Pure Land of Beauty

By Rev. Ken Yamada

The Pure Land conjures a faraway land of great beauty; for art critic Sōetsu Yanagi, finding splendor in the ordinary shows that place is “here and now.”

“Since it is possible for me to speak of ‘the Pure Land of Beauty present here at this very moment,’ not as an abstract concept but as the concrete reality right before my eyes, how could I fail to be captivated by such a subject,” he wrote, shortly before his death. Bedridden and ill, he spent long sleepless nights examining “pots and pictures,” pondering “over the strange miracle of the quiet beauty of each object,” compelled to record his thoughts.

Yanagi (1889-1961) was a Japanese philosopher, art critic, and proponent of folkcrafts. His essay “The Pure Land of Beauty,” was published in English in The Eastern Buddhist journal (1976), and later in a book, “Interactions with Japanese Buddhism,” edited by Michael Pye. He was a friend and student of Buddhist scholar Daisetsu Suzuki.

In his essay, Yanagi explained that Christianity, for example, starts from a premise of Creator and created, judge and judged, which are dualistic ways of thinking always resulting in opposition. By contrast, Buddhism sees truth in that which precedes division, meaning nondualism and deemed “original mind.” Therefore, in the Pure Land, there’s no rich or poor, smart or stupid, high or low, or chosen or un-chosen.

By contrast, art is typically harshly judged—talent versus mediocrity, skilled versus unskilled, genius versus common, and expensive versus cheap. The everyday world similarly discriminates. However, in the Pure Land of Beauty, such discrimination has no meaning.

Yanagi gives an example of Sòng dynasty Cízhōu bowls, made by potters who customarily employed 10-year-old children to paint them. Illiterate, uneducated, and without high instruction in art, they created images that today are highly prized. But these works were produced without thought to talent, genius, and skill.

Cízhōu pottery

Likewise, Yanagi says, “When we look at nature which surrounds us, for example, grass and stones, not to speak of flowers or butterflies, we discover there is not a thing which is ugly. There, all things are beautiful in their true state. Although some of us might consider certain things less beautiful than others, such judgement is based on self-centered human ideas. In nature itself, ‘ugliness’ is inconceivable. It is human convenience that man discriminates, but in nature, the difference between the high and the low, beauty and ugliness has no meaning.”

Yanagi cites the Sutra on the Buddha of Eternal Life, which describes the “non-existence of duality of beauty-ugliness.” The Pure Land of Beauty does not belong to the world of relativity. In the absence of duality, beauty emerges. Ultimate beauty becomes impossible apart from nonduality. The dichotomy of beauty-ugly disappears.

However, Yanagi is careful to explain that such beauty doesn’t mean rejecting ugliness, which implies duality. Rather, there is no dichotomy between beauty and ugliness. He said, “When I speak of a Pure Land of Beauty, it is to be understood as a place where all things without exception are accepted within Beauty.”

Japanese tea ceremony masters recognized this sense of ultimate beauty in everyday objects, he says, by treasuring simple utensils for their quiet, humble splendor. Such works, such as Korean rice bowls, were originally made as cheap, ordinary articles for day-to-day use. When they were produced, no thought was given to distinctions between noble and ignoble, rich and poor, aristocrat and plebian. They are examples of “common folk utensils being accorded a high place in heaven.”  Differences in worldly rank don’t apply.

In these earlier times, ordinary articles, made in large quantity, naturally allied with beauty, which meant “even the poorest people lived amongst superb artifacts,” which were inexpensive and excellent. Beauty and low cost were not opposed.

By contrast, expensive works specifically made for the aristocracy, he says, such as Nabeshima porcelain, known for its colorful red enamel, seem constrained and lacking in vitality and freedom. Pretentious works exude “ego” which strives to judge, discriminate, divide and set apart. “Luxurious, pretentious things contain much that is false because of the very effort to express beauty—all too often the intellect is overworked. Do we not find from daily experience that it is the intellect which is thus the seed of ignorance?”

Yanagi explained that tea ceremony masters gathered apparently inferior ordinary articles and praised them as masterpieces. They could see a quiet settled beauty, produced from a free or “non-abiding” mind unattached to the thought of beauty and free from fixed views. “That which made the tea masters unique was their perceptive desire to live with such things as their companions.”

Yanagi’s thoughts recall Shinran’s words about his teacher Honen:

I remember [teacher Honen] smile and say, as he watched humble people of no intellectual pretensions coming to visit him, “Without doubt their birth in the Pure Land is settled.’ And I heard him say after a visit by a man brilliant in letters and debating, “I really wonder about his birth.” To this day these things come to mind.

The ego judges, discriminates, divides and sets apart, Yanagi says, but admitted a discriminating mind serves a practical function in daily life. He warned, “Be aware that it takes us away from the Pure Land.”

He says modern art is based on the “ism” of dualism, meaning new versus old, reflecting Hegel’s philosophy of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis—an unending cycle of continuous conflict without resolution.

In today’s world, people are proud of their intellect, thinking it indicative of a superior person. To Yanagi, pretentious and inauthentic articles show traces of ego and vestiges of the intellect. By contrast, folkcrafts emanate from an innocent mind that leap from heart to hand. “Luxurious, pretentious things contain much that is false because of the very effort to express beauty—all too often the intellect is overworked. In daily experience, intellect is the seed of ignorance.”

In folkcrafts made by ordinary people with ordinary materials, there is no opportunity to assert “ego.” The beauty of those items comes from accepting them for what they are. It’s a beauty of acceptance. Yanagi likens it to salvation by “Other Power.”

Art is traditionally judged by the materials used to make it. For instance, the highest-grade clay is considered essential in making the best pottery. In the Pure Land of Beauty, that requirement is unnecessary. Yanagi points to the admired “Swankolok” (Sangkholok) pottery from Thailand, which uses clay consisting of sediment from a local river. “Such clays in their very poorness of quality are given life by the way in which they are employed in fine pots,” he says. “Used in a suitable way, one sees that the so-called bad clays come to life. We may learn from this that the birth of beauty of this sort is paradoxically dependent on what has been called poor clay.” He says that in the Pure Land of Beauty, there’s no such thing as bad or ugly material.

Swankolok ware

He says, “We are all inclined to conclude that in order to create something beautiful, some kind of special gift is necessary, but that is not so, for left in our pure state, all of us are in possession of the ability to create something beautiful. This is a truer way to grasp the situation.” He likens this state to a bitter persimmon that ripens with sweetness.

Such thoughts echo the text Tannisho, where Shinran questions the meaning of good and bad. He said, “Even a good person attains birth in the Pure Land, so it goes without saying that an evil person will.”

Yanagi felt a pureness and innocence of spirit radiating from people unconcerned with rank and ego, struggling to live day-to-day. Such thinking is indicative of what he called the “original mind” of nonduality.

Proof is found in objects made by primitive people, which are emulated by modern artists. “This is not because every primitive craftsman is an outstanding genius but because such people live a life truer to their original nature than civilized people.” It’s the same for paintings by children who dwell in their original nature. “When children become educated, or sophisticated, they lose their capacity to draw freely and beautifully.”

“Primitive people, looked down upon as ‘underdeveloped,’ create free and lively things because their life has not been affected by artificiality as has the life of so-called cultured man. For this reason, they are able to give effortless freedom to their work,” he wrote. “Any attempt to educate them immediately results in their handwork becoming lifeless.”

He said: “Thanks to the very fact that they are not equipped with knowledge and discrimination, they have no attachments and are therefore free. Thus, they can express freedom both in their hearts and in their work, with resulting beauty.”

Yanagi was not arguing for discarding the ways of modern society. “Neither does this necessarily mean that we should return to primitive life. Once we understand how intellectual culture restricts our freedom, we should then be able to perceive with great wisdom just where the shortcomings inherent in the nature of the intellect lie. Our ‘knowledge’ should be inclusive of this perception.”

He said primitive beauty may be called “original beauty.” This innate nature is like “Buddha nature.” “If, for the moment, we replace the term ‘Buddha-nature’ with ‘Beauty-nature,’ we can then see that all things are from the very beginning endowed with beauty. Affirmation of this truth is taking place endlessly in the Pure Land of Beauty.”

Pure Land teachings speak of “Other Power.” For Yanagi, proof of Other Power can be found in art, for example, in the glaze effects of yōzen (changes in colors caused by intermittent clear-burning and smoke in the kiln) and haikazuki (changes in color caused by wood ash falling on melting glazes). These finishes are the result of fire and fallen ash, of which potters have no control. For Yanagi, this process is none other than Other Power, which results in indescribable beauty. “All is but a blessing of the Other Power,” he said.

Likewise, Yanagi points to famous Buddhist statues carved by itinerant monks Mokujiki (1718-1810) and Enkū (1632-1695), which were chiseled with rough, almost careless strokes. To smooth over these defects would take away their beauty. In other words, beauty lay in the defects. (see image above)

That observation calls to mind, Shinran’s hymn:

Obstructions of karmic evil turn into virtues;
It is like the relation of ice and water:
The more the ice, the more the water;
The more the obstructions, the more the virtues.

Yanagi wrote: “It goes without saying that both gifted men and articles of high quality and refinement should be securely related to beauty. But what seems to me most interesting is the phenomenon before my eyes of ungifted people and their poor-quality material showing an even surer contact with beauty. This is closely comparable to the relation between eminent and learned and saintly monks who have nursed and nurtured the world of spiritual life in depth, and the simple, humble and unlearned believers who live by pure and profound faith.” Such simple humble followers are called myōkōnin in Jodo Shinshu.

In Yanagi’s Pure Land of Beauty, three great oppositions disappear—intelligence versus stupidity, skilled versus unskilled, and beauty versus ugliness. It doesn’t mean that all become geniuses, intelligent or skillful. Nor do all objects acquire the same level of beauty. “In this Heaven, the common remains common, the stupid, the unskilled, the poor, each person remains as he is, and yet each and every one has his place in Heaven,” he wrote.

The Pure Land, he says, is “a place in which ugliness cannot occur.”

Moreover, it’s not that ugly is transmuted into beauty, but that even the ugly, when light falls on it, comes to life and is accepted into the Pure Land. The dichotomy of beauty and ugliness loses its meaning. Yanagi cites Nenbutsu, calling Amida Buddha’s Name, which Shinran described as a “prayer of non-differentiation.”

To clarify, all does not become identical. Yanagi said each and every distinction, remaining uniquely itself, is embraced by the Beauty of Heaven. Again, it’s not that ugliness alters itself into beauty in order to enter the Pure Land, but rather, remaining as it is, the Pure Land of Beauty accepts all, as they are.

This thought is not unlike Shinran’s words: I recall hearing the late master Honen say, “Persons of the Jodo tradition attains birth in the Buddha Land by becoming their foolish selves.”

“The Pure Land, ultimately, is none other than Free Beauty. Briefly, this means release from humanly contrived bondage and a return to the original nature which is the Beauty-nature. Since this means a liberation from attachment to things, it also means the free mind.” Free mind means the non-abiding mind or the mind of non-obstruction. Yanagi likens this thought to Shinran words, “Nembutsu is the single path of non-obstructiveness.”

Likewise, the Larger Sutra of Infinite Light says bodhisattvas “are like the great earth, because they have no discriminative thoughts, such as pure or impure, beautiful or ugly.”

Why do people long for the Pure Land? Yanagi thinks because they want to escape the ugliness surrounding them. But the Pure Land isn’t a distant time and place. It’s here and now. Proof is in simple crafts made by humble people. He says, “I glimpsed in them the beauty of Heaven on earth. In them, the Pure Land is most brightly reflected.”


-Rev. Yamada is editor at Higashi Honganji’s Shinshu Center of America