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The Buddhist concept of “yugen” helps you embrace the mysterious and profound

Foster your own moments of mystery.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach, JR Korpa
Key Takeaways
  • The Zen concept of yūgen often translates into English as a feeling of mysterious profundity.
  • Is is an evocative blend of alertness and longing.
  • To experience it, take a solitary walk. Pay attention to the thresholds met along the way. What’s on the other side? Let your mind play among possibilities, the stranger the better.

Alan Watts, one of the first to explain Buddhist aesthetics to Western audiences, admired the Zen concept of yūgen, often translated into English as a feeling of mysterious profundity. But as Watts explains in his lecture “The Way of Tea,” this definition misses the subtlety of the sensation, best rendered through images. You experience yūgen watching the sun sink beyond a hill covered in poppies, or witnessing wild geese disappear into a bank of clouds, or walking on a strange path — an old mining road, an abandoned railroad track, a shaded walkway in a city park — with no thought of returning.

These encounters, evocative blends of alertness and longing, are rare, Watts believes, because our perception is usually controlled by two drives: to survive and to understand. In survival mode, we see only what meets our most basic needs; in pursuit of comprehension, we notice only what conforms to our mental frameworks.

But then, sudden as weather: those moments — inscrutable but exhilarating — that silence our practical concerns and call us to unexplored regions over the knoll, behind the wall, on the other side of that door.

This is the essence of yūgen: there is always a beyond, and beyond that, another beyond, and beyond that, another, and so on, forever. Doors open to doors, deeps to deeps. “Enough” is illusion; “more,” only, is real.

Foster your own moments of yūgen. Set aside an hour at dawn or twilight.

Take a solitary walk. As you move, recall the thrilling anticipations of your childhood. Anything could happen!

Now pay attention to thresholds along your way: doors, gates, fences, windows, manholes, tree hollows, hills, clouds, puddles, fountains.

What’s on the other side? Let your mind play among possibilities, the stranger the better.

When you get home, on a single sheet of paper, write one sentence or draw a small image that represents this walk. Store the page in a drawer or under your mattress or in the pages of a book or in a jewelry box. If you feel frayed and tired, take out the page and remember, there is something else.

From HOW TO BE WEIRD: An Off-Kilter Guide to Living a One-of-a Kind Life by Eric G. Wilson, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Eric G. Wilson. 


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