The Real Meaning of Shizen
Updated: Feb 26, 2019
When I lived in Japan and was studying Japanese language I found that the word “shizen” was often used in a contradictory way. For some reason I was drawn to this word and its aesthetic principles but I wanted to better understand the real meaning.
The dictionary definition of shizen is “nature, ” “natural,” and also “spontaneous.” The real meaning of shizen has come to be a part of Japanese culture and Zen Buddhist thought which recognizes it more as “human nature,” including both people and wilderness together.
Are “nature” and “shizen” the same?
No. In the west the term “nature” seams to be restricted to raw nature and wilderness. Part of the developing definition of “shizen” has to do with the Japanese ideas of nature also including human beings and how they intertwine with nature. Shizen allows for human beings interpretation, contribution, and adjustment of nature to be included in the meaning. For example, in the west we may not consider a golf course as natural, but in Japanese if you were at a golf course you could describe the situation as being natural or being a part of nature. So let’s look at the 3 dictionary definitions and see if we can’t get some better meaning of what the Japanese consider shizen and why that is even important.
The Japanese have a mixed relationship with nature itself. There is both a deep respect and appreciation for its beauty, but also a fear of knowing first hand the destruction Mother Nature can bring with it. The Japanese consider themselves as a country that lives in harmony with nature by observing and highlighting the 4 seasons. I do believe that many other countries also do this and my hometown in Buffalo, NY also has 4 seasons that we enjoy.
You can however make the argument that Japan “over sells” the seasons more than many places. Seasonal foods and cooking what is in season is a very good way of keeping people aware of what time of year it is, what grows during this time of year, equating to a level of expected freshness. Marketing campaigns for travel destinations heavily employ seasonal attributes to the different television ads and posters you see everywhere. These are highlighting positive sides to nature and luring the busy person to a place where you can experience nature, which is being sold as a happy calming place. The experience can be through luxurious food or through visiting a hot spring (onsen) set in the mountains or overlooking the ocean.
The Japanese home is also very inclusive of the 4 seasons, with central air only recently becoming an option for homeowners. Most homes do not have a basement and sit about the ground slightly and they are also not very well insulated. The goal for many homes traditionally was to keep the place cooler in the hot months of summer, and heat only a few rooms or stay under a Kotatsu, table with a heater and blanket underneath.
I can say that for good and bad, I actually felt the seasons more when I lived in Japan. Japan itself is also an island country that has a lot of earthquake activity. There have been many major earthquakes that have affected many families, as well as tsunami that destroy coastal areas. Typhoons are also quite common in certain areas as well and have left paths of destruction. These constant natural occurrences are reminders that we are not really in control of anything and that we should appreciate the moment and limited time on earth that we do have.
In the west I think we lean more toward a definition of “natural” as something that stems from nature itself. In Japan I think “shizen” can include more of a definition of also something that closely imitates nature. On the surface I think we want to believe that “Natural” is something that is true or pure.
However, we only have to look at the food industry to see that their definition of what is allowed to be called “natural” has a very gray area surrounding it. There are many animals that are allowed to be sold as natural, even though they are raised in small factories, the opposite of free-range, and also grow up on an allowed level of hormones and chemicals, also not organic. Yet we still cling to the idea of natural as something that is pure and untouched by man.
Japan on the other hand has allowed the definition to expand to include human intervention. An example of this is Japanese gardens. Many people consider gardens as something that evokes a feeling of naturalness and a place to appreciate the beauty of nature. However, realized or not, this is a place that is actually highlighting the beauty of the creative individual as well as natural beauty. Japanese gardens are highly planned out, are also sometimes symbolic of spiritual places, and most importantly they are highly maintained. The pruning and shaping of trees and bushes as well as the daily weeding necessary to keep the garden looking “natural” is astounding.
So as the oxford dictionary refers to “naturalness” as “not made or caused by humankind,” the concept of “naturalness” in Japan as expressed through “shizen” takes on a more inclusive and broader definition.
We want to believe that when we use the word “naturally” it also refers to something that comes about spontaneously, without the interference of human beings or intention. We want to believe in a creativity that comes out of nowhere, naturally, devoid of any assistance.
There are many myths that surround spontaneity when it comes to creativity. We are told that innovation and art comes about in flashes of insight and are really only for the select few, like Mozart or Einstein. But the truth of the matter is that it has more to do with repeated action, effort, and determination than this notion of sudden illumination.
Author Kevin Ashton writes in his book How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery that, “creation is not a moment of inspiration but a lifetime of endurance.” So this brings me back to the point that we associate something as natural and spontaneous when in fact there may be a lot going on behind the scenes leading up to something that we are perceiving as magical, pure, or innate.
Ashton writes, “There is no electric fence between those who can create and those who cannot, with genius on one side and the general population on the other.” In essence, we can all create. Yes some people have honed their creative process more than others, just like an athlete will or a chef, be we all have the potential to naturally create.
Shizen and Zen Buddhism
Shizen has developed into a Japanese cultural and aesthetic concept in which Zen Buddhism has sculpted its meaning. Many scholars and Zen monks have sought to define and explain the principles that are inherent to Zen Art. Hisamatsu (1971) does a great job of examining “Shizen” in his influential classic text Zen and the Fine Arts. These seven are: kanso (simplicity); fukinsei (asymmetry); koko (austere sublimity); shizen (naturalness); daisuzoku (freedom from habits); sei-jaku (tranquillity); and yūgen (profound grace)
When thinking about how Zen can be applied to design, Faena Aleph describes Naturalness as an essential principle that can be applied.
“Expressed by shizen, naturalness in design seeks the equilibrium between being a part of nature and at the same time, different —architecture that adapts to its environment also incarnates simultaneously artistic intention.”
· No Mind
With shizen, the goal is not to replicate nature, but to eventually become one with it. It is the concept of ‘No Mind’ in which we can reach that state of flow. Again, it may seam to come about spontaneously or naturally, and that is the goal, but remember that only happens after many hours of practice and effort have been completed. Some of the best things can then come about in what we say have been created with no conscious effort. First you have to know the rules of the game. Then you practice repeatedly until you have internalized the material or actions. After you have internalized the materials and it truly becomes a part of you, then you can perform in a better state of mind more naturally. This is No Mind and the result is seen as being “natural.”
On simpler terms, this naturalness can be scene when someone says, “You make that look so easy.” Often something difficult looks easy and natural to someone on the outside because they have internalized it after having done it so many times.
· Japanese Rock Gardens
You can sometimes see examples of shizen in Japanese rock gardens. To some people, the overpowering art, racked stones, bold and tall protruding boulders, are far from what some might consider “natural.” However, in the Zen and the Art of Living Mindfully: The Health-Enhancing Potential of Zen Aesthetics (by Lomas, Etcoff, Gordon, & Shonin) they state that:
“With these gardens, the natural spontaneity of nature is captured in an intentional, conscious way, yet in a way that is ideally without premeditation or contrivance. “
If you are interested in this topic of Shizen then you will also probably like the aesthetic concept of Kachou Fuugetsu, finding yourself in nature.
We have taken this aesthetic concept of nature and naturalness as the basis of our design philosophy at ShizenStyle. It is with this eye that we look at modern and rustic home and garden design. We aim to incorporate this concept of Shizen and nature into our busy modern lives. Balancing both a contemporary and natural look to our homes and gardens should be done with mindfulness and a natural spontaneity. If you would like some inspiration of blending modern and rustic elements and see examples of the real meaning of “shizen,” then please visit us at ShizenStyle.