The Eye of Detachment

Noh (能) is one of the traditional theater plays in the fourteen century’s Japan. It liberally means talent or skill in this Chinese character. But it implies a lot more in-depth. 

One of the key figures in this tradition is Zeami (世阿弥: 1363-1443). He was a Noh actor; at the same time, created playwrights and developed theories, which contributed a lot to the aesthetic concepts in Japan such as Wab-sabi, Yūgen, and so on.

Perhaps one of the most important concepts he proposed could be Riken no ken (離見の見). It reminds us of the eye of detachment, even the sight of contemplation from a metaphysical perspective. 

Riken (離見) means a sort of detached sight. Ri (離) means being far away. Ken (見) is for watching or view. 

For example, when you’re an actor in the theater, your straightforward view is Gaken (我見). Ga means one’s own, and Ken is for watching or view. In short, it could be the sight of subjectivity. 

And if you try to see yourself from the eye of audiences, that is Riken; Seeing yourself from far away by putting yourself in the shoes of audiences. It short, it could be the sight of objectivity. 

If so, what is the concept called Riken no ken? It is the (subjective) sight of the sight of objectivity. It is another meta-perspective that tries to see the view of objectivity or the relationship between you as an actor and you acting as the role of audiences. It is a sort of the third eye that should capture both first and second eyes. 

Where is this third eye of yours? When you act on the stage, Zeami advised that your third eye (Riken no ken) could be somewhere upper behind you. From this position, you can oversee how you act in front of audiences; at the same time, how they see you. In doing so, you can also monitor how you see them on how they see you. And then in doing so again, you could reflect on how they see you on how you see them. It goes on and on. 

It’s similar to reflexivity. It is one of the concepts of how we understand ourselves and others. For example, when you try to understand others, your understanding can not be free from how they understand you. And their understanding can not be free from how you understand them, either. In one sentence: 

I understand that you understand that I understand that you understand that I understand that you understand that… 

When you talk with someone, consciously or unconsciously you care how this person understands you. And in the same way this person also cares how you understand him or her. Every relationship is inevitably in the specific context, we can never get out of it. 

It implied the limitation or even impossibility of the field research and interview. When we interview someone, such specific context would affect how he or she answers the questions. 

Whether we like or not, we have various faces depending on the contexts. Put it bluntly, even there is no such a consistent self. We are situationally and contextually someone but universally nobody. 

That is why, Buddha boldly proclaimed there was no such a thing as self. Everything is an illusion, even a dream. 

Riken no ken is also such a realization. Your self-awareness as an actor is merely a tiny part of your subjectivity. That is Gaken. When you see yourself from the point of view of audiences, you could see both views from the broader perspective adding another context, which is Riken

But then, you have to step back further even by getting away from this perspective. In it, you could even see the truth that every sight is situational and contextual. Every view is illusory and dreamy. Riken no ken is such God’s perspective; the eye of detachment; His Silence, transcending all our limitations. 

Thus, Zeami also focused on the concept of Yūgen (幽玄). It’s a sort of aesthetic taste to make every scene supernatural, mysterious, dreamy, and subtle with unrealistic components. In Yūgen such characters as spirits and angels play the key roles. From God’s perspective, indeed we can see them, not superstitiously but contemplatively.

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