DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G109-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 24, 2019, from

Article Summary

Kokoro is a comprehensive term in Japanese religion, philosophy and aesthetics often translated as ‘heart’, whose range of meanings includes mind, wisdom, aspiration, essence, attention, sincerity and sensibility. In Buddhist texts and in philosophy, kokoro (or shin in its Sino-Japanese reading) denotes mind, heart or inner nature, the site of human sentience or delusion. By extension, in pre-modern theories of art, kokoro signifies simultaneously the emotional capacity of the artist to respond to the natural world, which ideally catalyzes the act of creation; the parallel ability of an audience to respond to such a work of art and thus indirectly to the experience of the artist; and finally the evaluation of such a work as possessing the ‘right conception’, kokoro ari or alternatively ushin.

While the specific implications of kokoro changed in the context of cultural development, its far-ranging meanings, which additionally include intention, vitality, knowledge, sentiment, wholeheartedness, reason, state, appearance, spirit, will and duty, imply both a dynamic potentiality and a fundamental concern with the authenticity of human being as well as its integrity. This integrity precludes any dualistic mind–body distinctions. Ultimately, kokoro serves as the foundation for almost all pre-modern Japanese theories of art, which may be described as expressive-affective in their orientation (see Aesthetics, Japanese).

In Buddhist writings we often encounter kokoro, especially in its compound form shin, as in the well-known Buddhist dictum ishin denshin (transmission from mind to mind), alluding to the ideal transmission of spiritual truth that is intuitive in nature and does not rely on verbal and other explicit means. In Buddhism, kokoro or shin is not simply the faculty for apprehending truth, but can also be the site of delusion and desire within human being, as suggested in the phrase kokoro no yami (the darkness of the heart), in other words, the spirit of the unawakened being still wallowing in the mire of the phenomenal world. In seeming contrast to the usage of the terms ushin and mushin in aesthetics, in Buddhism, ushin (having heart or mind) and mushin (lacking heart or mind) represent respectively the deluded state of being attached to the world (that is, possessing desires) and the liberating state of awareness that has eschewed the heart and hence all desire.

In the realm of pre-modern artistic theories, kokoro receives not only extensive theoretical treatment as a crucial artistic component, but becomes a term of aesthetic approbation as well. In the often quoted Japanese preface to the Kokinwakashū(The Anthology of Japanese Poetry Ancient and Modern), circa 905, Ki no Tsurayuki conjoins the concept of kokoro with a parallel concept kotoba (words), and begins ‘Japanese poetry has the human heart (kokoro) as its seed and burgeons forth into myriad words (kotoba) as its leaves.’ He traces the genesis of poetry to the fact that all living beings respond to the natural world around them in the form of song, like the cries of birds in the midst of blossoms or frogs croaking in the water. Hence, kokoro is that faculty within us which hearkens to the world outside and poetry is what results when we give utterance to the feelings and thoughts in our hearts in the form of words. However, he also offers a secondary understanding of kokoro when he goes on to imply that kokoro (heart, conception, treatment) and kotoba (words, diction, materials) are the two constituent elements of any poem, which may be used to evaluate the success of any poetic endeavour. He criticizes, for example, a verse by a well-known poet of a former age Ariwara no Narihira with the comment kokoro amarite, kotoba tarazu (too much heart and too few words). Ideally, we infer, the poem must have a balance of kokoro and kotoba.

This interest in kokoro and kotoba is echoed and developed by the twelfth-century poet-critic Fujiwara Shunzei, who in surveying what he perceived as the second-rate nature of the poetry of his age, issues the challenge, kotoba furuku, kokoro atarashi (old words, new heart). He argues for the need to retain the traditional diction and materials, but to infuse them as well with a new spirit that would revitalize them. Apart from regarding kokoro as merely the resonant capacity within all living beings to feel and respond as well as one of the constituent components of poetry, Shunzei goes further and elevates kokoro into an aesthetic ideal known as ushin. His son Fujiwara Teika develops his father’s theory still further, describing ushin, which may be translated as ‘having heart’, as signifying an intensity or conviction of feeling which is paramount. Ushintei (the style of ushin), as he comments, is the overarching style of the so-called ten styles of poetry; all great poetry for him must possess this intensity of feeling, whose articulation is influenced by the Tendai Buddhist contemplative practice of shikan, or concentrated meditation.

The Buddhist notion of ushin as still being mired in the desires of the phenomenal world, and mushin as a release from such delusion, stands in sharp contrast to the role of kokoro in poetry, which is composed in response to the beauties of the natural world, and thus itself is illusory and deluded. Hence, a conflict emerges between poetry and religion in which poetry is seen to represent as well as encourage attachment to the phenomenal world, and doctrinally is both deceived and deceptive. The medieval poet Saigyōillustrates this predicament in his poem in the Shinkokinwakashū(The New Anthology of Japanese Poetry Ancient and Modern) (IV, 362), when he mentions that though a priest, he ‘lacks a heart’ (kokoro naki); in other words he has renounced the world. Nevertheless, as a human and as a poet, he remains beguiled by the natural realm and hence is trapped. This dilemma is mediated by a new understanding of poetry itself as a religious path or michi in the form of shikan, disciplined contemplation, as kadō (the way of poetry). Paradoxically, delusion can be an instrument of awakening as in the Buddhist notion of hōben, or expediency, as illustrated by the use of parables.

During this period kokoro ari (having heart), apart from its Buddhist implications, came to mean also decorous, or worthy of the canonical stamp of approval, in contradistinction to mushin. Poetry that adhered to the conventions was labelled ushin, and aberrant poetry that deviated too much from the norms was termed mushin or substandard. These terms subsequently came to be applied not only to tanka (the classical form of poetry) but also to the newer form of linked verse known as renga, which was subdivided into two kinds, serious and comic (or careless).

The playwright and critic Zeami (c.1363–1443), whose theatre was grounded in the beliefs and practices of Zen Buddhism, further expands the significance of kokoro when he remarks cryptically in his treatise known as the Fūshi kaden (Teachings on Style and the Flower), ‘The flower is the heart (kokoro), the seed is the performance’, an inversion of Tsurayuki’s original assertion some centuries before. Now the heart no longer functions as the seed of poetry, but becomes instead the culmination of , aesthetically and spiritually, as emblemized by Zeami in the metaphor of the flower. Ironically, the performance, while seminal, is secondary ultimately to the epiphanic awareness blossoming in the hearts of those expressing their feelings and those affected by it.

Kokoro also proved central to perspectives outside Buddhism, as in the commentaries of the classics written by the kokugakusha (scholars of national learning) in the eighteenth century, who sought to elevate indigenous traditions in opposition to imported philosophies such as Confucianism and Buddhism. Motoori Norinaga, for example, rather than merely seeing kokoro as either a capacity of the perceiver or the place of moral conflict within an individual, stresses the idea of kokoro as the intrinsic or essential nature of objects themselves, in the form of koto no kokoro ‘the essence of abstract things’, such as the sadness of an experience, and mono no kokoro, ‘the essence of natural things’, such as the beauty of blossoms.

Citing this article:
Viswanathan, Meera. Kokoro, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G109-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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