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Ma; Or The Love Of Emptiness


A Japanese word and the philosophical principle of minimalism, it invites breaks, remaining in silence, and wisdom from a vacuum.

Minimalism, which came westward from Eastern cultures, is based on a discrete term that celebrates, not things, but the empty space between them. In Japanese, this term is ma. The concept is found in multiple aspects of Japanese culture, among them architecture, interior and garden design, music and poetry (in the simplicity of haiku, to name but one example). It can explain the importance with which an object is charged, a sound, an act, or an idea if it happens or exists in an empty space. Paradoxically, that’s the only place where something can take shape, and make sense.

The ma might be translated as “emptiness” or “a pause”. It floods many aspects of a Japanese culture (in which silence is never uncomfortable), from physical spaces and their artistic expressions to some of the most sophisticated of interior practices. Imagine for example, in speech, how the silence existing between words gives them a precise importance and depth. We might also mention music (bringing to mind, irremediably, the work of the great John Cage), in which the blank note, the non-sound, permits the very existence of the music. In other words, silence is the support of sound.

The philosophy of the ma reaches into such hidden places in the life of Japan that a Japanese person learning the traditional bow of greeting must do so with a pause before straightening the posture such that the gesture gains in strength, and transmits respect. A Japanese tea ceremony also needs a good dose of ma. This is found in the silence, the isolation and calm in the halls where the ritual is performed, making for a true break from everyday life.

In the West, ma has left a strong impression on disciplines like design, art, and architecture. But the concept, conceived rather as a practice, could also apply to more subtle aspects of daily life, to our activities, and to the mechanics of thought and daily ritual. In such a context, an excess of activity, of things to do, even of thoughts and words, are deeply harmful. They’re capable of invading our perception to the point of preventing our enjoyment of the simplest aspects of existence. On the other hand, any excess of objects, of possessions, can also detract from these very objects. In a house full of things, it’s nearly impossible to appreciate them one by one. Similarly, with a plate full of foods we lose the ability to enjoy one food and its flavor. The concept of ma makes any question of excess that much more essential.

Some simple actions, like taking short breaks between activities, even between our words or thoughts, can be a way of acting with more wisdom, and not rushing our decisions, for example. The lesson is simple: learn to enjoy the substance, but also the non-substance; sound and silence, action and inaction. In this sense, the ma, a monosyllable which, in its simplicity is deeply complex, doesn’t happen outside of us. It’s something that happens in our perception and as a deeply satisfying transformation in which a vacuum is full of possibilities. (This is perhaps one reason the desert, in its nakedness, continues to invite spiritual exercise.)

*Image: 1) Public Domain

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