Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Thoughts on Wabi Sabi

I was encouraged to post about Wabi Sabi by my American friend.  I thought it was a good opportunity for me to deepen my understanding of it and have mulled over how to deal with it.  Now I'm ready: let's get started.
Wabi Sabi is traditional Japanese aesthetics with the background of "zen" (one of the schools of Buddhism) which originates in the Middle Age. It is difficult to pin down exactly what it is, for it has developed in the context of Japanese history.  I understand it as appreciation of  "richness in poverty" and "beauty in absence of apparent beauty or in rustic simplicity".  You can read the explanation here, so I will explain taking lifestyle and Japanese arts as examples.
Wabi-sabi originates with medieval hermits.  The lifestyle of three people,  Kamo no Chomei, a poet and essayist of 12-13th century, Saigyo, a Buddhist monk and tanka poet of 12th century, Matsuo Baho, a haiku  master of 17th century, embodies wabi-sabi.  They chose solitary, humble life or journeys.  Having experienced glory,  Kamo no Chomei lived as a hermit toward the end of his life, Saigyo went on long poetic journeys, and Basho revered Saigyo and followed his way, travelling with few of possessions, staying in humble lodgings, and being in tune with nature.  In their life of "wabi", the life of solitude and simplicity,  they seem to have realized their lifestyle was a real free life to be perfectly themselves.   There is a sense of impermanence in the background:  “The flow of the river is ceaseless and its water is never the same. The bubble that float in the pools, now -vanishing, now forming, are not of long duration : so in the world are man and his dwellings”  (Opening lines of Kamo no Chomei's Hojoki, or The Ten Foot Square Hut)   

Wabi-sabi manifests itself in the art of those people.  How do you feel to see the scenery of the poem unfolded before your eyes?  
(tanka/ 5-7-5-7-7 syllables short poem) 
These are two of three renowned autumn evening tanka poems.

Kokoronaki / mini mo aware ha/ shirare keri / shigi tatsu sawa no / aki no yugure 
(by Saigyo)
Even one so free of passion / would be moved to sadness — / autumn evening / in a marsh / where snipes fly up

Miwataseba/ hana mo momiji mo/ nakari keri/ ura no tomaya no/aki no yukure 
(by Fujiwara Teika) 
All around, no flowers in bloom/ nor maple leaves in glare/a solitary fisherman's hut alone/ on the twilight shore/ of this autumn
(haiku/ 5-7-5 syllables short poem)
What is in Basho's haiku is "sabi", his love for the old, the weathered, and the unobtrusive.
"Sabi is the color of haiku." (Basho)

furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto
an ancient pond / a frog jimps in / the splash of water

tabi ni yande / yume wa kareno wo / kake meguru  (Basho's swan song)
falling sick on a journey / my dream goes wandering / over a field of dried grass

A Japanese tea house in Kenroku-en (image via Wikimedia)
Sen no Rikyu, a great tea master of 16th century, started "wabi-cha/tea", a style of tea of which characteristics are minimalism and simplicity, against the prevailing extravagant style of tea.  Japanese tea ceremony, which many people have learned for mental composure as well as for acquiring elegant manners and etiquette, originates in Rikyu's wabi-cha.  In learning the tea ceremony, learners are constantly reminded of  "ichigo-ichie" which literally means "one opportunity, one encounter".   The host treats guests with the utmost consideration as if it were once-in-a-lifetime occasion and participants enjoy each moment, for nothing happens exactly the same way again.

Image via this site
Then, what the tea ceremony is like?  The entrance to the tea room is so low that people have to lower their heads to enter regardless of their social status.  There is mimimum decoration, only a modest hanging scroll and a vase of flowers on the alcove, in the room.   Because of the lack of decoration, we become more aware of surrounding details.  We see, hear and smell what we don't usually notice - the hiss of the simmering water and several seconds' silence right after a ladle of water is added, the beauty of  glowing charcoal, and the aroma of whisked powered green tea.  All our senses are opened up and we are awakened to ourselves.  This is the experience of wabi-sabi at the tea ceremony. 

In my modern daily life, I see wabi-sabi as a gift of time and a way into the essence of things.  I see it in things like weathered wood deck, diffused light through paper screen, old but never dirty table cloth, oxidized silver ware, to name a few,  and in the joy found in the mundane and simple daily living and in being in tune with subtle changes of nature.
In a sense, wabi-sabi might be more sensitivity than concept and that sensitivity would be innate in Japanese people.  I think it  gets lost in  daily rush, but as we get older we become more conscious of it.   It is distinctly Japanese,  but is it uniquely Japanese?  When I read some of poems of Keats or Wordsworth, I feel something similara to wabi-sabi in them.  There would be wabi-sabi minded people overseas and I hope wabi-sabi spirit will be spreading beyond time and space.

(This site is all about Japanese tea ceremony and Japanese flower arrangement.)


  1. You've done well, my friend. Thank you for this informative post. Here is what I think is so important: "enjoy each moment, for nothing happens exactly the same way again". To find joy in the simple and mundane is a way of life for which I strive. I'll return to your post again to think more about what you've written.

  2. This is my first time here, our mutual friend Barb suggested I visit. You have a most lovely blog, we have the same interest of wabisabi in common. I follow several others of like-minded also... "ahazymoon" and "wabisabiart" are two, they appear on my side bar. I so look forward to exploring your Blog.

    My blog Moments of Mine is about my simple moments of joy in nature and family.

  3. You challenged to write a Japanese traditional spirits.

    This is my small experience of WabiSabiart.The flower arrangement I learnt is called “a stone and grasses style” Sekisou style in Japanese. Unlike modern flower arrangements the style is very simple. Only a few fresh flowers are beautifully arranged with one stone in a shallow flower bowl. Wabi Sabi can be found in the tranquil and quiet simplicity.

    Thank you for giving me to think about WabiSabi.

  4. Japanese pampus grass are so beautiful in the photo.
    They look like being bathed in a golden light.

    These words, wabi-shii(dreary) sabi-shii(lonely feeling), are etymologically related with Wabi- Sabi, and have not always positive aspect,but I noticed by your essay, Wabi-Sabi spirit seems to be sublimed well, just like ash gray pampus grass turn into blazing golden.

    To do something with minimum tool is not easy but at the same time it must be useful for creating efficient way about it and it could be helpful to deepen our skill and ideas.

  5. I like the idea of “Ichigo Ichie” too; “each meeting should be treasured, for it can never be reproduced”

    Last year my husband and I were invited to a tea ceremony held at Reikanji temple (霊鑑寺),nunnery, in Kyoto. It used to be closely related to imperial family princesses and now is open to public twice a year in spring and fall.
    At first I was afraid that I would feel out of place in such event at such place because I am clumsy and have little knowledge of tea ceremony. However, the host who invited us was a long-time friend of my husbands and he knows well how we are. He made us guests feel relaxed.

    I was able to enjoy the subdued atmosphere the place and host’s manner and flavor of green tea produced without being too much worried about manners. It is how we enjoy and appreciate it that counts. Outside the room, the soft evening sunlight just got in the hole of stone lantern standing in the garden just like the burning candles inside of it.
    This kind of simple and tasteful performance by the nature added the pleasure of the ceremony.

  6. Thanks to all of you for your nice comments regarding your mind-set and your experiences.

    I remember Saint-Exupery's saying about a machine: "Perfection is achieved not when there's nothing more to add but when there's nothing left to take away." I think this is also related to wabi-sabi in its "pared down into the essence."

  7. I came to read your post once again - you have captured the essence and simplicity inherent in the philosophy of Wabi-sabi. I asked a few of my blog friends to come and read your post. I see Wanda has shared a comment with you.

  8. as i read your post i feel my heart lean in, wanting to live more simply
    i love how few items invites a person to look more closely
    i also enjoy the thought of all having to bend/bow to enter a room
    how wonderful to be invited more fully into the moment
    thank you for letting me know of this post on wabi-sabi
    your photograph is lovely


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