Wabi-Sabi


From LEONARD KOREN
Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994)

What are the lessons of the universe?

Truth comes from the observation of nature. The Japanese have tried to control nature where they could, as best they could, within the limits of available technology. But there was little they could do about the weather — hot and humid summers, cold and dry winters, and rain on the average of one out of every three days throughout the year, except during the rainy season in early summer when everything is engulfed in a fine wet mist for six to eight weeks. And there was little they could do about the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, floods, fires, and tidal waves that periodically and unpredictably visited their land. The Japanese didn’t particularly trust nature, but they learned from it. Three of the most obvious lessons gleaned from millennia of contact with nature (and leavened with Taosit thought) were incorporated into the wisdom of wabi-sabi.

1. All things are impermanent. The inclination toward nothingness is unrelenting and universal. Even things that have all the earmarks of substance — things that are hard, inert, solid — present nothing more than the illusion of permanence. We may wear blinders, use ruses to forget, ignore, or pretend otherwise — but all comes to nothing in the end. Everything wears down. The planets and stars, and even intangible things like reputation, family heritage, historical memory, scientific theorems, mathematical proofs, great art and literature (even in digital form) — all eventually fade into oblivion and nonexistence.

2. All things are imperfect. Nothing that exists is without imperfections. When we look really closely at things we see the flaws. The sharp edge of a razor blade, when magnified, reveals microscopic pits, chips, and variegations. Every craftsman knows the limits of perfection: the imperfections glare back. And as things begin to break down and approach the primordial state, they become even less perfect, more irregular.

3. All things are incomplete. All things, including the universe itself are in a constant, never-ending state of becoming or dissolving. Often we arbitrarily designate moments, points along the way, as “finished” or “complete.” But when does something’s destiny finally come to fruition? Is the plant complete when it flowers? When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout? When everything turns into compost? The notion of completion has no basis in wabi-sabi.

“Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring. Wabi-sabi is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes.

Like homeopathic medicine, the essence of wabi-sabi is apportioned in small doses. As the dose decreases, the effect becomes more potent, more profound. The closer things get to nonexistence, the more exquisite and evocative they become. Consequently to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow way down, be patient, and look very closely.

Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.

To the wealthy merchants, samurai, and aristocrats who practiced tea, a medieval Japanese farmer’s hut, which the wabi-sabi tea room was modeled on, was a quite lowly and miserable environment. Yet, in the proper context, with some perceptual guidance, it took on exceptional beauty. Similarly, early wabi-sabi tea utensils were rough, flawed, and of undistinguished muddy colors. To tea people accustomed to the Chinese standards of refined, gorgeous, and perfect beauty, they were initially perceived as ugly. It is almost as if the pioneers of wabi-sabi intentionally looked for such examples of the conventionally not-beautiful — homely but not excessively grotesque — and created challenging situations where they would be transformed into their opposite.

Acceptance of the inevitable. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life. The luxuriant tree of summer is now only withered branches under a winter sky. All that remains of a splendid mansion is a crumbled foundation overgrown with weeds and moss. Wabi-sabi images force us to contemplate our own mortality, and they evoke an existential loneliness and tender sadness. They also stir a mingled bittersweet comfort, since we know all existence shares the same fate.

The wabi-sabi state of mind is often communicated through poetry, because poetry lends itself to emotional expression and strong, reverberating images that seem “larger” than the small verbal frame that holds them (thus evoking the larger universe). Rikyu used this oft-repeated poem by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) to describe the mood of wabi-sabi:

All around, no flowers in bloom
Nor maple leaves in glare,
A solitary fisherman’s hut alone
On the twilight shore
Of this autumn eve.


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