The Yugen Moment

Corne van Nijhuis

When I look at a river, this is not the water I really see at that moment. What we call “river” is the continuous change of water. Or similar: if I meet you today and I see you again tomorrow, you will look something like the way you looked yesterday. So I think you are the same person, but fundamentally you are not. Not really. So everything we observe around us is ‘just’ a pattern. Each of us is a vortex in the tide of existence. Every cell in our body is in constant motion. Nothing can really be pinned down. Or consider this one: what happens if a musician plays a certain piece of music today and the same piece tomorrow? Is it the same piece of music or a different one? Here is a nice expression in Pali for “nacha so, nacho anno”, which means something like “not the same and yet not different”. It’s all ‘the dance of existence’.
The world is therefore constantly in motion. In other words, we live on many levels of rhythm. This is the nature of change. And when you resist it, you experience frustration and suffering. But on the other hand, if you understand and respect the essence of change, and if you don’t cling to things around you by letting it flow, then it’s not a problem. It will often even become something beautiful. Percy Bysshe Shelley beautifully describes this idea of the transience of the world in the following poem:

The one remains, the many change and pass.
Heaven’s light forever shines, earth’s shadows fly.
Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,
stains the white radiance of eternity,
until death shatters it to fragments.

There is something wonderful about the fact that things always pass, that somehow things always disappear. The Japanese have a word for this, yūgen, which has no “Western” equivalent. You have the feeling of yūgen when you see a ship disappearing behind an island in the distance on the water. You have the feeling of yūgen when you see how at some point you see wild geese, and then they disappear into the clouds. You have the feeling of yūgen when you look over a mountain you’ve never been to the other side and you see the sky beyond. You don’t go there to see what’s on the other side. That would not produce a yūgen. You let the other side be the other side for what it is. But at the same time it evokes something in your imagination. You don’t try to define it or pin it down because that would spoil the mystery. You just let it fade into mystery.
Unfortunately, the problem is often that we have a one-sided mind. We notice “the waves of life” when a wave is at its peak. We don’t notice it when we’re halfway through the wave trough. It’s the tops that count. Take a saw: what seems important to us are the tips of the teeth. They seem to do the cutting, not the dips between the teeth. But you couldn’t have points of teeth without valleys between them. Therefore, the saw would not cut without both points and V-shaped valleys. But we ignore that. We don’t notice the valleys as much as we notice the points. Drops point down. Teeth point upwards. And we prefer things that point up, because up is seen as good and down as bad.
So we ignore the valley aspect of things, which is why all wisdom begins with it, emphasizing the valley aspect as distinct from the top aspect. We pay a lot of attention to the top aspect. That’s what grabs our attention, but somehow we avoid the valley aspect. But that makes us very uncomfortable. It seems that we want and get pleasure from looking at the peaks. But actually this takes away our pleasure because we secretly know that every peak is followed by a valley: the ‘valley of the shadow of death’. That’s why we’re always afraid, because we’re not used to looking at valleys. Because we are not used to allowing them into life. They represent to us the strange and menacing unknown. And so…we resist change, ignorant of the fact that change is life and that “nothing” is invariably the flip side of “something.”

When you hear music, what you hear as a melody is the interval between one note and another. The steps on the musical ladder. It is the interval that makes the non-interval exist. The interval is just as important as what’s in between, because they can only exist together. You don’t have one without the other, just as your circular saw has no teeth without valleys between its tips or like a front without a back. This fundamental principle applies to everything, including life as a phenomenon: memento vivere ~ memento mori.
I hope to have inspired you again to think about the mystery of life.


Dhr Corne van Nijhuis is a scholar and has devoted his time to the study and practice of Vedanta. He is a regular contributor to this magazine.