I have seen many posts on this site that describe a particular piece as “Zen” and while this word is not used in strict historical definition, I thought it might be interesting for some of you to share a bit about what I have learned about Buddhism and how one might be able to bring some Buddhist attitudes into the process of woodworking. So contrary to the title of this little post there isn’t really any such thing as Zen aesthetics. Zen refers to certain strains of practice within Buddhism and does not, as far as I can tell, have any style of design that is integrally linked to it. Excepting a general de-emphasis on iconography, Zen practitioners have mostly shown indifference to their artistic surroundings. Instead what people often understand as “Zen” is more related to general Chinese and Japanese design of a certain period, rather than to any tenets of Zen philosophy. Zen is a development of late medieval China and Japan, which coincides, in very general terms, with periods (Ming in China, and Edo in Japan) that saw a much simpler, more restrained taste in art. One often associates Zen with the Japanese tea ceremony, and the aesthetics integral to it, but this seems to have been more a ritual of the ruling intellectual class than one that had any ties to the Zen religious establishment. Most of what I have read from contemporaneous Zen masters shows a general ambivalence towards the overly-intellectual and indulgent rituals of the elite class. This is true in both China and Japan. Despite my skepticism about there being any Zen aesthetic. There are many things that I draw from Zen and from the Buddhist world in general that have a constant influence on me as a woodworker. It is interesting to note that many of the most revered masters of Zen were also painters, caligraphers, or artists of some sort. When I look at the work of these masters what is most evident to me is not a certain style (although many of them have an unmistakable personal idiom) but a restrained sense of purpose. It is not the intellectual representation of ideas that is important (as in western art) but rather the being of the artist and his ability to act with certainty upon his medium. In other words the art object is inseparable from the artist. This is an aspect of the Buddhist world that I find particularly relevant to my craft as a woodworker. As I work I also study myself, my being, and as I learn new skills I learn them not only intellectually, but physically and emotionally. If I want to produce truly refined work, I know that I will have to learn this craft in a way that teaches me as much about myself as it does about wood.
-- Adam, http://adamweisfurniture.com