No one who looks for a traditionally Japanese ideal of beauty can miss wabi-sabi. It is a widely-known aesthetic principle, but also a way of life and an attitude to the world. It would be difficult to name all the aspects of reality in which it manifest itself. According to a frequently quoted short definition, wabi-sabi is the beauty of objects that are imperfect, impermanent, incomplete. The beauty of modest and insignificant objects, the beauty of unconventional objects. It is fairly easy to point out objects “bearing the mark” of wabi-sabi.However, a more precise, theoretical explanation of wabi-sabi is far more difficult. The Japanese themselves – despite the fact that most of them “feel” wabi-sabi and can indicate examples of it – find it hard to provide an exact definition.
In order to discover the reasons why it is so, we would have to go back to the sources. The first “propagators” of wabi-sabi” were the masters of tea ceremony, clerics, monks – who all practiced Zen Buddhism. Wabi-sabi began to reflect the basic spiritual and philosophical principles of this branch of Buddhism. According to its masters, true knowledge, wisdom can be transferred only directly from a mind to a mind, without words. It thus comes as no surprise that in such a climate people avoided formulating definitions of philosophical or aesthetic concepts. There was no tradition of explaining them rationally. Wabi-sabi, so closely linked to the spirit of Zen, was by no means an exception here.
Those who want to express the spirit of wabi-sabi often quote a classic waka poem by the Japanese poet Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241). A well-known English translation reads as follows:
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
I would like to present here my own interpretations of this work. They are not translations, because I do not know Japanese.
ani kwiatu wiśni
ani jaskrawego liścia klonu
jesień nad zatoką o zmroku
samotna chata rybaka
[I look around
no cherry flower
no bright maple leaf
autumn bay at dusk
a fisherman’s solitary hut]
The original waka poem has 31 syllables, with each line getting 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables respectively. My second version is an attempt to preserve this pattern.
gdzie tylko spojrzę
ani kwiat wiśni ani
krwawy liść klonu
jesień tuż nad zatoką
samotna chata zmierzch
[everywhere I look
no cherry flower in bloom
no bloody maple
autumn coming to the shore
solitary hut at dusk]
The emotional charge of this scene, the sad beauty emanating from it allow us to probe into the subtle laws of the universe by means of methods that go beyond the ordinary, sensory perception. Through transcendental feeling, in a non-rational manner, it reveals to us the primeval forces of nature or, to use the language of European philosophy, its primordial order. In other words, wabi-sabi helps us to answer the question: “what is the universe like?”, because it is itself the fruit of the lesson that the universe teaches us.
It would be difficult to find another nation that could trust nature less than the Japanese. For centuries scourged by droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons and huge waves, they could not perceive nature as a source of support, but they could learn from it. This school developed three basic truths which became the foundations of wabi-sabi.
First: nothing lasts, everything heads for nothingness. Even what seems substantial, hard, inert, uniform, only seems to be durable; its permanence is illusory. In the end it will turn into nothingness. Impermanence is characteristic of not only natural objects but also of immaterial objects such as reputation, fame, historical memory, scientific theorems or the beauty of great
works of art. Everything dissolves in non-existence.
Second: nothing is perfect. When we look at objects closely, we notice their flaws and defects. Smooth surfaces observed under a microscope turn out to be rough, full of groves. In addition, everything disintegrates and this leaves even less space for perfection.
Finally, third: nothing is finished, fully ready. Everything, including the universe, is in the never-ending process of becoming and vanishing. It is constantly on the move, constantly heads for or emerges from nothingness. It has to be stressed, however, that nothingness is not treated as an empty space or pure negativity (which is the basis of nihilism in the Western tradition), but is a living potentiality. People arbitrarily select a moment, indicate a specific point and call it a finished stage. In fact, it is impossible to say when the destiny of an object is fulfilled. Does a plant fulfil its task by flowering or by producing seeds, or perhaps by turning into compost? The dynamic process of the universe (or, as some say, evolution) never finishes; it is a circle in perpetual motion. [It is worth comparing these reflections with the concept of time as defined by Parmenides of Elea, by Nagarjuna or, recently, by Peter Lynds, who is unaware of the debt he owes them].
The philosophical significance of these truths seems to be unquestionable, especially in our times, which, after the terrorist attacks on the WTC, began to be called an “age of uncertainty”. Obviously, wabi-sabi cannot be regarded only as an aesthetic principle. It is evident that it is the core of a complex “world view”. For wabi-sabi has many layers. First of all, the metaphysical layer – it gives us insight into the ultimate nature of existence, which is best described by an observation that objects either head for or emerge from nothingness. Then, the spiritual layer – it expresses the sacred, secret wisdom the essence of which is contained in three statements: the source of truth is the observation of nature; “greatness” is hidden in inconspicuous and usually overlooked details; and beauty can be conjured up from ugliness. Third, the mental layer, or to be precise, layer concerning the state of mind – it indicates a proper attitude to the world, thanks to which we can continue to feel good. This attitude comes down to the acceptance of the unexpected and of the cosmic order. Next, the moral, ethical layer – it provides the rules of conduct, the most important of which are: giving up everything that is not essential and concentrating on what is essential, at the same time ignoring the external hierarchy of phenomena. For instance, for the Japanese garden masters the stones they used were less important than the relations between them, the empty space between them. As we can see, this approach is the opposite of the one commonly adopted in Europe.
Finally, there is still the material layer – it defines the material qualities of wabi-sabi objects.They are often composed of materials transformed by human hand or atmospheric processes.They bear traces of the impact of rain, wind or sun; for example in the form of bleached spots,rust, cracks, etc. They are irregular; often seem bizarre, flawed or downright ugly. For instance, masters of tea ceremony put more value on simple, unassuming vessels with some flaws, thanon those that are lavish, beautifully painted, perfectly proportioned and shaped. Often these imperfect objects are created unintentionally or as a result of an accident – e.g. cracked vase made of fragments glued together.
Wabi-sabi objects are usually small, inconspicuous and focus on the inside. They encourage us to get closer, to touch them. They can inspire us to bridge the gap between one object and another, between a human being and an object. Wabi-sabi places, spaces, for instance tea pavilions, are small and out-of-the-way, they are quiet, cosy and calm-inducing. They are a separate world of which we can say: nowhere, anywhere and everywhere. The objects embodying the spirit of wabi-sabi are unpretentious, simple and look unusual, surprising. They do not stand out against their surroundings, they do not want to be at the centre of attention. We appreciate them only when we come into direct contact with them, when we use them; they have no historic or market value. Often they seem austere, raw. Their surface is rough, it differs only slightly from the material of which the objects were made. It is hard to notice any traces of the craftsman’s intervention.
The wabi-sabi colours run the whole gamut of greyness – they can be grey-blue-brown, greyish- black-silver-red or yellowish-green indigo. In addition, there are various shades of brown and green as well as types of black, such as red black, blue black, brown black, etc. Less frequently, these can also include light, pastel hues, as if the colours were faded, washed away, heading for
However, the most profound essence of objects populating the world of wabi-sabi is simplicity. These objects are stripped of everything that is not essential, but they are not stripped of poetry; they are clean but not sterile. As in this tale of the monk told by the master to rake up leaves in the garden. The monk eagerly got down to work and was proud that no leaf was left on the ground when he finished. The master came, looked, shook a branch, throwing some leaves off the tree, and said: now, this is good.
This article is based on Leonard Koren’s book “Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers”, published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley 1994, and on Donald Keene’s paper “Japanese aesthetics”.Featured photo by Brand book. Photo by
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