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Aesthetics in Asia

Buddhism, China, India, Japan, Korea, Bibliography

Culturally, Asia encompasses an enormous range of cultural diversity, with philosophical traditions going back 2,500 years. And aesthetics is the philosophical study of art and the elaboration of criteria of value in arts and in nature, as well as how these two notions overlap with the study of nature and being human. In many Asian traditions value focuses on human well-being. In Daoism and Shintoism—and arguably Buddhism and Confucianism—divinity is not transcendent but immanent. Here human beings are at one with divinity and/or the natural world. The division of the various intellectual disciplines is the product of human histories; they developed differently in Asia. For example, throughout Asia there is little dichotomization of mind and body, of spiritual and material. As a result, aesthetic ideas and practices operate very differently, overlapping with the religious in India, helping to constitute the ethical and sociopolitical in East Asia.

Philosophy in the West is thinking, and thinking is done in language. Not so in Asia, where in every tradition the arts are as important as language in grasping ideas. The Japanese Buddhist priest Kukai (774–835) summed up the teachings of his Chinese master Huiguo thus:

The abbot informed me that the Esoteric scriptures are so abstruse that their meaning cannot be conveyed except through art. For this reason he ordered the court artist Li Chen and about a dozen other painters to execute ten scrolls of the Womb and Diamond Mandalas.… He also ordered the bronzesmith Chao Wu to cast fifteen ritual implements." (Tsunoda, p. 141)

Understanding Asian aesthetics thus presupposes bodily experience. For this reason, direct experience with aesthetic values—whether through Japanese tea ceremony or in a Japanese garden—is as crucial to wisdom in the Asian sense as intellectual mastery. This means that for any discussion to do full justice to Asian aesthetics, it must take into consideration the contributions of the arts.

Asian aesthetics has begun to influence European-American philosophy, and both have begun to recognize the importance of situating aesthetics historically and within the contexts of colonialism, cultural hegemony, "race" studies, economics, power, gender politics, and the diasporas.

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