Every visitor to Japan is likely to be familiar with the announcement on the shinkansen as it comes to another station: mamonaku…followed by the somewhat smarmy American version ‘in a short while we will be making a brief stop at….’ (It always sounds like some sort of euphemism to me…) This character is the ma of mamonaku : an interval, after some time. Indeed  ‘time’ is written thus:




(the first character being ‘temple’, itself composed of the characters for sun, earth and  measurement: a framework of earth, for measuring the path of the sun?)

 Yet we also find this character in the word ningen, ‘human being’:





-‘man/space’. Space, that is, as interval, meaning ‘between’. In traditional cultures man is always conceived of as the mediator, the point of connection between heaven and earth; he is the microcosmos, by which the universe is measured. Hence, for example, the Japanese unit of measurement ken, which uses the same character



 (one ken)

-by my reckoning the height of a man with arms outstretched, being about 1.82 metres. (This is also the length of a traditional tatami mat, still to be found in many Japanese houses). Such a concept was behind all ancient measurements, the length of a hand, from the fingertips to the elbow (a cubit), a foot, and so on. This is the logos: the prototype, the primordial ‘yardstick’, or touchstone, according to this ancient philosophy man is in a sense the universes centre, through which comes the light of the spirit. Indeed the character ma is itself composed of the character for gate,


within which is the character for sun:



Now the sun is the perennial symbol of the spirit, and the character for it is none other than an adaptation over time of the same symbol which is used in astrology to represent the sun, a circle with a dot in the centre. The most simple of symbols, symbol of unity, of which the sun itself is a symbol. Such an understanding of the nature of symbol, it seems to me, is key to the very development of language, which is to say, the very development of human consciousness, as something distinct and unique. Yet our place is always a potential, as gateway; as Meister Eckhart said, we are human becomings, not human beings. This word ‘being’ as the English version has it is described here by what we would consider to be its opposite; space, that which is between. It is not existent as such, we might say, yet it is existent in that it may be described, and, naturally, makes a difference. In Zen Buddhism the practise of simply sitting, zazen, is considered to allow one to realize what it truly means to be human: to uncover anything extra, anything imagined, so there is only this reality, the gateway, the swinging door(s) depicted in the character for gate. Through this comes the breath, going in, and going out, as do thoughts, without attachment. Just so the light comes and goes; though where from and where to, who knows.


Thirty spokes meet in the hub,

but the empty space between them

is the essence of the wheel.

Pots are formed from clay,

but the empty space between it

is the essence of the pot.

Walls with windows and doors form the house,

but the empty space within it

is the essence of the house


-Lao Tsu


Whilst the Western approach is to build a house by putting walls up and clearly defining a space, in Japan traditional houses were  apparently made by setting up lines of thin pillars. Only later were additions made such as fusuma(sliding doors), shoji (sliding screens with translucent paper), noren (curtains), and so on, to partition rooms. All these partitions were movable, which meant that one could redefine the room in an instant, creating a window, mado, now written with one character (though apparently previously written with the character ma間 and do meaning ‘place’: the ‘space place’. Now as the great Sun Ra stated ‘space is the place’: that is to say every place is space, is sheer potential. Metaphysically speaking, we might say that through each place, each eye or I, that is, each individual ‘thingness’, we may witness the reality in which there are no things; we may glimpse the soul, through the window.

 While the concept of ma clearly relates to the empty space Taoists discussed, it is also said to relate to a more ancient Shinto concept called utsu.  This refers to ‘the void inside a certain substance, a cave in a rocky mountain, the hollow inside an old tree, the ‘dug-out’ of a canoe, or the cavity of a pit dwelling. The sacred spirit was thought to lodge in all of these voids. As the view towards the void became more ritualised, even a solid gem was believed to contain a void a sack of cloth, without holes for hands and feet, was thought to be inhabited by the sacred God. The more severed from exteriority, the more sacred the internal void. ‘ (Isozaki) This void could be clearly identified by the Japanese with the import and essential comprehension of Buddhism, the philosophy of which hinges upon the recognition that all phenomena are empty, as the key Buddhist text of the heart sutra repeatedly states. All is transient, fleeting appearance, yet the absolute is found expressed in even the smallest drop of the ocean of being. From this void, without ceasing to be void, that is, without becoming ‘thing’, separate and disconnected ( a mental fiction) the ancient Japanese pictured the universe being created through the movement of kami, spirits, as stories, bringing about time space; and just so from the stillness of meditation the heightened alertness of a zen monk allows him to spring into action to catch a passing fly with one hand and release it. Such poise is also the principle behind martial arts, the readiness not to habitually react but attune to and express the essence of the moment, as required. To be waiting for the kami though is what Isozaki calls ‘the underlying principle of the Japanese conception of space and time’.









  (left: three pictures of the same Noh ‘hawk mask’ showing how the expression changes with a tilt of the head…)


  This waiting, or interval as performance, is probably to be found most      keenly expressed in Noh drama. In Noh it is the ‘space between the notes’  that creates the whole drama, that allows the kami to inhabit the stage, or,  one might say, to become almost visible. Zeami Motokiyo, who codified Noh theatre many centuries ago, stated, “senu tokoro ga omoshiroki”:  what the actor does not do is interesting. In the space is implied deeper levels of meaning, beyond what can be expressed in more limited forms. Such ‘silent fullness’, what we might call the ‘pregnant pause’, hints at this vast potential, breathing space into life, and giving birth to time…

[gonna freely quote from something I found online now which is written by Stefanie Adcock on the web page of the LA Public School (which looks great) about their short recent course  on the ‘cosmology of the invisible: the Japanese aesthetic of ma‘. Just too interesting to cut down I think.]

  ‘An essential element of Buddhist thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, is the concept of no-mind (sunyata), which basically stated is the original mind, the one without distinctions that flows uninterrupted as the mind unconscious of itself. Obtaining the flowing mind, uninterrupted with conscious thought is the ideal state of performance that each noh actor aspires toward and represents the actor’s ability to perform from a deeper level of being that is ‘in-tune’ with the universe. The actors first attempt to be ‘in time’ with the audience occurs when the actor stands at the brink of the hashigakari, awaiting the ideal moment for his entrance. Knowing when to move is a developed sensitivity that each actor must acquire with his audience, as explained by Zeami.

“The actor must find the proper moment to seize the attention of the audience. It is bad to begin either too quickly or too slowly. When the actor hears in his inner ear that instant of silence when the audience waits in expectation, thinking “ah, now he is going to sing!” he must begin.”

  Such sensitivity is what Zeami considered to be a result of the actor’s “greatest, most secret skill”, an expression of  ‘the inner tension that is created when an artist maintains his concentration between actions. In other words if a movement is performed and brought to a resting place, and there is a pause (ma) before his next action, the actor does not at any point in the whole performance drop or lose the internal tension that is created through the One- Intensity of Mind, but sustains the flow of energy throughout even in moments of stillness.  



 “ The actor must rise to a selfless level of art, imbued with a concentration that  transcends his own consciousness, so that he can bind together the moments before  and after that instant when “nothing happens.” Such a process constitutes that  inner force that can be termed “connecting all the arts through one intensity of  mind.”

 “Thinking is useful in many ways, but there are some occasions when thinking  interferes with the work, and you have to leave it behind and let the unconscious  come forward. In such cases, you cease to be your own conscious master but become an instrument in the hands of the unknown. The unknown has no ego-consciousness and consequently no thought of winning the contest, because it moves at the level of non-duality, where there is neither subject or object.”

In this ‘one-intensity of mind’, the internalized tension of the performance, there is action in non-action; and in the quality of stillness in action, there is non-action in action.

What, then, is the meaning of the intervals between action? As Adcock notes: ‘if the actor has acquired the ‘secret skills’ of performance then in these moments of stillness we the audience can experience the actor’s internal motion or heart (kokoro). The actual negative space that is created by the non-action of ma in performance is necessary for the expression of the inward motion that would otherwise be eclipsed by action… The negative space ma creates through non-action is intrinsically related to positive space created through action. Noh theatre seems to highlight them as distinct and separate but through their separateness we realize their connection. Somehow though, in the moments of stillness, much like the negative space in the monochrome ink style paintings of the Muromachi period (1392-1573 C.E.) we are drawn toward the blank spaces in the image as an object for pure aesthetic contemplation.’

Such awareness of space was undoubtedly largely through the influence of  Zen Buddhist philosophy, influenced itself in the unique formation of its character in Japan by what we would now call Shinto, the very ancient reverence for nature and appreciation of sacred space. One might say it is a key to understanding not just the arts but the culture, the collective soul if you will, of the Japanese people, in which often ‘subtlety, restraint and allusiveness are artistic ideals’.  We sense intuitively, in other words, if you will, reading between the lines. In all relationships there is ambiguity, a certain quality of ma. We might call this ‘grey space’, though grey has the usual connotation of muddiness, of being dull and unclear.  Yet in the best traditional Japanese art there is not just ‘grey space’ but a crystal clarity, which is the spirit shining through. What are we to make of this? Perplexity upon perplexity: amidst the floating world, a single stone sings. No Space, no time, yet somehow we are held here, pure potentialities, between nothingness and void.

More to come, upon further contemplation; on ambiguity and paradox, in this mystifying, mysterious world of signs…