The Way of Beauty: Five Meditations for Spiritual Transformation
by François Cheng
François Cheng is a Chinese-French writer who references art and language from both cultures as well as Taoism in his discussion of beauty. Cheng presents some interesting ideas, particularly in the fourth and fifth meditations, within an overall esoteric and meandering text.
My favorite thought from this book is the idea of beauty as an experience as opposed to an attribute. “True beauty does not reside only in what is already manifest as beauty… It is a becoming, and the dimension of spirit or soul is vital to it… Beauty is always a becoming, an advent, if not to say an epiphany… Beauty implies interconnectedness, interaction, an encounter between the elements that constitute an occurrence of beauty, between the beauty present and the gaze that beholds it.”
“The poet is not that tourist who is anxiously watching for an opportune moment to take a picture of the mountain. He knows that if he seeks to encounter the mountain in order to experience its beauty, he is also the long-awaited interlocutor… We have just come one step closer to an idea of beauty that involves the intersection of a presence that offers itself to view and a view that captures it.”
For the Chinese, “true beauty—beauty that occurs and is revealed, that just suddenly appears to touch the soul of the one who perceives it—results from the encounter between two beings or between the human spirit and the living universe. And the work of beauty, always arising from a ‘between,’ is a third thing that, springing from the interaction of the two, allows the two to surpass themselves. If there is transcendence, it lies in this surpassing.”
“Still on the subject of the threefold spirit, it is worth noting that in the Chinese rhetorical tradition, and subsequently in aesthetics, ideas or illustrations often come in pairs. Coupled, like Ying-Yang, Heaven-Earth, Mountain-Water, for example, the binomial is the very expression of the threefold, since it expresses the idea that each of the figures conveys, but also the idea of what takes place between them, offering them the possibility for surpassing themselves.”
Qi – Breath
Cheng also explains the concept of Qi. “Beginning with the idea of qi, ‘Breath,’ simultaneously matter and spirit, the first Chinese thinkers proposed a unitary, organic conception of the living universe in which everything is linked and interdependent. The Breath constitutes the fundamental unity, and at the same time it continually animates all the beings in the living universe, connecting them into a giant network of life-in-process called the Tao, the Way. Within the Tao, the operating of the Breath is threefold, in the sense that the primordial Breath is divided into three types, the interaction of which governs the whole of living beings, that is, the Yin Breath, the Yang Breath, and the Breath of the Median Void. The Yang Breath, embodying active power, and the Yin Breath, embodying receptive gentleness, need the Breath of the Median Void—which, as its name indicates, embodies the necessary intermediary space of encounter and circulation—to enter into effective, and insofar as is possible, harmonious interaction.”
“Shen embodies the superior state of qi, ‘Breath’: it is generally translated as the spirit or the divine spirit. Just like qi, shen is at the foundation of the living universe. Whereas, according to Chinese thought, the primordial Breath animates all forms of life, the Spirit, for its part, governs the mental part, the conscious part of the living universe… To say that man, as a thinking being, is inhabited by shen seems acceptable to everyone. But on the other hand, to affirm that the universe itself is inhabited by shen as well, and that, most importantly, it is governed by it, can appear suspect to a pure materialist. The deep reason for such a conception is that Chinese thought does not separate matter and spirit. It reasons in terms of life, which is the basic unit. It distinguishes levels in the order of life but does not recognize discontinuities, organic ruptures between them.”
The Chinese “know that living beauty is never static, never entirely revealed once and for all. As an entity animated by the Breath, it obeys the laws of yin-xian, ‘hidden-revealed.’ In the image of a mountain hidden by the mist, or the face of a woman behind a fan, its charm resides in the unveiling. All beauty is singular; it also depends on circumstances, the moment, the light. Its revelation, if not its sudden arising, is always unexpected and unhoped for. A beautiful face, even one we are used to, must present itself to us each time as new, as an advent. That is the reason why beauty always overwhelms us.”
Another key topic is man’s relationship with nature. “All Chinese painting, which is not a matter of naturalistic but of spiritualistic painting, is to be contemplated as the soul’s landscape. It is as subject to subject, and from the perspective of intimate confidence, that man connects with nature there. This nature is no longer an inert, passive entity. If we regard it, it regards us as well; if we speak to it, it speaks to us as well… The painter Shitao… with regard to Mount Huang, says ‘Our tête-à-tête is endless.’”
In Chinese painting, “the figure in the landscape is always judiciously located: he is in the process of contemplating the landscape, playing the zither, or conversing with a friend. But after a moment, if we linger on him, we cannot fail to put ourselves in his place, and we realize that he is the pivot point around which the landscape is organized and turns, that it is through him we are seeing the landscape. Better yet, he is the awakened eye and the beating heart of the landscape… At the same time as the human becomes the landscape’s interior, so the landscape becomes the interior of man.”
“For Cézanne, beauty results from encounters on all levels. On the level of represented Nature, it is the encounter between the hidden and the revealed, between the moving and the fixed; on the level of the artistic act, it is the encounter between brushstrokes, between the colors applied. And beyond all this, there is the decisive encounter of the human spirit and the landscape at a privileged moment, with something trembling, vibrating, unfinished in that interval, as if the artist has made himself the repository or host, awaiting the coming of some visitor who knows how to inhabit what is captured, offered.”
The author has more to say about art, and he hints at a frustration with postmodernism. “My goal is to determine the extent to which it is still possible to extricate a few notions of value for defining the beautiful as engendered by artistic creation, despite the total confusion in which we have found ourselves for a century now.”
Cheng observes, “It is an understatement to say that man has a relationship with beauty. In the midst of the tragic human condition, it is, in fact, from beauty that we draw meaning and pleasure.”
One final observation. I’ve been reading about complexity science, and this book surfaces some interesting parallels between Taoism and complexity. Both Qi and complex systems recognize interconnectedness. Cheng’s idea of “becoming” is similar the concept of “emergence” in complex systems. Another book titled Art in the Age of Emergence explores complexity in the context of art.
Cheng, François. The Way of Beauty: Five Meditations for Spiritual Transformation. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2006. Buy from Amazon.com
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