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Origami and Spirituality

Dear Fellow Subscribers,

Thank you all for your good wishes for my recovery. I feel touched and overwhelmed that so many of you should have expressed your concern.

I'm pleased to say I'm making a good recovery. It was a fairly routine operation (the sort you don't talk about in too much detail!) and after one of two minor hiccups, I now feel fine. But now there is so much to do, so I hope that I may be forgiven if I do not write a personal note to everyone who has sent his or her good wishes. I send my sincere thanks to one and all.

Joseph points out that he is setting the guillotine at 250 lines. I'm not sure what a "line" means in this context. I'm often puzzled by the way some texts come through as a mixture of long lines and short lines, whereas others apparently automatically adjust to the standard line of e-mail (if there is such a standard line). I vaguely understand that this is something to do with "wrap-round", but how it works, I do not understand. (I find that with age one is less able to handle complexity. Perhaps this is one reason why younger folders go for complex models while those of us who are older find our delight in comparatively simpler models.)

Anyway, the 250 lines that Joseph proposes would seem to be adequate for the sort or messages I usually send to Origami-L (Incidentally, can we continue to call it that?) and if it isn't, I can always split my posting into two.

Just before Christmas I was asked by a private correspondent who was proposing to give some paperfolding classes into which she hoped to introduce the idea of the spiritual and she asked if I could help by providing references in books and articles to Origami and Spirituality. I was surprise that I found this request much more difficult than I should have expected and I couldn't think of anything written directly about the spirituality of Origami. If I am merely having a mental blank, then will someone please tell me and let me have the references that elude me?

I provided a few general references which might help (like the introduction to Peter Engel's "Folding the Universe"), but I ended by writing something myself. I thought it might be of interest to subscribers to Origami-L, so here it is. Perhaps it will test whether or not I exceed the limit of 250 lines! If it does get the chop, I can always try again.

I regard this very much as an initial, experimental piece. It is clearly very uneven, but I shall be grateful if you will let me know what I have misconceived, where I have gone wrong and what I have overlooked.

A Very Happy New Year, New Century and New Millennium to each and every one of you!

David Lister.

Grimsby, England.

(PS. After trying to count lines, I fear that the total of my message may perhaps exceed 250 lines, so I will send it in two parts. Regard this as an experiment. Presumably lines of space count as lines just as much as lins of text?)



He showed me a little thing the size of a hazelnut in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind's eye and thought,'What can this be?' And the answer came, 'It is all that is made.

Dame Julian of Norwich.

` (born 1342)


I have been asked to write about Origami and the Spiritual but I have to admit that it is something I have not really considered before. I have occasionally come across references which been made to Zen and paperfolding and that is all.

One would think, at first sight, that there should be little connection between spiritual values and paperfolding. Paperfolding is essentially just a hobby or a craft; perhaps, even, an art. How can recreational manipulation of paper possibly have spiritual values? Indeed, casting my mind over the now extensive literature of paperfolding, I cannot think of anything has been written, at any rate in the West which makes any profound link between paperfolding and theology or even between paperfolding and philosophy.

However, if we consider the matter in more general terms, it is wholly accepted that paperfolding as we practise it in mainstream Origami is firmly based in geometry. Mathematics determines its every form and process. And does not mathematics disclose the very Mind of God?

I place an ordinary piece of square origami paper before me. What do I see? At one level I see no more than a piece of paper, a thin compression of plant fibres. But what else do I see? I see the square of paper twisting and turning itself until the semblance of a bird emerges from the paper to stand before me. And then the bird dissolves again and I am left with my original sheet of paper, now seemingly imprinted with crease lines which form a curious geometrical pattern. Is the bird or its form still residing there in the paper? Was it there before the paper took the shape of the bird? Did it exist as a Platonic Idea? Or do these ideas exist only in my own mind? But surely I did not invent the mathematical patterns. Where did they come from if not from God?

There is, too, beauty in paperfolding. Only a very few paperfolders have the gift to impart timeless beauty and life to their models. But some of the very greatest do, and not least of them, Akira Yoshizawa. In his younger days, Yoshizawa studied as a Buddhist priest. Before he folds he prays and he tries to understand the very spirit of the creature he is creating by studying its nature, its muscular form and its temperament. By immersing himself in the creature he may be said to become the creature itself, so that when he folds it he breathes into it its own life and spirit.

Abstract forms, too, have a timeless beauty. Paul Jackson has stressed the importance of folding just one or two creases of utter simplicity. Folding does not have to be complex to be meaningful and beautiful. John Smith devised his "Pure Land" folding to make origami possible for handicapped people, but in doing so he discovered a new kind of simplicity of folding. He named it "Pure Land" because it used only simple valley and mountain folds. "Pure Land" also happened to be the name of an Eastern Philosophy.

Even in the West, symbolism pervades the whole of our consciousness and all that we do. During the past 150 years or so, psychologists have analysed our dreams and mythologies and have sought to uncover the depths of our conscious and unconscious minds. Freudian and Jungian symbolism has thrown new light on the way we look at ourselves and our hopes and fears. We have to acknowledge that if this is true, then this higher kind of symbolism inevitably pervades all our paperfolding.

However hidden within our folding this higher symbolism may be, it is a symbolism of a lower order that is more readily identified with our paperfolding. We fold a butterfly to capture the joy of spring, the miracle of metamorphosis, the wonder of life, and the joy of freedom. We fold a rose to enjoy the beauty of its structure and perhaps to share in nature's creation of something which emerges from a close bud to become one of the glories of nature. In some way our crease pattern is an echo of the intricacy of the DNA which steers the internal folding of the petals before they emerge to display their inspiring beauty for so brief an instant before its petals fall. Then we realise that although the petals of our paper rose will never fall, our own flower is but a shadow of the real rose.

Or we fold a dragon to depict a symbol of the power and the terror that threatens us or the fears that dwell within us. We fold a star as a sign of our hopes and aspirations. We fold a nativity scene to symbolise New Life and for those of us who are Christians, our hope in the Word made Flesh.

So, in the West, although there may be no explicit relationship between paperfolding and the spiritual, the relationship is still there because it is implicit and we find it wherever we look.

In the East things are a little different, but not very much. The Eastern religions and philosophies are less rooted in historical events than the Western religions. Symbolism, on the other hand is more explicit in the east. Paper (of the modern kind) was invented in China and was further developed in Japan. In Japan, paper itself has become a symbol. About the time that the Buddhists introduced their religion into Japan, they also brought with them their sacred scriptures. It was necessary that the scriptures should be written on paper and the only paper that could be considered worthy of bearing the sacred words was the purest white paper and the finest that could be made. For this reason, Buddhism endowed the Japanese with a sacred regard for paper that they have never lost, even in the modern age of machine-made paper. For the Buddhist the symbolism is in the paper itself and they have few symbols which require the paper to be actually folded.

As a contrast, Shinto, the ancient religion of Japan, which today happily coexists with Buddhism, used more symbolic forms.. Shinto was born out of the numinous spirits of nature, where divinity resided in every tree and stone. It became traditional to mark off especially sacred areas with a sacred rope or shimenawa, to which symbolic bundles of rice straw were attached and o-shide which were cut and folded zigzags of white paper. The o-shide marked the imminence of the spirit of the place of tree of rock and ultimately, as religion developed, of the presence of the deity. Inside the shrine itself there is a staff to the head of which is attached a cluster of O-shide-like zigzagged papers. This is the gohei, an instrument which is used in ceremonies of purification and in which the deity of the temple is held to reside,

There was, however another factor which encouraged the Japanese to associate paper with divinity. The Japanese word for "paper" is pronounced "kami". The word for God (originally it applied to the spirit or divinity which pervaded every kind of object) was a different written character, but it, too, was pronounced "kami". Although there is no essential confusion between the two separate words, the fact that they are both pronounced "kami" has led the Japanese to make a symbolic or poetical association between the two, a sort of play on words and has helped to preserve and confirm the great respect that the Japanese have for paper.

The earliest symbolic paper folds of the Japanese are the Mecho and Ocho butterflies which have come to be associated with Japanese traditional weddings. Apparently dating from the Heian era, they are the earliest examples of Japanese paperfolding that have any semblance of recreational origami, although they are really for decoration, not for play. However, they are not so much connected with the wedding itself as with the ceremonial drinking by the bride and groom of sake or rice wine, which formed part of the wedding ceremony. In its origin, a wedding was a family ceremony which did not specifically involve the Shinto religion, although nowadays traditional weddings are often celebrated in Shinto shrines. It appears that the butterflies originated as modified forms of the paper covers tied over the necks of the flasks holding the sake used in the ceremony. The creases became formalised and eventually evolved into the butterflies.

Whatever their origins, the Mecho and Ocho butterflies are potently symbolic of marriage and of the happiness that everyone hopes for the young couple. They bring to us visions of two butterflies in carefree abandon chasing each other on a garden of flowers. In our hearts we know that the carefree days cannot continue for ever, but we pray and hope that love and true happiness will endure through a long life together for the bride and groom.

Many traditional symbols have been translated by the Japanese into the traditional paper birds, animals and plants that they fold.. Two of the most frequently occurring are the tortoise and the crane, which both symbolise long life. They appear in many forms and, for instance, woven in basketry, they are sometimes used to decorate wooden kegs of sake. They are also folded so that they stand on the Horaizan, a sacred mountain which is the utopian land of perennial youth and immortality and the abode of happiness. The horaizan reminds us of the sacred Mount Fuji, which is regarded by the Japanese as the abode of the gods.

The traditional meaning of the crane has always been long life and therefore, happiness. Cranes are folded and sent to sick people to express a wish for their recovery. The folded paper crane has been one of the most enduring features of Japanese origami and every Japanese learns to fold it as a child. Since the year 1945, however, its symbolism has become subtly changed.

Every paperfolder knows the story of Sadako, the little girl who was present in Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb was dropped on a human population. Sadako survived the immediate explosion, but then, when she was aged twelve, she began to suffer from radiation sickness. It is a traditional Japanese belief that if a sick person should fold a thousand paper cranes then he or she will get better. So Sadako began to fold paper cranes. After a time, however, her health did not improve and she began to realise that she would not get better. So instead of folding for herself, she began to fold for other children who were similarly afflicted. Each crane she folded became a prayer.

It is said that she told each crane as she folded it: "I will write Peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world". So her prayer became not only a prayer for healing and happiness, but also for Peace.

Sadako did not live to fold all of her thousand cranes and her school friends completed the task. One version of the story is that they buried them with her. But Sadako's prayer for life was answered because her story of Sadako and that of her school friends came to the knowledge of the whole of Japan and a fund was created to build an institute for the treatment of victims of radiation sickness. So the paper crane became a symbol of peace and reconciliation. In the West as well as in Japan children and grown-ups will often decide fold a thousand cranes as a prayer for the recovery of someone who is sick or to send to the Peace Park at Hiroshima in memory of the horror that took place there and as a prayer for Peace. But still today people still fold a thousand cranes in the old way as a symbol of long life and of happiness.

I began by referring to references which have been made to Zen and paperfolding. Because Zen Buddhism has become so well-known (if not well-understood) in the West, it is perhaps natural that should be a tendency to associate everything Japanese with Zen. But Zen is only one sect of Buddhism and itself it has different schools. Described with misleading brevity, Zen is the pursuit of enlightenment through discipline and meditation. A disciple of Zen seeks attain enlightenment by emptying his mind of all rational thoughts.

It is not easy to see how this to see how this relates to paperfolding. However, the study of Zen was adopted by the Samurai warriors to enhance their skills with weapons and in fighting. Zen has also been applied to many other activities including flower arranging, the tea ceremony No drama, landscaping and literature. It is not surprising that in the same way paperfolders have sought to enhance their practice of origami by applying themselves to the study of Zen. The late Eric Kenneway wrote a short piece about Zen with which to conclude his book, "Complete Origami" (1987). Sadly, he died before the book was published but he had, in fact, already decided to delete his article on Zen. His editor thought the better of this and so the short article on Zen stands printed in Eric's book as it was published. Eric wrote: "To a few paperfolders the oneness of the square of paper (which has the capacity to become all creatures, interdependent because the square always remains a square) symbolises their belief in the harmony of the universe and the presence of the Buddha-nature in all things"

The Italian, Vittorio-Maria Brandoni, who founded a school of origami based on Zen principles believed that origami should not just express and "empty aestheticism", but rather an attitude to life and nature. Just as the practice of contemplation in Zen leads to enlightenment, so folding in the right way should lead to a "waking up" of our minds and hearts. But, he adds, origami is only folding paper - he who wants to understand it just has to start .

The most famous exponent of Zen who was also a paperfolder was Kosho Uchiyama, who died in March 1998. Both Kosho's father Michio and his grandmother were distinguished paperfolders. Kosho's own work was published in a series of books, notably "Origami" (1962) and "Pure Origami" (1979). Just how far Kosho's origami was influenced by his Zen Buddhism must be a matter of opinion. But we have to accept that many of his creations reflect not so much the enlightenment of Zen as the joy of childhood folding., It is difficult and perhaps impudent of anyone not versed in Zen to venture an opinion, but and we should guard against any suggestion that childhood folding is not enlightened folding.

We do not have to be followers of Zen to realise that our own folding can be an encouragement to meditation. Many folders have discovered this as they have folded multiple copies of identical modules for a modular creation or folded cranes as part of a thousand to be given to a sick person or to be sent to hang before the statue of Sadako in the Peace park at Hiroshima. As we fold, our fingers are occupied without require mental application and the repetition has the effect of liberating our minds. The folding acts like a mantra which frees our spirit for prayer and meditation. This is one of the most potent links between paperfolding and spirituality and In a way we are ourselves experiencing a liberation akin to that of Zen Buddhism.

So, once more, I look at the plain square of paper in front of me. And I find that it is no longer a mere piece of paper. I find that it has is a magic casement through which I can gaze at enchanted landscapes and pass to worlds of a higher experience and spiriuality. So, I recall the words of William Blake:

"To see a World in grain of sand,
And Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."

Blake's words are an echo of those of Dame Julian with which I began this piece. Is not our grain of sand, our hazelnut just a simple square of paper?

David Lister

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