There are numerous Japanese words that cannot be translated directly into English. Undeniably my favorite of these words is yugen [幽玄], or more correctly yuugen, though most people who write about it in English write, yugen.
The book, ‘They Have a Word For It,’ defines it as, “An awareness of the universe that triggers feelings too deep and mysterious for words.” They quote Alan Watts by explaining it as, “To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest without thought of return, to stand upon a shore and gaze after a boat that disappears beyond distant islands, to contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.”
I don’t know if that is actually Alan Watts’ original words—he may have been quoting someone else, as those are fairly typical descriptions of the feeling of yugen. In fact, I have read that very description in other places.
The Chinese characters for Yugen are Yuu [幽] (a mountain with the radical for thread on each side of the center line), meaning: 1.) to confine to a room, 2.) faint, dim, indistinct, hazy, weak (this is the same yuu used for yuurei (spirit, ghost, apparition) and yuukai (land of the dead); and gen [玄] (a thread with a lid radical over it–which is actually its own radical), meaning dark, mysterious.
I think it is interesting that ‘thread’ is used in both characters—-hinting towards the threads of reality that weave the physical universe into being. There was, for example, an ancient Indo-European concept that reality was a web of threads–and fate, in particular, was conceived as manifesting through threads. The Old-English word, wyrd, referred both to fate, and one of the names of the three Norns, the three old ladies who weaved our fate. Inherent in the concept of wyrd is the fact that our actions create a web of reality in a cause and effect manner. Wyrd, of course, is the root of the modern English word, weird.
String Theory is the modern science version of this very old concept. But reality woven from threads appears elsewhere in Modern science as well. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity tells us that light, from our sub-light-speed perspective, is composed of zero-time zero-space particles, meaning that it does not exist in time or space. The implication is that a photon exists only for an instant, but that instant covers all time and space. It also means that when we perceive (i.e. see) a photon, it must simultaneously exist, outside of time, in both the present, hitting the retina of our eye, and also at its distant point of origin, no matter how many light years away that is. We personally are trapped by time, and can only physically experience the moment of now (which is then irretrievably lost forever as we experience the next moment of now). But since we understand time in our sub-light-speed reality, we see that photon as having traveled over many light years into the present, from our distant past many light years away. But to that zero-time zero-space light particle, its whole existence is all an infinitely small instant in which it is here and there, and all points in between at the same time—-it is a wave of energy, or, as suggested by the Chinese characters for yugen, a thread.
One theory that has been published in recent years, reworked Newton’s law of Motion in such a way as to suggest that mass is actually an illusion created by light trapped by inertia (which they have also reworked inertia to be the latent light energy that fills the universe, or, the Zero-Point Field). In other words, all that is, is simply light energy! And, as I said, as a zero-time zero-space particle, it is essentially nothing more than a thread stretching from the beginning of time, to the end of time. Now—–how does consciousness fit into that? (…Perhaps it is a reality transcendent of light, and therefore shapes light into the illusion of mass, which creates the physical universe—-a very yugen concept to contemplate while staring at a Japanese garden…)
Granted, I have never seen the word yugen discussed in terms of a thread, but there is usually an archetypal symbolism that connects the Chinese characters to the words they refer to. Undoubtedly, I am sure there is something inherent within the concept.
In any event, Yugen is that feeling you get when you perceive that sense of almost being able to touch that profound reality that underlies existence.
It is an extension of the feeling of aware (pronounced Ah-wah-ray)—another Japanese word that is not directly translatable. The same book translates aware as, ” the feelings engendered by ephemeral beauty. They provide the example of experiencing the beauty of a cherry blossom slowly falling to the ground—a very Japanese experience because the cherry trees blossom only once a year, and it is a beauty they look forward to, but it only lasts a short time—as the blossoms fall to the ground—a final expression of their beauty, it comes with the knowledge that such beauty is gone for this year. It is therefore understood as a bittersweet beauty referring to the temporal nature of life—the mortality we are all subject too. Life is only fleeting, but in those fleeting moments there is a beauty that exists simply because it is fleeting. (And that is what Heidegger meant when he claimed that we find the significance of being in its finality).
Yugen is, of course, much more profound than aware. As temporal as aware is, yugen implies that beyond this temporal existence there is something more.
One experience I found to be Yugen—was sitting and watching a gold-fish—in a gold-fish bowl—the gentle ways that it moves its fins, even when the fish does not move. It is a gentle, silent wave of movement as the fins bend back and forth between the movement the fish makes and the pressure of the surrounding water.
I hope that many of my own haiku, express a sense of yugen. At least, for me, many of them do. But today, rather than sharing one of my own haiku, I will share one of the Japanese classics. Here is a haiku by the popular haiku poet, Issa, that is so full of yugen, it spills over:
Yuzen to shite
yama o miru
Composedly he sits
contemplating the mountains–
the worthy frog!
That translation is by Lewis Mackenzie—who takes some liberty with it—but justifiably so.