A few weeks ago, on a tour of Coiba Island, I had a moment.
I was swimming in the clear blue ocean, surrounded by pristine, untouched islands and the vast ocean. No other humans were in sight except for those who were with me.
As I looked up at the cloudless blue sky and out at the vastness of the Pacific ocean, I felt overcome with awe.
I was a speck of a speck on a planet spinning in space as it rotated around the sun — a microcosm in the vastness of the universe.
This feeling repeats daily here in Santa Catalina.
I feel it as I look out at the rocks and the ocean from where I sit and write, as I explore the beach at sunrise, stare into the infinite sea, watch the sun disappear behind Santa Catalina island in the evening, and stare at the vast dark sky filled with stars every night.
I pull out my camera to take pictures, or my journal to write about the experience, but it is almost futile. There is no lens wide enough to capture the vastness of the experience, no words to describe the feeling of this experience. At least no words in English.
“Awesome” is a word that gets thrown around a lot — I am guilty of this for sure — and it is truly awesome here. But awesome hardly capture it.
It is beautiful and magnificent and touches the soul in an indescribable way.
This is Yūgen
Yūgen (幽玄) is a Japanese word that is roughly translated as
an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses that are too deep and mysterious for words.
Yūgen is an important concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics. The exact translation of the word depends on the context. In the Chinese philosophical texts the term was taken from, yūgen meant “dim”, “deep” or “mysterious”.
Yūgen suggests that which is beyond what can be said, but it is not an allusion to another world. It is about this world, this experience.
All of these are portals to yūgen:
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. Zeami Motokiyo
A Deeper Understanding of Something Unexplainable
In a 1971 paper on Zeami and the Transition of the Concept of Yūgen: A Note on Japanese Aesthetics (Link to PDF), Andrew T. Tsubaki quotes Junzo Karaki on the significance of the term to the Japanese “today”:
This concept denotes a common feeling or a common world found at the depth of sensibility which could only be described with such words as “somehow” or “somewhere.”
This sensibility is an area where artists feel at ease but scholars and interpreters often find themselves lost. For the artist is satisfied if he senses immediately and directly the aesthetic message; he is not usually compelled to explain or convey what it is he has grasped.
Tsubaki cites Daisetz T. Suzuki on the general sense of yūgen:
An object so designated [as yūgen] is not subject to dialectical analysis or to a clear-cut definition. It is not at all presentable to our sense-intellect as this or that, but this does not mean that the object is altogether beyond the reach of human experience. In fact, it is experienced by us, and yet we cannot take it out into the broad daylight of objective publicity. It is something we feel within ourselves, and yet it is an object about which we can talk. It is an object of mutual communication only among those who have the feeling of it. 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. The feeling is all in all. Cloudiness or obscurity or indefinability is indeed characteristic of the feeling. But it would be a great mistake if we took this cloudiness for something experientially valueless or devoid of significance to our daily life. We must remember that Reality or the source of all things is to the human understanding an unknown quantity, but that we can feel it in a most concrete way.
This is one of those things worth reading a few times and sitting with for a while. Take it on a walk. Perhaps through nature. You’ll understand what he is saying.
No English Equivalent
Yūgen doesn’t have a corresponding word in English. As Tsubaki noted:
It is almost impossible to find a parallel of this yūgen quality in the West, since it is something hardly ever created and appreciated by Westerners.
Hah. Also, he’s not wrong. Western culture is too busy chasing happiness.
Yūgen is so much more.
The Feeling We’re All After
I believe this is really what we want to feel. Yūgen is a feeling more profound than happiness, joy, elation, or awe. It’s deeper than gratitude.
Yūgen may feel elusive, but I believe we can experience it beyond the realms of nature.
It is available to us in any moment where we look up out of our phones, pause to notice our surroundings, and open ourselves to the depth of our experience, the vastness of our surroundings, and the miracles that play out in front of us.