7 Aesthetics of Zen Art

Seoul, 2012
Seoul, 2012

I recently came across this list of 7 aesthetics when it comes to Zen art:

  1. Fukinsei/Mu-ho.(Asymmetry/Norule)
  2. Kanso/Mu-zatsu.(Simplicity/Nocomplexity)
  3. Koko/Mu-i.(Austeresublimity/Norank)
  4. Shizen/Mu-shin(Naturalness/Nomind)
  5. Yugen/Mu-tei(Subtleprofundity/Nobottom)
  6. Daisuzoku/Mu-tei(Freedomfromattachment)
  7. Sei-Jaku/Mu-do(Tranquility/Nostirring)

As always, I love combining different ideas from different fields.

So how can we apply these concepts to our photography?

Which aesthetic is the best?

Marseille, 2015 #cindyproject
Marseille, 2015 #cindyproject

First of all, aesthetics are subjective. Different people prefer different aesthetics.

In the West, we generally prefer more complex, grandiose, and spectacular aesthetics. We love to build huge buildings, drive huge cars, and have everything glitzy and sparky.

However in the East, the aesthetics lean more towards simplicity, austerity, and minimalism. To stand out is not desired. You want to blend into the shadows.

Below are some thoughts you can apply to your photography — if you want a more “Zen” approach:

1. Asymmetry

Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject
Berkeley, 2016 #cindyproject

In the West, we value symmetry. We count faces which are symmetrical as “beautiful.” When it comes to architecture, we seek for symmetry on both sides. Symmetry is harmony, and symmetry is beauty.

However with Zen aesthetics, asymmetry is beautiful. Not having each side perfectly mirror the other side. The beauty of imperfection.

So in terms of photography, this can mean different things. For example, it might mean embracing non-level or non-straight horizons. I personally find a little tilt or a crook of a photograph to give it more dynamism and energy.

Or it might mean that you don’t have perfect leading lines from each side. Rather, you have a little chaos in the frame — where one side might not perfectly mirror the other.

2. Simplicity

Tokyo, 2011
Tokyo, 2011

Don’t seek to add to the frame, seek to remove from the frame. Seek subtraction, not addition.

Simplify your scene. Think about the elements you can take out of the frame which are superfluous.

Try to only keep what you find is essential in a frame. Have a single-subject against a plain background. If you feel that an additional element distracts from the frame, remove it all-together.

3. Austerity

Prague, 2015
Prague, 2015

In Zen aesthetics, you prefer to make photographs that are austere. Photos that are quiet, simple, and don’t speak out-loud. You don’t try to have photos that “wow” viewers— but photos that calm your viewer, and show radical simplicity.

To have an austere photograph is to humble your viewer. And it might also mean using non-pretentious camera equipment. Using the simplest equipment possible for a photograph.

4. Naturalness

Provincetown, 2015
Provincetown, 2015

Don’t force your photography. Let your photos come from you naturally. Don’t force yourself to photograph when you don’t want to. Listen to the natural rhythms of your body. Trust your bodily intuition.

Your photographs shouldn’t feel “photoshopped” or staged. Perhaps creating a more “natural” photograph means using more simple post-processing methods. Or trying to shoot more candid photos, rather than posed photos.

5. Subtleness

Portugal, 2015
Portugal, 2015

You don’t want your photos to scream out at you. Perhaps there is some subtle beauty in the photograph, that requires the viewer to pause, sit down, and look at. It might be a subtle detail in the background, or a small “cherry on top” which might catch the eye of the viewer.

I personally find subtle beauty far better than someone trying to ostentatious with their art, and in-your-face.

6. Freedom from attachment

Seoul, 2009
Seoul, 2009

Know that in photography the moment is fleeting. Although your camera might immortalize a scene; the moment after you’ve clicked the shutter, the moment is gone forever.

Don’t be attached to your past photos or experiences. Rather, see every moment as a new moment for you to explore your creativity. Don’t be constrained by the past.

7. Tranquility

Paris, 2015
Paris, 2015

Ultimately, your photography (and photographs) should give you a sense of tranquility. Instead of exciting your viewer, they should calm your viewer. When your viewer looks at your photos, they feel a calm sense of elation — which puts their heart at ease.

If you feel anxious or stressed when you’re shooting photography, you’re not doing it in a mindful or “Zen” way. Try to calm down and relax while you’re shooting, and empty your mind.

Seek tranquility.

Find more zen in your photography


Below are articles related to Zen/Taoism and photography:

  1. Free E-Book: Zen in the Art of Street Photography
  2. Zen in the Art of Street Photography
  3. 15 (More) Lessons Taoism Has Taught Me About Street Photography
  4. How to Find Tranquility in Your Photography
  5. How to Find Zen in Street Photography
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