., no
self). However, he did agree with the Vedas that it is people’s tendency to deny or ignore
these fundamental ontological truths, and the related attempt to attach to phenomena that are
inherently changeable, that ultimately causes much of human beings’ suffering/dissatisfaction
(dukkha). Moreover, the Buddha agreed with Brahmanism that liberation from suffering was
possible. However, having disavowed the Vedanta notion of atman – some inner essence that
would be the vehicle for or recipient of liberation – he suggested that enlightenment would
come through seeing all forms of selfhood as an illusion, leading to the ultimate and supreme
state of nirvana.
Leaving aside esoteric intricacies, the incontestable message of the Buddha is the
possibility of liberation from suffering. Central to this message were the Four Noble Truths,
a remedy for alleviating suffering: suffering is universal; it has a cause; cessation is possible;
it can be achieved by following the “Noble Eightfold Path.” This path essentially constitutes
prescriptions for “right living,” comprising wisdom (right vision and conception), ethical
conduct (right speech, conduct, and livelihood), and meditation (right effort, mindfulness, and
concentration) (Thrangu, 1993). Furthermore, at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings was a
deep appreciation of dialectics, which would subsequently feature prominently in adaptations
such as Zen. This appreciation is reflected in the foundational idea of the “Middle Way,” the
phrase the Buddha often used to describe the Noble Eightfold Path. For instance, in his
foundational Dhammacakkappavattana sutta, the Buddha characterised this middle way as a
“golden mean” – cf. Aristotle (Cunningham, 1999) – between punitive asceticism and
As with most religions, following the Buddha’s death, various schisms occurred,
separating off into different schools. The early Therevadan traditions adhered closely to the
Tipitaka (the Pali canon comprising the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings,
like the Noble Eightfold Path (Lomas, 2016c)). In subsequent centuries, schools emerged
which developed these original teachings in innovative ways – including the pivotal
dialectical idea of the Middle Way – with these schools often referred to collectively as
Mahayana (Williams, 2008). It is from this latter group that Zen emerged, as we shall see
shortly. Finally, Vajrayana refers to a further efflorescence of philosophical and ritualistic
development that occurred from the 3rd century CE onwards, particularly in Tibet (Davidson,
2003). Of particular relevance to the present paper is the fact that many of these varied
schools of thought began to harness the power of art and aesthetics in expressing and
communicating their spiritual teachings and insights. For instance, besides the centrality of
art and aesthetics to Zen, another prominent example of the use of art in Buddhism is the
creation of intricate mandalas – geometric, symbolic patterns imbued with deep meaning,
fashioned using coloured sand – in Tibetan Buddhism (Bryant, 2003). We shall, of course,
explore the role of art/aesthetics in Zen in depth below. However, before we turn our
attention to Zen, we need a second piece of the puzzle: Taoism.
Taoism is an overarching philosophy and way of life that is indigenous to China. Like
Buddhism, it is thoroughly imbued with an understanding and appreciation of dialectics. It
centres on the nebulous idea of “the Tao,” which Oldstone-Moore (2003, p. 6) describes as a
“nameless, formless, all pervasive power which brings all things into being and reverts them
back into non-being in an eternal cycle.” Although its origins lie in unrecorded antiquity, its
formative influence is the I Ching, or “Book of Changes.” The I Ching initially began life
over 3,000 years ago as a shamanic practice among the Chou people; it then crystallised in
written form around the time of King Wen (circa 1150 BCE) and his son, although the
iteration that has reached us today is the version edited and annotated by Confucius around
the 5th century BCE (Wilhelm, 1950). The I Ching emerged from the practice of consulting
oracles: initially, binary yes/no oracles were used (e.g., cracks in tortoise shells), with “yes”
represented by an unbroken line, and “no” by a broken line. To allow for further
differentiation, lines were later combined in pairs, and then triads; finally these “trigrams”
were themselves paired up, creating 64 hexagrams (i.e., permutations of broken and unbroken
lines). Divination practices typically involved asking a question, then throwing yarrow stalks
upon the ground, with the resulting arrangement being interpreted as a particular hexagram.
The I Ching thus emerged as a guide to assist in the interpretation of these hexagrams.
However, the key point – in terms of the dialectical philosophy at the heart of Taoism – is
this: the hexagrams represent not states of being, but of becoming. The focal point of the
hexagrams is always the “moving” lines, i.e., any of the six lines that are dynamic or
“unstable,” which would thus herald the shift to a different hexagram.
As such, the overarching philosophical principle of the I Ching is change, which,
paradoxically, is the one stable and consistent law at work in the universe. As Wilhelm
(1950) puts it, “He who has perceived the meaning of change fixes his attention no longer on
transitory individual things but on the eternal, immutable law at work in all change,” and it is
here, in the I Ching, that we find the origin of Taoism, for this immutable law is “the Tao, the
course of things, the principle of the one in the many.” Moreover, the I Ching did not only
recognise the fundamental ubiquity of change, it also identified the mechanism through
which it occurs: the dialectical interaction between opposites (Fang, 2012). Thus, as per
Buddhism (with its notion of the Middle Way), Taoism has an appreciation of dialectics at its
core. Indeed, this dialectical philosophy was subsequently captured symbolically by the yin-
yang motif, which, above all else, has come to symbolise Taoism (though the terms
themselves do not appear in the I Ching; instead we find dichotomies such as “the firm” and
“Yin” means cloudy/overcast, whereas “yang” means “in the sun” (i.e., shone upon),
implying the two sides of a mountain (one sunlit, one in shadow) (Lomas, 2016d). Thus, as
Fang (2012) explains, yin-yang encapsulates various “tenets of duality.” The tenet of “holistic
duality” means that reality comprises co-dependent opposites that each require the other for
their existence (e.g., “up” depends upon the notion of “down”). Moreover, the tenet of
“dynamic duality” holds that these opposites tend to mutually transform into each other in a
dynamic process; as Fung (1948, p. 19) puts it, “When the sun has reached its meridian, it
declines” (i.e., its zenith heralds the beginning of the descent into night). Thus, yin-yang
does not simply present a pair of static opposites, but includes an element of darkness in the
light, and vice versa, capturing the ceaseless process of becoming. As Ji, Nisbett, and Su
(2001, p. 450) put it, “The pure yin is hidden in yang, and the pure yang is hidden in yin.” As
a final point on this notion of yin-yang, it is particularly noteworthy – from the perspective of
the present paper – that it should be so indelibly associated with an artistic image. This again
reinforces the central point of this paper, namely, the unique power of art to communicate
spiritual insights, and thus also the role of aesthetic appreciation as a means of understanding
Indeed, the overarching message of Taoism is that a deep experiential understanding
of the dialectics of the Tao – as reflected in the yin-yang motif – is the path to liberation. The
scriptural basis for Taoism itself is the Tao Te Ching, attributed to a sage/mystic named Lao
Tzu, who possibly lived at some point between the sixth and third centuries BCE (Barnett,
1986). (His existence is disputed, since no historical records of him exist, and “Lao Tzu”
means “old master,” so the book may “just” constitute a compendium of Taoist folk wisdom.)
The Tao Te Ching is not simply a philosophical explication of the Tao, and of principles such
as yin-yang. As with the Vedas and the Buddha’s teachings, it offers a path of liberation
from suffering. In particular, it suggests that suffering arises from ignorance of the Tao, and
from resisting the dynamic flux of life. As Smith (1972, p. 77) puts it, “Human beings, by
turning away from the Tao, bring suffering and chaos into their affairs.” Conversely,
liberation may be found through living in harmony with the natural operations of the Tao. As
expressed in Verse 47, “Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural
Moreover, Taoism held that this ability to live in harmonic accord with the Tao –
represented by the Chinese term te – can be cultivated through psychospiritual meditative
practices (Kirkland, 2004), such as tso wang (“sitting with a blank mind”) or hsin tsung
(finding the still place in the centre of consciousness). Thus, Taoism upheld the possibility of
becoming subjectively “one” with the Tao. However, in contrast to the more abstract and
esoteric speculations of Brahmanism (and some schools within Buddhism), the Taoist path to
liberation was more “down-to-earth,” consisting more of not resisting the way of nature
(Hermann, 1990). Taoism upheld the virtue of wu-wei – as articulated by the great Chuang
Tzu (circa 3rd century BCE) – which translates as “non-action,” but which really means
surrendering to and aligning oneself with the Tao, and allowing one’s actions to be as
“spontaneous and free-flowing as the natural world.” As Chuang Tzu said, “The perfect man
has no self; the spiritual man has no achievement; the true sage has no name” (cited in Ho,
1995, p. 120). And it was when Buddhism travelled to China, and encountered Taoism, that
we find the birth of Zen.
Essentially, when Buddhism was transmitted to China, it mingled with Taoism to produce
Zen. As the great Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki (1961) put it, “Zen is the product of the
Chinese soil from the Indian seed.” This transmission is often attributed to the arrival in
China of the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, in 520 CE, who subsequently became
known as the “first patriarch” of Zen (Watts, 1957). However, Watts argues that “the
appearance of trends very close to Zen” are evident almost as soon as Mahayana sutras
became available in China, which occurred at least as early as 384 CE through translations by
the Indian scholar-monk Kumarajiva (p. 100). As Buddhism entered China, we see a
fascinating process of adaptation, with the teachings and practices assuming new forms to
align with local culture – above all, Taoism. Key features of Buddhism were, of course,
retained, not least the possibility of enlightenment, and the value of meditation as a means
towards “attaining” this. Indeed, Zen itself means “meditation,” or, more accurately, Zen is a
Japanese rendering of Ch’an, which was the Chinese term for the Indian word dhyana, which
means “meditation.” We should note, though, that Taoism already had its own forms of
meditation, so this is not simply an Indian practice “exported” into China (Kirkland, 2004).
However, Buddhism in China began to take on a very different form, influenced
above all by the Taoist tradition that dominated in China (alongside Confucianism). In the
Indian subcontinent, Buddhism had been strongly shaped by the Brahmanic context in which
it emerged, as noted above. For instance, Brahmanism included elements of polytheism, and
tendencies towards abstract metaphysical analyses (King, 1999). These types of features thus
often suffused Mahayana Buddhism, leading to a proliferation of mythological and esoteric
schemas. This type of abstract philosophising jarred with the practical, “down-to-earth”
nature of Taoism. Consequently, Chinese Buddhists began dispensing with what they
regarded as unnecessary and unhelpful mythological speculations. Instead, Buddhism in
China – which, for convenience, I shall just refer to as “Zen” – sought to explain and interpret
the Buddha’s message of liberation using ideas from Taoism. This Taoist spirit was
maintained, and, indeed, developed further, when Zen was introduced into Japan in 1191 by
the Japanese monk Eisai (1141-1215), who founded the Rinzai school (based on the teachings
of the 9th Century Lin Chi), and later by Dogen (1200-1253), who founded the Soto school.
For instance, from the Taoist principle of wu-wei, Zen Buddhists derived the idea that
enlightenment did not necessarily have to involve an arduous sequence of mental training,
leading to a gradual ascent to this summit of spiritual development. Rather, Zen suggests that
“all” that is needed to attain enlightenment is for one to act naturally and spontaneously in
accordance with the Tao. This suggestion is evident in one of the first clear statements of
Zen, attributed to Seng-ts’an (circa 600 CE), in his poem Hsin-hsin Ming (Treatise on Faith
in the Mind), which states, “Follow your nature and accord with the Tao; Saunter along and
stop worrying… Don’t be antagonistic to the world of the senses, For when you are not
antagonistic to it, It turns out to be the same as complete awakening” (cited in Watts, 1957, p.
109). This notion that liberation consists in following one’s nature is reflected in the famous
definition of Zen given by Po-Chang (720-814 CE), “When hungry, eat; when tired, sleep.”
Indeed, the person realises that since they too are an expression of the Tao, there is no way
they cannot act in accordance with it. Thus, there is no need to strive towards Buddhahood
(i.e., “attaining” enlightenment); rather, the task is to recognise that one already has a
“Buddha nature” (is already enlightened). Consequently, Zen places great emphasis on the
possibility of “sudden” awakening: an immediate realisation in which one sees through the
illusory construct that is one’s ego, and grasps in its completeness one’s Buddha nature.
Of course, although recognising one’s Buddha nature is ostensibly presented in Zen as
a simple act, in reality it is anything but. For this reason, Zen developed various practices
aimed at provoking this kind of awakening. For instance, Zen places great emphasis on za-
zen (meditation), particularly within monastic settings (Watts, 1957). There was also the
extraordinary development of the koan system, designed to test practitioners’ spiritual
insight. These were “riddles” that could not be solved with the conventional intellect – e.g.,
“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” – thereby creating a cognitive impasse,
characterised by “great doubt” (Suzuki, 1961); the trainee would thus dwell upon these
imponderables, until the impasse suddenly gave way to a breakthrough of insight. And then
there is art, which Zen found to be a particularly effective vehicle for communicating and
inculcating its ideas, as the next part explores.
Having now briefly introduced Zen, this next part now explores its aesthetics. There are
many ways in which this topic could be approached, and, indeed, numerous reasons for doing
so. As such, it is worth restating the purpose of this paper: to find an aesthetic mode that may
allow us to appreciate the dialectical nature of life, and consequently to provide an aesthetic
basis for second wave PP. Thus, it is not the aim here to explicitly demonstrate that the
practice and appreciation of Zen can be the basis for spiritual liberation – although this may
well, indeed, be the case – or to promote Buddhism. Rather, the more modest aim is simply
to elucidate some Zen aesthetic principles that can illuminate the kind of dialectical insights
being explored in second wave PP. Indeed, Wong’s (2011) exposition of this second wave –
PP 2.0, in his terminology – was based on his knowledge and understanding of Zen
dialectical principles. Readers interested in the influence of Zen on PP 2.0 are thus further
encouraged to read Wong’s (2009a, 2016a) work on “Chinese Positive Psychology.”
Firstly though, let’s say a little about the importance of aesthetics within Zen. In Zen,
art is seen as a particularly potent way of communicating spiritual truths, indeed, far more so
than discursive prose. Zen constantly seeks to eschew and overcome the limitations of
conceptual thought, and to “point directly” into the “suchness” (i.e., nature) of reality. As
Chung-yuan (1977, p. xvii) puts it: “Chinese aesthetics is not a rational system of thought, but
a direct, intuitive experience, which contains within it certain basic, profound and subtle
meanings essential to the attainment of the One.” And art is uniquely effective at just this
kind of pointing, indeed, Hermann (1990) describes art as the highest (though still
inadequate) vehicle for truth. In Zen, artistic creations enable adepts to reveal and express
their spiritual insights, highlighting their “direct seeing” into the nature of reality. Moreover,
simply learning to appreciate Zen aesthetics (i.e., without necessarily practising oneself) can
also be a potent route to spiritual illumination. As such, Bai (2002, p. 12) reports that Zen
“pervaded the arts and crafts, indeed all aspects of everyday life” in medieval China and
Japan – from flower arrangement to swordsmanship, poetry to painting – and rendered them
vital expressions of and ways towards spiritual experience. This helped to universalise and
democratise Zen, bringing it out from the monastery and into people’s daily lives.
Zen aesthetics is abundantly blessed with a multitude of concepts and practices that
are, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this paper. For instance, innumerable works have
been devoted to Zen artistic traditions, and to the qualities embodied in them. One might
mention the tea ceremony, for example, as elucidated by the Tea Master Takuan Soho (1573-
1645). Interpreting his work, Hammitzsch (1979) suggests it comprises four key concepts.
Kei (reverence) refers to mutual deference and respect from the participants, and concomitant
control of the ego. Wa (harmony) reflects the experience of nonduality, in which the self
does not stand apart from the other, but participates in a union of “interbeing” (Nhat Hanh,
2000). Sei (purity) signifies that the “heart-mind” is free from the turbulent emotions which
usually tend to disturb its equanimity. Finally, jaku (tranquillity) refers to the nature of the
resulting untroubled mind. Such analyses abound in Zen, depicting the significance of art
forms ranging from archery to poetry (Suzuki, 1961). However, of most relevance in the
context of this paper are Zen principles of aesthetic appreciation. These can help us to
discern and even find subtle beauty in the mysterious, dialectical nature of existence, and thus
may serve as an aesthetic basis for second wave PP. I shall explore three key principles in
particular: mono no aware (the pathos of life), wabi-sabi (desolate beauty), and yūgen
(profound grace). There are other potentially relevant principles, such as the seven identified
by Hisamatsu (1971): fukinsei (asymmetry), kanso (simplicity), koko (austere sublimity),
shizen (naturalness), daisuzoku (freedom from attachment), sei-jaku (tranquillity), and yūgen.
However, according to Watts (1957), mono no aware, wabi-sabi, and yūgen are the three
main perceptual-emotional “moods” that Zen aims to evoke, and so are perhaps the most apt
for demonstrating the relevance of Zen aesthetics to second wave PP. These will be
addressed in turn. In doing so, the paper will mainly draw on Japanese literature. However,
further to the notion of “Chinese Positive Psychology” (Wong, 2009a; Wong, 2016a), alluded
to above, it is worth emphasising that these aesthetic principles were also explored with great
depth and subtlety in Chinese art, such as the flowering of poetry during the Tang (618-907
CE) and Song (960-1279 CE) dynasties.
Mono no aware
Mono no aware encapsulates the pathos (evocation of compassion or sorrow) derived from
awareness of the fleeting, impermanent nature of life. The term was coined by the 18th
century literary scholar Motoori Norinaga – by combining aware, meaning “sensitivity” or
“sadness,” and mono, meaning “things” – to reflect what he saw as being a dominant
Japanese aesthetic sensibility over the preceding centuries. This is captured, for example, in
the opening of the epic 14th century Japanese folktale, The Tale of the Heike: “The sound of
the Gion shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things … The proud do not endure, they
are like a dream on a spring night.” As outlined above, recognition of the impermanence and
transience of life is a central tenet of most Eastern philosophies, e.g., in Buddhism, anicca
(impermanence) and anattā (insubstantiality) are two of the three lakshanas (“marks of
conditioned existence”). The importance of this recognition is that denial or ignorance of
anicca and anattā, clinging resolutely to phenomena that are intrinsically subject to change,
is seen as an ultimate cause of the third lakshana, dukkha (dissatisfaction/suffering).
Conversely, then, liberation can be found through a deep understanding and acceptance of
anicca and anattā.
With mono no aware, though, this acceptance is elevated into an aesthetic sensibility
that to an extent can even appreciate this ephemerality, embracing the fragility and finitude
of life (Wong, 2012). This does not mean impermanence is welcomed or celebrated. There
is still sadness present, a pathos at this transiency. However, mono no aware is a complex,
refined emotional state in which this sadness is combined with a quiet rejoicing in the fact
that one had the chance to witness the beauty of life at all, however fleetingly, and
recognition that its ephemerality was somehow integral to its very beauty. As expressed by
Yoshida Kenkō (1283-1350), “If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino …
how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its
uncertainty” (cited in Keene, 1967, p. 7). In Zen, the pre-eminent symbol of mono no aware
is the cherry blossom, whose fragile efflorescence so captivates attention during the bloom of
spring. Crucially, appreciation of its beauty may be heightened by one’s awareness of its
transiency, in a way that would be missing if its florets were a permanent feature of the
landscape. Similarly, people’s delight at the innocence of childhood partly derives from a
sorrowful understanding that this phase passes all too quickly; conversely, there would be
something sinister about a person forever stuck in juvenescence. Thus, as Prusinski (2013, p.
23) puts it, “The beauty lies not in the object itself, but in the whole experience,
transformation, and span of time in which the object is present and changing.”
The sensibility captured by the term mono no aware came to prominence during the
Tokugawa period (1603-1868), when it was suggested that this sensitivity, this “capacity to
understand the world directly, immediately, and sympathetically” was a distinguishing
feature of the Japanese character (Woolfolk, 2002, p. 23). We arguably see a similar
phenomenon in the West during the Romantic period, as in the works of Goethe, when
melancholia was upheld as a sign of a refined soul (Ferber, 2008). However, Zen is less
weighed down by the kind of heaviness and even glorification of sadness that characterised
romanticism. The mood of mono no aware is more accepting and tranquil, sighing rather
than weeping. Given the value of this sensibility, Zen art has sought to capture this spirit of
mono no aware, thereby both expressing and inculcating it. The haiku was a particularly
effective vehicle for this. (Other art forms also evoked mono no aware, and the other
aesthetic moods considered here. However, haiku is the most amenable to presentation in
this context.) Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), arguably the greatest master of the haiku (Hass,
1994), expressed this sense of mono no aware with particular genius, as seen here: “Summer
grasses –; the only remains; of warriors’ dreams.”
Crucially, for our purposes here, mono no aware is not a sensibility that “belongs” to
Zen, or to Japanese culture, but is a mode of appreciation that has relevance for all people,
and for second wave PP in particular. For instance, cultivating mono no aware might help
people to flourish by becoming conscious of the dialectical notion that both positive and
negative states are transitory; this could then facilitate a valuable sense of humility and
modesty when life is going well, and, conversely, a feeling of hope if life is going badly
(Wong, 2012). Similarly, developing an appreciation of mono no aware may help people to
accept and even embrace the co-valenced nature of elevated emotions such as love (Lazarus,
2003). As noted above, love is fundamentally dialectical, a potent blend of joy and sadness,
safety and fear. As C. S. Lewis (1971, p. 121) put it, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love
anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” The relevance here of mono no
aware is that one’s sense of love might be heightened by the realisation that one cannot
guarantee its permanence, or secure its presence. We must therefore delight when love does
grace us, just as we revel in the fleeting appearance of the cherry blossom. Likewise, if it
does pass, one can also try to accept the impermanence of life, and be grateful that one was
fortunate to have ever loved at all. These are not necessarily easy sensibilities to cultivate;
however, trying to develop mono no aware may nevertheless be a doorway to a “second wave
consciousness,” i.e., a mode of being that appreciates the dialectical nature of life. In
practical terms, there are various ways of encouraging this kind of sensibility. For example,
there are therapies that use art to facilitate healing and growth, like poetry therapy (Mazza,
1999). Second wave PP could draw on such practices in developing interventions that
engender mono no aware, thereby helping people to develop a greater appreciation of
The sense of ephemerality reflected in mono no aware is counterbalanced, in an intriguing
way, by the second term, wabi-sabi. Essentially, this captures the strange, desolate beauty of
aged or imperfect phenomena. Whereas mono no aware points towards erosion and wear,
wabi-sabi reminds us that in this process of changing, a certain desolate beauty is nonetheless
retained. Think here of the mysterious power of old ruins, and the reverential qualities of
depth and meaning that they can evoke. As Prusinski (2013, p. 25) puts it, wabi-sabi depicts
“a crude or often faded beauty that correlates with a dark, desolate sublimity.” The aesthetic
categories of wabi (rustic beauty) and sabi (aged beauty) can be treated separately, as
elucidated below, as each bring subtly different qualities to the compound term.
Nevertheless, as Park (2005) outlines, these are ultimately complementary concepts that are
usually combined to form a coherent aesthetic sense, characterised by awareness, and indeed
appreciation, of (1) austerity, (2) imperfection, and (3) the passage of time. This sense is
depicted by Tanizaki (1933, pp. 11-12) in his classic exposition of Zen aesthetics “In Praise
of Shadows.” He describes preferring a “pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance, a murky light
that, whether in a stone or an artefact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity … We love things that
bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colours and the sheen that call to
mind the past that made them.” To fully appreciate the nuances of this sensibility, let us
examine its components in turn.
With wabi, appreciation of the impermanence of existence is reflected in the idea that
we do injustice to life if we only value that which appears perfect and complete. Rather, we
should endeavour to see the grace in all seasons, as it were. As the 14th century monk Kenkō
asked, “Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, at the moon only when it is
cloudless? ... Gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration” (cited in
Keene, 1967, p. 115). This means not abhorring phenomena for being imperfect, but, rather,
valuing their unique gifts. This aesthetic emerges in the art of tea, where flawed utensils are
more prized than “perfect” ones; reactions to these items are thus illustrative of a person’s
understanding of life – as the 17th Century Sen no Rikyū put it, “There are those who dislike a
piece when it is even slightly damaged; such an attitude shows a complete lack of
comprehension” (cited in Hirota, 1995, p. 226). Thus, wabi reflects a deep acceptance of life
and its imperfections, in contrast to the futile quest to create perfect conditions. This has
obvious relevance to PP, as discussed further below. As Hirota puts it, “Wabi means that
even in straitened circumstances no thought of hardship arises. Even amid insufficiency, one
is moved by no feeling of want … If you complain that things have been ill-disposed – this is
Similarly, sabi captures the profundity and mysterious elegance of aged or ancient
phenomena, the rustic/rusty patina that lends these gravitas and significance. Even as things
change and age (as per mono no aware), there is beauty in this very process. Sabi thus distils
the notion of aging well, in the sense of “ripe with experience and insight,” together with the
evocative feelings of “tranquillity, aloneness” and “deep solitude” that accompany the
passage of time (Hammitzsch, 1979, p. 46). A haiku by Bashō captures the lonely beauty of
sabi: “Solitary now —; Standing amidst the blossoms; Is a cypress tree” (cited in Dyrness &
kärkkäinen, 2008, p. 66). As with wabi, this sensibility has relevance for second wave PP,
since our sorrow at the passage of time, for instance, might be transmuted if we could see it
through such eyes. Indeed, Zen art aims at just this kind of “re-evaluation” of beauty, finding
value in what was previously judged to lack it (Cooper, 2013). For instance, Zen paintings
often seek to capture the dignity of aged phenomena, like the bleak power of a withered tree
in winter. Or again, Hammitzsch (1979) describes how the tea ceremony is designed to
induce a sense of sabi (among other qualities), e.g., in the way it is ideally taken in a
secluded, time-worn tea house, with aged, antique utensils. (As a reflective note, this last
sentence was difficult to compose, due to a dearth of English words pertaining to aging that
have a positive connotation, which arguably reflects a relative lack of the sabi aesthetic in
Western culture.) As Prusinski (2013, p. 32) explains, these elements strengthen “one’s
consciousness of space and time” – including the relative impermanence and unimportance of
the tea-taking participants themselves – thereby creating a “heightened spirituality.”
As with mono no aware, this wabi-sabi sensibility has relevance for second wave PP.
For instance, one of the dialectical insights of second wave PP is the paradoxical notion that
it is the effort to seek happiness that creates the very dissatisfaction one aims to alleviate; it is
the act of resisting what is, and seeking a “better” state of affairs, that stimulates the feeling
of unhappiness. This insight has been recognised in diverse contexts, from Buddhism (Watts,
1957) to stoicism (McMahon, 2006) to contemporary self-regulation coping theory (Carver &
Scheier, 1990), and has, furthermore, been corroborated in empirical research (Mauss, Tamir,
Anderson, & Savino, 2011). What is thus striking about wabi-sabi is that it offers us the
opportunity to re-evaluate our circumstances, to reappraise them as having value, as opposed
to being deficient. For example, values promulgated by Western capitalism might lead one to
valorise new or perfect objects, and likewise to regard worn or imperfect ones as
dissatisfactory. In this conventional mode of thinking, one might thus be discontent with old
possessions, and not only covet new items, but come to believe that happiness consists in the
acquisition of these. And, as scholars such as Kasser (2011) have shown, this kind of
materialism is detrimental to people’s own wellbeing, as well as to the environment. As
such, the value of this aesthetic mode is not limited to personal happiness, but could have
wider implications, such as addressing the acquisitive materialism that is exacerbating our
current environmental crisis (Cooper, 2013).
Essentially, in cultivating a wabi-sabi sensibility, one might learn to re-evaluate
beauty, and, indeed, even reappraise happiness itself, so that one not only accepts the
imperfections of existence, but even sees the subtle beauty in these very “flaws” (which
would then be no longer perceived as flaws). For instance, Zen Buddhism has developed a
beautiful approach to ceramics, known as kintsugi, which epitomises this principle of wabi-
sabi. Broken pieces are repaired using a precious gold lacquer (kin means golden, and tsugi
means joinery). Thus, the fault lines are not hidden or regarded as blemishes, but rather are
accentuated and made beautiful. This metaphor may also be of value to PP. For instance,
scholars working on the concept of post-traumatic growth often deploy a metaphor of a
broken/shattered vase to describe the phenomenon, whereby the trauma survivor is
encouraged to view their recovery as akin to refashioning the pieces of the vase into a
meaningful configuration (Joseph, 2012). Clearly, notions like kintsugi have the potential to
bring additional depth and significance to the vase metaphor, and thus to the healing process,
helping people to find value, meaning, and even beauty in their scars and vulnerabilities.
Finally then, is yūgen, translated by Parkes (2011) as “profound grace,” and described as the
most “ineffable” of aesthetic concepts. In philosophical texts it means “dark” or
“mysterious,” and alludes to the unfathomable depths of existence, and the fundamental
inability of the mind to comprehend these depths. As Suzuki (1959, pp. 220-221) elucidates,
yūgen is “a compound word, each part, yū and gen, meaning ‘cloudy impenetrability,’ and the
combination meaning ‘obscurity,’ ‘unknowability,’ ‘mystery,’ ‘beyond intellectual
calculability,’ but not ‘utter darkness.’” Similarly, Kaula (1960, pp. 69-70) describes it as the
“sense of the mysterious quiescence beneath all things.” Thus, yūgen reflects the notion that
the mystery of existence may be ineffable and elusive, and beyond rational understanding,
but nevertheless can be sensed in some inchoate, intuitive way (Tsubaki, 1971). As Suzuki
continues, “It is hidden behind the clouds, but not entirely out of sight, for we feel its
presence, its secret message being transmitted through the darkness however impenetrable to
the intellect.” Moreover, yūgen does not simply reflect one’s awareness of these mysterious
depths, but the way one might also be moved in the core of one’s being by these mysteries,
without quite knowing why. Kamo no Chōmei (1212) characterises yūgen thus: “It is like an
autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that
we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably” (cited in Dyrness & kärkkäinen, 2008,
As with mono no aware and wabi-sabi, Zen art endeavours to capture this elusive
sense of yūgen. Moreover, as with these other aesthetic moods, art is particularly effective at
conveying it, at least compared to discursive modes of representation (which are intrinsically
unsuited to representing the ineffable). As Kaula (1960, pp. 69-70) explains, the sense that
such art attempts to evoke is a “muted, tranquil world in which nothing remains immutably
fixed, a world of mist, rain, and wind, of snow and withering flowers.” The quiescent depths
of such a world are “too fragile and elusive … to be rationally understood or deliberately
controlled,” but can nevertheless be alluded to by the skilful artist and perceived by the
sensitive observer. However, Zen does not tend to convey this sensibility through ostensibly
incomprehensible works of art, as, for example, found in post-modern Western “abstract” art.
Rather, Zen art depicts “ordinary” natural phenomena, doing so as an example of the “direct
pointing” to the ultimate nature of reality that Zen in general aims towards. Just as the Zen
practitioner’s “Buddha nature” is demonstrated by seemingly prosaic acts such as eating or
walking, Zen artists use natural phenomena to evoke this sense of yūgen. For instance, the
following seminal haiku, by Basho, is often regarded as the ultimate expression of yūgen in
Japanese poetry (Watts, 1957): “On a withered branch; A crow is perched; In the autumn
As with the other aesthetic principles, yūgen is (or rather, could be) of great value to
second wave PP. Arguably, Western psychology has already identified states of experience
that are similar to yūgen, the kind of profound, transcendental states described by Maslow
(1972) as “peak experiences” or by Wong (2009b) as chaironic happiness. Deeply profound
and moving, such moments go far beyond mere hedonic pleasure or even eudaimonic
meaning, but shake the very core of one’s being, engendering life-changing experiences of
self-transcendence (Wong, 2016b). Here one surpasses all concepts, entering the realm of
awe, in which one is rendered speechless, powerless and even terrified by the mysterious
power and grace of the universe (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). There are parallels here with
Frankl’s (1963) notion of the search for “ultimate” meaning, which is beyond human
comprehension (Wong, 2009c). However, what is unusual and potent about yūgen is the
apparently “ordinary” nature of the phenomena that can evoke it, as reflected in Basho’s
haiku. Western conceptions of peak experience tend to imply that these can only be
experienced on some literal or metaphorical (e.g., developmental) mountain peak. With
yūgen, though, there is the profound experience of the ordinary – which is within everyone’s
reach – being revealed as extraordinary, as if lifting a veil on the sacred. And, as such, this is
perhaps the place to end: in appreciating the dialectics of flourishing, as second wave PP aims
to do, the fundamental point is the value of transcending narrow human constructs and
categories, and glimpsing the strange, mysterious beauty of life.
This paper has suggested that PP might benefit from engaging with Zen aesthetic principles.
It was argued that second wave PP is characterised by an awareness of the dialectical nature
of flourishing, and of the way wellbeing involves a delicate blend of apparently positive and
negative elements. Historically, this kind of dialectical appreciation has been developed by
Eastern philosophies, particularly Zen, hence the rationale for suggesting that PP could learn
from Zen. Indeed, research has already shown that PP can benefit from engaging with Zen
aesthetics, which can help illustrate the dialectical nature of flourishing (Wong, 2012). As
such, to facilitate an awareness of Zen aesthetics in PP, this paper outlined three Zen aesthetic
principles – mono no aware (pathos of life), wabi-sabi (desolate beauty), and yūgen
(profound grace) – showing in each case how PP could benefit from engendering these
sensibilities. Moreover, Zen aesthetics also suggests new directions for PP, particularly
research into the possibility of attaining inner contentment – even amidst difficult life
circumstances – through self-development and cultivation. This paper has merely scratched
the surface of what Zen aesthetics – and Eastern philosophy more broadly – can potentially
offer PP as it matures and evolves as a discipline. Future work will therefore be needed to
allow the field to truly harness the insights of these immense traditions.
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