Journal of Religion and Health

, Volume 56, Issue 5, pp 1720–1739 | Cite as

Zen and the Art of Living Mindfully: The Health-Enhancing Potential of Zen Aesthetics

  • T. Lomas
  • N. Etcoff
  • W. Van Gordon
  • E. Shonin
Philosophical Exploration


Amidst the burgeoning enthusiasm for mindfulness in the West, there is a concern that the largely secular ‘de-contextualized’ way in which it is being harnessed is denuding it of its potential to improve health and well-being. As such, efforts are underway to ‘re-contextualize’ mindfulness, explicitly drawing on the wider framework of Buddhist ideas and practices in which it was initially developed. This paper aims to contribute to this, doing so by focusing on Zen Buddhism, and in particular on Zen aesthetic principles. The article concentrates on the seven principles identified by Hisamatsu (1971) in his classic text Zen and the Fine Arts: kanso (simplicity); fukinsei (asymmetry); koko (austere sublimity); shizen (naturalness); daisuzoku (freedom from routine); sei-jaku (tranquillity); and yūgen (profound grace). The presence of these principles in works of art is seen as reflecting and communicating insights that are central to Buddhism, such as non-attachment. Moreover, these principles do not only apply to the creation and appreciation of art, but have clear applications for treating health-related issues, and improving quality of life more generally. This paper makes the case that embodying these principles in their lives can help people enhance their psychosomatic well-being, and come to a truer understanding of the essence of mindful living.


Mindfulness Psychosomatic well-being Non-pharmacological interventions Aesthetics Art Zen Health-related disorders 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Human and Animal Rights

No human or animal participants were involved.


  1. Addiss, S. (1989). The art of Zen: Painting and calligraphy by Japanese Monks, 1600–1925. New York: Harry N. Abrams.Google Scholar
  2. Albertson, E. R., Neff, K. D., & Dill-Shackleford, K. E. (2015). Self-compassion and body dissatisfaction in women: A randomized controlled trial of a brief meditation intervention. Mindfulness, 6(3), 444–454. doi: 10.1007/s12671-014-0277-3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Alexander, S., & Ussher, S. (2012). The voluntary simplicity movement: A multi-national survey analysis in theoretical context. Journal of Consumer Culture, 12(1), 66–86. doi: 10.1177/1469540512444019.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Arnheim, R. (1988). Stillstand in der Tätigkeit. In R. Wille (Ed.), Symmetrie in Geistesund Naturwissenschaften (pp. 1–16). Berlin: Springer.Google Scholar
  5. Bai, H. (2002). Zen and the art of intrinsic perception: A case of Haiku. Canadian Review of Art Education, 28(1), 1–14.Google Scholar
  6. Barthes, R. (1982). Empire of signs (R. Howard, Trans.). New York: Hill and Wang.Google Scholar
  7. Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., et al. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(3), 230–241. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bph077.Google Scholar
  8. Brown, K. W., & Kasser, T. (2005). Are psychological and ecological well-being compatible? The role of values, mindfulness, and lifestyle. Social Indicators Research, 74(2), 349–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18(4), 211–237. doi: 10.1080/10478400701598298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bryce, J., & Haworth, J. (2002). Wellbeing and flow in sample of male and female office workers. Leisure Studies, 21(3–4), 249–263. doi: 10.1080/0261436021000030687.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Chōmei, K. N. (1212/1968). An account of my hut (N. Soseki, Trans.). In D. Keene (Ed.), Anthology of Japanese literature. New York: Grove Press.Google Scholar
  12. Chung-yuan, C. (1977). Tao: A new way of thinking. A translation of the Tao Te Ching, with introduction and commentaries. New York: Harper and Row.Google Scholar
  13. Collins, S. (2005). On the very idea of the Pali Canon (pp. 72–95). Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies.Google Scholar
  14. Cooper, T. M. (2013). The wabi sabi way: Antidote for a dualistic culture? Journal of Conscious Evolution, 10.Google Scholar
  15. Cox, R. (2013). The Zen arts: An anthropological study of the culture of aesthetic form in Japan. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  16. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.Google Scholar
  17. Davidson, R. M. (2003). Indian esoteric Buddhism: Social history of the tantric movement. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publications.Google Scholar
  18. de Manzano, Ö., Theorell, T., Harmat, L., & Ullén, F. (2010). The psychophysiology of flow during piano playing. Emotion, 10(3), 301–311. doi: 10.1037/a0018432.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Downey, C. A., & Chang, E. C. (2007). Perfectionism and symptoms of eating disturbances in female college students: Considering the role of negative affect and body dissatisfaction. Eating Behaviors, 8(4), 497–503. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2007.02.002.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Dumoulin, H. (1979). Zen enlightenment: Origins and meaning. New York: Wetherhill.Google Scholar
  21. Dyrness, W. A., & Kärkkäinen, V.-M. (2008). Global dictionary of theology. Nottingham: IVP Academic.Google Scholar
  22. Edwards, L. (2001). A brief guide to beliefs: Ideas, theologies, mysteries, and movements. London: John Knox Press.Google Scholar
  23. Fortney, L., & Taylor, M. (2010). Meditation in medical practice: A review of the evidence and practice. Primary Care: Clinics in Office Practice, 37(1), 81–90.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Gard, T., Hölzel, B. K., Sack, A. T., Hempel, H., Lazar, S. W., Vaitl, D., et al. (2012). Pain attenuation through mindfulness is associated with decreased cognitive control and increased sensory processing in the brain. Cerebral Cortex, 22(11), 2692–2702. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhr352.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Gombrich, E. H. (1982). The image and the eye. Further studies in the psychology of pictorial representation. London: Phaidon.Google Scholar
  26. Grigg, R. (1938/2013). The Tao of Zen. Rutland: Tuttle Publishing.Google Scholar
  27. Hammitzsch, H. (1979). Zen in the art of the Tea Ceremony (P. Lemesurier, Trans.). New York: Arkana.Google Scholar
  28. Hayes, S. C. (2002). Buddhism and acceptance and commitment therapy. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 9(1), 58–66. doi: 10.1016/S1077-7229(02)80041-4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hayes, S. C. (2004). Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory, and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies. Behavior Therapy, 35(4), 639–665. doi: 10.1016/S0005-7894(04)80013-3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Helgeson, V. S., Reynolds, K. A., & Tomich, P. L. (2006). A meta-analytic review of benefit finding and growth. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(5), 797–816. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.74.5.797.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Hermann, E. J. (1990). The near-death experience and the Taoism of Chuang Tzu. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 8(3), 175–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Herrigel, E. (1953). Zen in the Art of Archery. London: Pantheon Books.Google Scholar
  33. Hirota, D. (Ed.). (1995). Wind in the pines: Classic writings of the way of tea as a Buddhist path. Fremont: Asian Humanities Press.Google Scholar
  34. Hisamatsu, S. (1971). Zen and the fine arts (G. Tokiwa, Trans.). New York: Kodansha International.Google Scholar
  35. Ho, D. Y. (1995). Selfhood and identity in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism: Contrasts with the West. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 25(2), 115–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hvass, J. (1999). Om Zen-æstetik, en introduktion til Shin’ichi Hisamatsus syv zen-æstetiske karakteristika. Copenhagen: Kunstakademiets Arkitektskole.Google Scholar
  37. Hyams, J. (2010). Zen in the martial arts. New York: Bantam.Google Scholar
  38. Jendy, B., & Chodron, B. T. (2001). Choosing simplicity: A commentary on the Bhikshuni Pratimoksha. Boston: Snow Lion Publications.Google Scholar
  39. Joseph, S. (2012). What doesn’t kill us: The new psychology of posttraumatic growth. London: Piatkus Little Brown.Google Scholar
  40. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33–47. doi: 10.1016/0163-8343(82)90026-3.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  41. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144–156. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bpg016.Google Scholar
  42. Kaula, D. (1960). On Noh drama. The Tulane Drama Review, 5, 69–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Keene, D. (1969). Japanese aesthetics. Philosophy East and West, 19, 293–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. King, R. (1999a). Orientalism and religion: Post-colonial theory, India and “The Mystic East”. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  46. King, R. (1999b). Orientalism and the modern myth of “Hinduism”. Numen, 46(2), 146–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Kirkland, R. (2004). Taoism: The enduring tradition. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  48. Knight, T., & Ricciardelli, L. A. (2003). Successful aging: Perceptions of adults aged between 70 and 101 years. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 56(3), 223–245. doi: 10.2190/CG1A-4Y73-WEW8-44QY.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  49. Kondo, M. (2014). The life-changing magic of tidying up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. London: Shannon Stacey.Google Scholar
  50. Kornfield, J. (2001). After the ecstasy, the laundry: How the heart grows wise on the spiritual path. New York: Bantam.Google Scholar
  51. Kozyra, A. (2013). The logic of absolutely contradictory self-identity and aesthetic values in Zen art. Rocznik Orientalistyczny/Yearbook of Oriental Studies, 66(1), 5–26.Google Scholar
  52. Lomas, T., Cartwright, T., Edginton, T., & Ridge, D. (2014). A religion of wellbeing? The appeal of Buddhism to men in London, UK. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 198–207. doi: 10.1037/a0036420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Lomas, T., Ivtzan, I., & Yong, C.-Y. (2016). Mindful living in older age: A pilot study of a brief, community-based, ‘positive aging’ intervention. Mindfulness. doi: 10.1007/s12671-016-0498-8.Google Scholar
  54. Lomas, T. (2017). Recontextualizing mindfulness: Theravada Buddhist perspectives on the ethical and spiritual dimensions of awareness. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 9(2), 209–219. doi: 10.1037/rel0000080.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Loori, J. D. (2005). The Zen of creativity. New York: Ballantine Books.Google Scholar
  56. Mandigo, J. L., & Thompson, L. P. (1998). Go with their flow: How flow theory can help practitioners to intrinsically motivate children to be physically active. Physical Educator, 55(3), 145–159.Google Scholar
  57. Maslow, A. H. (1972). The farther reaches of human nature. London: Maurice Bassett.Google Scholar
  58. May, M. (2010). The Shibumi strategy: A powerful way to create meaningful change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  59. McWilliams, S. (2015). Mindfulness in an authentic transformative everyday Zen. In E. Shonin, W. Van Gordon, & N. N. Singh (Eds.), Buddhist foundations of mindfulness (pp. 311–338). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Munsterberg, H. (1965). Zen and oriental art. Rutland, VT: Tuttle & Co.Google Scholar
  61. Napoli, M., Krech, P. R., & Holley, L. C. (2005). Mindfulness training for elementary school students: The attention academy. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 21, 99–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Nhat Hanh, T. (2000). The path of emancipation. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.Google Scholar
  63. Oldstone-Moore, J. (2003). Taoism: Origins, beliefs, practices, holy texts, sacred places. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  64. Parkes, G. (2011). Japanese aesthetics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  65. Poe, E. A. (1988). The complete illustrated stories and poems of Edgar Allen Poe. London: Chancellor Press.Google Scholar
  66. Prusinski, L. (2013). Wabi-sabi, mono no aware, and ma: Tracing traditional Japanese aesthetics through Japanese history. Studies on Asia, 2(1), 21–45.Google Scholar
  67. Purser, R. E. (2013). Zen and the art of organizational maintenance. Organizational Aesthetics, 2(1), 34–58.Google Scholar
  68. Rani, N. J., & Rao, P. V. K. (1994). Body awareness and yoga training. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 79(3), 1103–1106. doi: 10.2466/pms.1994.79.3.1103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentation Zen: Simple ideas on presentation design and delivery. Berkeley: New Riders.Google Scholar
  70. Said, E. W. (1995). Orientalism: Western conceptions of the orient. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  71. Schummer, J. (2003). Aesthetics of chemical products. HYLE: International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, 9(1), 73–104.Google Scholar
  72. Sharf, R. H. (1993). The Zen of Japanese nationalism. History of Religions, 33(1), 1–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). Managers’ experiences of meditation awareness training. Mindfulness, 4, 899–909.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123–137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). The treatment efficacy of mindfulness: Where are we now? British Medical Journal, 351, h6919. doi: 10.1136/bmj.h6919.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  76. Smith, H. (1972). Tao now: An ecological testament. In I. G. Barbour (Ed.), Earth might be fair (pp. 62–81). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  77. Suzuki, D. T. (1959/1973). Zen and Japanese culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  78. Suzuki, D. T. (1961). Essays in Zen Buddhism. New York: Grove Press.Google Scholar
  79. Tacón, A. M., & McComb, J. (2009). Mindful exercise, quality of life, and survival: A mindfulness-based exercise program for women with breast cancer. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(1), 41–46.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  80. Tadashi, Y., & Yu, S. (2011). The Zen garden: A cosmos in itself. Niponica: Expressing the Spirit of Zen, 3, 6–9.Google Scholar
  81. Tanizaki, J. (2001 (1933)). In praise of shadows. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  82. Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1–18. doi: 10.1207/s15327965pli1501_01.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Tsubaki, A. T. (1971). Zeami and the transition of the concept of yūgen: A note on Japanese aesthetics. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 30(1), 55–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015a). Towards a second generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49(7), 591–592.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  85. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Meditation awareness training for individuals with fibromyalgia syndrome: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of participant’s experiences. Mindfulness, 7, 409–419.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015b). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6(1), 49–56. doi: 10.1007/s12671-014-0379-y.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015c). Mindfulness and the four noble truths. In E. Shonin, W. Van Gordon, & N. N. Singh (Eds.), Buddhist foundations of mindfulness (pp. 9–27). New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Waley, A. (1922). Zen Buddhism and its relation to art. London: Luzac & Company.Google Scholar
  89. Walker, M. (2011). Zen aesthetics applied in a digital context. Copenhagen: Copenhagen School of Design & Technology.Google Scholar
  90. Walser, J. (2013). Nagarjuna in context: Mahayana Buddhism and early Indian culture. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  91. Watts, A. W. (1957). The way of Zen. London: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  92. Williams, J. M. G., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). Mindfulness: Diverse perspectives on its meaning, origins, and multiple applications at the intersection of science and dharma. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(01), 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Wong, P. (2009). Positive existential psychology. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (pp. 345–351). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  94. Yeh, G. Y., Wood, M. J., Lorell, B. H., Stevenson, L. W., Eisenberg, D. M., Wayne, P. M., et al. (2004). Effects of tai chi mind-body movement therapy on functional status and exercise capacity in patients with chronic heart failure: A randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Medicine, 117(8), 541–548.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PsychologyUniversity of East LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  3. 3.Centre for Psychological ResearchUniversity of DerbyDerbyUK
  4. 4.Awake to Wisdom Centre for Meditation and Mindfulness ResearchRagusaItaly

Personalised recommendations