top of page

Satori and the Sublime: the aesthetics of Zen enlightenment in contemporary fiction

Central to all the varied strains of Buddhism is the concept of enlightenment. The enlightenment experience takes on a very distinct and unique character in Zen, and is referred to in Japanese as satori. This might be defined as a transcendence of everyday cognition to achieve a direct experience of reality in its totality. To grasp the meaning of this, we must first understand that Zen places paramount significance in the basic, concrete facts of reality that present themselves to our intuitions as we experience life: the ‘suchness’ of unaffected reality. Therefore, it views the natural cognitive functions of the conscious mind – logical analysis and rationality – as obstacles to achieving this direct experience of the world, as they precede and suppress the powers of the intuitions. Our rational mindset estranges us from the concrete facts of experience by using the scalpel of reason to dissect the world into an endless set of dichotomies, thus fracturing our experience of reality into an artificial ‘world of particulars’ (Suzuki [1953] 1962: 419). Reality becomes then, as observed by one of the central characters of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Tengo Kawana, an ‘infinite agglomeration of variously shaped microcosms’ (Murakami 2009: 617). In striving towards satori, the ultimate goal of Zen practice, followers attempt to dissolve these artificial structures imposed by reason and thus experience reality without any corrupting intermediary:

Satori may be defined as an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it. Practically, it means the unfolding of a new world hitherto unperceived in the confusion of a dualistically trained mind. [...] Logically stated, all its opposites and contradictions are united and harmonized into a consistent and organic whole.
(Suzuki [1927] 1962: 154)

As Suzuki notes, Zen diagnoses the rational faculties of the mind as the cause of the dualistic mindset which characterises everyday cognition. Ironically, the processes by which we attempt to understand and access the world actually estrange us ever further from the ‘living truth’ (Phillips 1962: xx) of existence. We mistake the structures erected to describe reality for reality itself. Since the intellect can only serve to alienate us from the central truth of reality, Zen must be realised irrationally, purely through the individual’s deepest intuition, and thus is a form of mysticism. Suzuki further reveals that the root of all dichotomic thinking lies in the birth of the ego during the formation of consciousness: the initial ‘dichotomy of subject and object’ (Suzuki 1954: 134). The mind which seeks to know itself, and to know the world, divides itself for this purpose, which ironically estranges it from the truth it seeks. Therefore, the experience of satori is necessarily introspective and personal: it is first and foremost the experience of psychological unity, from which the unity of all nature is then realised. Unlike every other Buddhist tradition, Zen places ‘Buddha nature’ as a characteristic which is inherent and innate within each individual, merely awaiting discovery (Suzuki 1938: 56). Thus, the truth which Zen seeks to shed light upon is known as ‘inner truth’.

This unique characteristic of satori – its introspective and idiosyncratic nature – can be observed in literature which partakes of Zen. After experiencing a sense of the sublime when listening to a Janacek’s Sinfionetta in a taxi, Aomame – another of the central characters in 1Q84 describes feeling an ‘intensely physical and intensely personal – jolt’ (Murakami 2009: 148). Later, describing a sublime experience which causes her to abort a suicide attempt, she recalls ‘an unbearably strong surge of the life force, beyond the bounds of logic’ (Murakami 2010: 67). As the ‘jolt’ and ‘surge’ described by Murakami display, satori is a momentary, transient experience. Its revelations come as intense and unpredictable moments of clarity, and pass just as abruptly. When an experience of satori is fully realised, it reveals ‘a vivid cosmic landscape, the full vast expanse of which could be seen in a split second’ (Murakami 2009: 615). The experience is intuitive – rather than logical – and brings an intense feeling of elation and exhilaration: resulting in an aesthetic of the sublime in the literature which engages with the Zen enlightenment experience. In the praxis of Zen, the path towards the attainment of this enlightenment experience is cleared through active efforts towards self-annihilation: a sort of reverse-individuation, suppressing the ego completely and re-integrating it with the unconscious mind to achieve a state of mushin (no-mind) (Suzuki [1948] 1962: 390). Through this process, the ego surrenders its subjectivity and distinct identity to an all- encompassing monism, now experiencing the world ‘under the aspect of eternity’ (Suzuki [1954] 1962: 360).

The mystical and radically idiosyncratic nature of satori means that Zen’s fundamental concept is unable to be sufficiently expressed and transmitted in language. Its essence is ineffable, as language serves as just another corrupting form – a tool of the intellect rather than the intuition. Therefore, Zen largely abandons prescriptive doctrine, denying its inheritance from the Indian traditions which precede it, and asserting like Aomame that ‘there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are put into words’ (Murakami 2009: 633-644). In the traditional aesthetics of Zen this manifests – or rather, evades manifestation – through an aversion to form. Historic Japanese art culture is saturated with the spirit of Zen, and thus it has given rise to a number of traditions which stress the significance of formal austerity (Suzuki [1953] 1962: 417). One such tradition is that of the haiku: seventeen syllable poems which rely on simplicity and allusion rather than lyrical inventiveness or metaphoric subtext. Like the transcendental experiences of the sublime undergone by the characters in 1Q84, haiku is meant to convey ‘the expression of a temporary [Zen] enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things’ (Zhu 1993: 39). Such an aesthetic, conducive to the achievement of satori, is discussed explicitly in Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, through a scene in which the American antiques dealer Robert Childan is lectured on the value of some contemporary jewellery pieces by a Japanese customer:

We experience the tranquillity associated not with art but with holy things. [...] To have no historicity, and also no artistic, aesthetic worth, and yet to partake of some ethereal value that is a marvel. Just precisely because this is a miserable, small, worthless-looking blob; that, Robert, contributes to its possessing wu. [...] [A]n entire new world is pointed to [...].
(Dick 1962: 171)

Dick was a significant figure in the American West-coast cultural zeitgeist of the mid twentieth century which came to be known as ‘American Zen’. A close relative of the Beat movement, this cultural trend was characterised by a fascination with – and appropriation of – Eastern mystical traditions, particularly Zen. Dick therefore sought to incorporate many of its sensibilities into his novels of the 1960’s. As critic Jiangjong Zhu points out in arguing for a Zen interpretation of the Man in the High Castle, the concept of ‘wu’ mentioned here can be interpreted in multiple ways, but he asserts that we must simply read it as the Chinese translation of satori. Zhu displays that this Zen interpretation is favourable as wu is here represented as a value which transpires within the viewer of the piece, a personal ‘tranquillity’: an inner truth. As we have already noted this introspective characteristic is unique to Zen (Zhu 1993: 37). The object, an abstract plain metal pin, is said to be ‘alive in the now’ (Dick 1962: 171) as its formlessness suggests something of the plain ‘suchness’ of reality. Because Zen asserts that ordinary, unaffected reality is the truth revealed by enlightenment, the experience of satori – once the mind is sufficiently primed to receive it – is typically prompted by the observation of something as simple as the gesture of a hand or a discarded piece of trash. Therefore, it is the ordinary, the mundane, the plain, the natural, which holds higher status in traditional Zen aesthetics over the ornate and contrived (Csicsery-Ronay 2012: 151). As reality is formless, any attempt to communicate something of its essence must shed formal constrictions as much as possible.

In this we discover a problem faced by the contemporary forms of fiction which seek to engage with Zen philosophy. Suzuki voices concern that perhaps even the seventeen syllables of a haiku are too constrictive a form to remain in keeping with the spirit of Zen (Suzuki [1953] 1962: 427). If this is the case, then surely the structural complexity and linguistic density of the novel make it a form utterly antithetical to Zen mysticism. It seems Murakami, in his novel which constantly makes reference to the ineffability of authentic human experience, is aware of the potentially constrictive nature of the form he employs to communicate this message. This is voiced through Tengo’s concerns over his conscription as ghost-writer for an edit of the text-within-the-text – Air Chrysalis – at the behest of his editor friend Komatsu. The first draft of this text consists of the jumbled and enigmatic outpourings of the young Fuka-Eri, who like the haiku poets fervently asserts that ‘form has no meaning’ (Murakami 2009: 53), and therefore she paid no mind to formal concerns when attempting to convey her story. Tengo’s task is to try to capture the essence of this formally inconsistent and fragmented text within a more complete and solid novel structure:

Tengo was not even sure it was possible to do a logical rewrite of a work of fantasy and feeling. [...] [W]ould it be possible for him to do that without destroying the work’s fundamental nature and atmosphere? Wouldn’t that be tantamount to giving a butterfly a skeleton?
(Murakami 2009: 53)

The sublime, evocative power of the original, what Komatsu calls its ‘indescribable quality’ (Murakami 2009: 2005), is derived from its enigma and ambiguity. The attempt to capture its indefinable and ephemeral beauty – like the fleeting sight of a passing butterfly – into a solid and coherent form, runs the risk of killing this essential quality: suffocating the mystery and indeterminacy of the original and constricting the beauty born of its fluttering movement, through the imposition of a rigid structure. Through this passage, Murakami reveals the problem faced in attempting to integrate the historically Western form of the novel within traditional Japanese aesthetic and cultural sensibilities. This seems to validate our doubts over whether the novel form can ever be a vehicle to communicate the unpresentable living truth sought by Zen, without freezing it into a solid form and thus killing the life at the heart of it. The seeming dissonance between form and content is so stark, it is no wonder that Murakami feels the need to self-reflexively address it.

However, the aesthetic and linguistic theories of twentieth-century postmodernism share this anxiety over the insufficiency of language, and its proponents have previously attempted to formulate ways to account for meaningful, authentic communication through this essentially artificial medium. In studying Jean-Francois Lyotard’s definition of the aesthetics of postmodernism, we discover the potential for a reconciliation between the mysticism of Zen and the novel form:

[M]odern aesthetics is the aesthetics of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents [...]. The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms [...]; that which searches for new presentations not in order to enjoy them but to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.
(Lyotard [1979] 2005: 81)

Lyotard argues that postmodern literature presents fresh opportunity to explore the ineffable by paradoxically displaying it through form itself. The admission of a paradox here is by no means an argument against the validity of Lyotard’s theory. On the contrary, Zen embraces and celebrates paradox as an example of the insufficiency of the intellect and the necessity of the intuition in grasping the unpresentable facts of reality (Suzuki [1959] 1962: 360). Postmodern literary devices – fragmentation, metafiction and metaleptic transgression, among others – deny us ‘the solace of good forms’, disturbing the coherence and self-contained integrity of the novel. Thus, the space of the text is set up like a metaphysical microcosm, the deconstruction of which can serve as a model for Zen’s deconstruction of our own reality. In this we find a new compatibility between the values of Zen aesthetics and the potential modes of representation available to the novel form. Lyotard’s suggestion that the postmodern must constantly experiment with form in order to find new expressions of the ineffable is thoroughly in keeping with the spirit of Zen. As Suzuki notes, ‘Zen abhors repetition or imitation of any kind’ (Suzuki [1934b] 1962: 53), and its followers are encouraged to display their awareness of its principles by forever finding fresh and obscure ways of expressing themselves, performing idiosyncratic expressions of Zen’s ineffable inner truth.

Both of these experimental and creative practices – the literary experimentation of the postmodernists and the presentations of the Zen teachers – produce results which are often disorienting and utterly inscrutable to the uninitiated observer. Zen masters are infamous for responding to the profound questions of students with nonsensical or self-contradicting exclamations, and such arbitrary acts as tipping over a jug of water when asked to explain the nature of Zen (Suzuki [1934a] 1962: 53). The dialogues which display these paradoxical questions, riddles, demonstrations, and parables presented by Zen teachers are known as kōans, and they are central the organised praxis of Zen. We witness what seems like a similar wilful inscrutability in the postmodern literature which engages with Zen. Indeed, this is a most common critique of 1Q84: that it is punctuated with such unexplained and illogical occurrences as an immaculate conception facilitated by a thunderstorm, and the oblique suggestion that a minor character is a reincarnation of Tengo’s murdered mother. In this world, ‘[c]ause and effect seem to be all mixed up’ (Murkami[2009] 2012: 768). In postmodern literature, illogic and paradox fulfil a similar function as in the praxis of Zen, revealed when critic Ivan Radoš distinguishes between the narrative strategies of modernism and postmodernism:

[A] shift of the dominant in the narrative fiction, from epistemological to ontological narrative strategies, which involve paradoxes of various kinds, deconstruction of narrative logic, mise-en-abyme and various other recursive structures, all aimed at confusing the reader about the ontological and narrative status of the story.
(Radoš 2015: 11)

Radoš argues that the decay of logic and coherent causation in the postmodern text serves to indicate to the reader that ‘we are not dealing with an example of modernist, epistemological fiction, but with a postmodern, post-cognitive text’ (Radoš 2015: 28), and thus we must seek an interpretation beyond the cognitive and exegetic. Likewise, the strange anti-lessons of the Zen masters are performed in order to cultivate a certain mindset within their students, corroding away at the dichotomic structures of the logical mind through the contemplation of contradiction and paradox (Suzuki [1927] 1962: 158). These strange performances prompt the student to transcend the dialectic mindset in order to arrive at a satori. While writing on Servo Sarduy’s Cobra (a text which is exemplary of the compatibility between Zen philosophy and postmodern literary techniques), critic Avram Alpert notes that in the postmodern literature which partakes of Zen we might interpret these deconstructive mechanics as attempts to generate a similar process of thought within the reader: the narratives themselves functioning like ‘an assemblage of kōans’ (Alpert 2016: 36). The illogical aspects in the dialogue and plot of the texts can be read as attempts ‘to drive us into ever deeper paroxysms of paradox and supposed enlightenment’ (Alpert 2016: 42). This results in an aesthetic which actively resists the work of the intellect in its attempts to make sense of the text, and thus demands we exercise our aesthetic, intuitive faculties to grasp the ineffable quality which they direct us towards realising. The spirit of rationalism is exorcised from the texts, and the reader is directed to view them under the light of the Zen mysticism which they espouse, employing our faculties of ‘existential thinking and not dialectic reasoning’ (Suzuki [1950] 1962: 216).

The entire complex process of interpretation described above – a hermeneutics rooted in Zen mysticism rather than didactic exegesis – is depicted in a metafictive passage in 1Q84, in which Tengo makes a statement about the interactions between reader and text, and the personal revelations he gleans from them:

The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form. Depending on the nature and the direction of the problem, a solution could be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility. Someday he might be able to decipher the spell.
(Murkami [2009] 2012: 243)

Kōans are mentioned repeatedly in the text, and mirrored in its often-impenetrable dialogue, and here we find a clear suggestion that the novel itself may function in much the same way. The text presents to the reader a discourse which at first obscured under a veil of mystery and inscrutability, but which alludes to some hidden significance within it. The reader is thereby invited to ponder it, and like the elusive truths embodied in the strange acts of the Zen masters, a meaning transpires when we realise their mystical aspect: they are ‘to be experienced in the inmost soul when they become for the first time intelligible’ (Suzuki [1949] 1962: 5). The language itself functions like the ‘verbal and conceptual scaffolding’ (Suzuki [1949] 1962: 5) of the Zen teachings, constructed to direct the perspective of the student towards the experience of their own satori. In prompting us towards a mystical approach – to undergo a transcendental, sublime experience rather than attempt a logical, exegetic penetration – the texts attempt to impart upon the reader a sense of the higher affirmation which might be achieved when we surpass dichotomic thinking: the realisation of a ‘temporary enlightenment’. It is in this way that these texts are able to incorporate the sensibilities of Zen into long-form prose, by the use of postmodern metafictive literary devices to resist didactic interpretation and corrode logic, thus mirroring the procedures of the praxis of Zen.

In the world of The Man in the High Castle the Axis powers were tragically victorious in the Second World War, conquering both Europe and America. The character Juliana Frink spends much of the narrative at a distance from the violence and madness of this volatile world, absorbed in attempting to decipher the meaning of an alternate history novel in which the Allies in fact won World War Two. In one of the novel’s more cryptic passages, Juliana eventually comes to a moment of realization of the kind described in the above quote from 1Q84. In his reading of this novel, Zhu identifies Juliana’s experience as a moment of satori, in which the kōan-like riddle of the text-within-the-text’s alternate history suddenly makes sense to her and she wholeheartedly accepts its message as a paradoxical truth, asserting that the Axis powers never actually won the Second World War (Zhu 1993: 43). Like Tengo hopes to one day achieve with regards to the inscrutable messages he receives through his reading, Julia ‘deciphers the spell’ which the novel presents to her.

We might read these instances of metafiction within both novels as self-reflexive statements of intent. The texts reveal that they themselves seek to drive the reader towards a moment of mystical realization: an intuitive and personal revelation. Thus, we discover that the postmodern literary devices in these texts are not used for their own sake, but when deployed alongside the Zen philosophy which the texts espouse they are used to generate a sublime aesthetic which urges the reader to surpass a dualistic mode of thinking and to adopt a wholly different, existential mode of reading rooted in the experience of the sublime. The intended result of this is to engender a fundamentally different state of mind within the reader: pregnant with a sense of the ineffable and ephemeral. It can therefore be said that these texts seek not only to explore and describe the lessons and concepts of Zen, but also to actively embody them in their form and relationship with the reader.

Works Consulted___________________________________________________________________________

Primary Sources

Dick, Philip K. 1962. The Man in the High Castle (London: Penguin)

Murakami, Haruki. 2009. 1Q84: Books One and Two, trans. by J. Rubin (London: Vintage) — 2010. 1Q84: Book Three, trans. by P. Gabriel (London: Vintage)

Secondary Sources

Alpert, Avram. 2016. ‘Buddhism and the Postmodern Novel: Severo Sarduy’s Cobra’, Twentieth- Century Literature, 61.1: 32-55

Aylesworth, Gary. 2015. ‘Postmodernism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), ed. by E. N. Zalta, <> [Accessed 10 March 2017]

Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan. 2012. ‘Possible Mountains and Rivers: The Zen Realism of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias’, Configurations, 20.1: 149-185

Lyotard, Jean-François. [1979] 2005. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. by G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Marra, Michele. 1995. ‘Japanese Aesthetics: The Construction of Meaning’, Philosophy East and West, 45.3: 367–386.

Nagatomo, Shigenori. 2017. ‘Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), ed. by E. N. Zalta, <> [Accessed 12 March 2017]

Olson, Carl. 2000. Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy (New York: State University of New York Press)

Phillips, Bernard. 1962. ‘Introduction: Zen Buddhism as Creative Religion’, in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by B. Phillips (Conneticut: Greenwood), pp. xiii-xl

Radoš, Ivan. 2015. ‘Postmodern Narrative Strategies in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas’ (Unpublished Master’s Thesis, University of Zagreb, Zagreb) <> [Accessed 7 March 2017]

Suzuki, Daisetz T. 1938. ‘Zen Buddhism’, Monumenta Nipponica, 1.1: 48-57

— 1954. ‘Enlightenment’, The Review of Religion, 18.3: 133-144

— [1927] 1962. ‘On Satori – The Revelation of a New Truth in Zen Buddhism’, in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by B. Phillips (Conneticut: Greenwood), pp. 153-162

— [1934a] 1962. ‘Is Zen Nihilistic?’, in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by B. Phillips (Conneticut: Greenwood), pp. 29-38

— [1934b] 1962. ‘Zen: A Higher Affirmation’, in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by B. Phillips (Conneticut: Greenwood), pp. 49-56

— [1948] 1962. ‘The Essence of Buddhism’, in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by B. Phillips (Conneticut: Greenwood), pp. 383-414

— [1949] 1962. ‘Preliminary’, in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by B. Phillips (Conneticut: Greenwood), pp. 3-8

— [1950] 1962. ‘Satori’, in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by B. Phillips (Conneticut: Greenwood), pp. 201-216

— [1953] 1962. ‘Buddhist, Especially Zen, Contributions to Japanese Culture’, in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by B. Phillips (Conneticut: Greenwood), pp. 417-427

— [1954] 1962. ‘Living in the Light of Eternity’, in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by B. Phillips (Conneticut: Greenwood), pp. 355-370

— [1959] 1962. ‘General Remarks on Japanese Art Culture’, in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism, ed. by B. Phillips (Conneticut: Greenwood), pp. 429-439

Zhu, Jianjiong. 1993. ‘Reality, Fiction, and ‘Wu’ in The Man in the High Castle’, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 5.3: 36–45

bottom of page