Originally Published: July 15, 2013 by remingtoncooney | One part of traditional Japanese culture that I’ve become completely fascinated with is the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Summed up, wabi-sabi is roughly “an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world.” Although this rough translation puts it into comprehensible English, wabi-sabi is actually something that goes far beyond the English language. So, in some ways, me writing about it now (with my little background in Japanese) is sort of an obsolete task. Then again, I’ve gotten some insight into an event that – although slightly contrived – captures wabi-sabiperfectly: tea ceremonies.
Since arriving in Kyoto, I’ve attended two tea ceremonies, both at the same Soto Zen temple named Saiho-ji. This particular temple is 600 years old and supposedly the famous tea master Sen no Rikyu dug the wells there (sweet!).
Yesterday, after morning zazen at Ryosen-an, my host-family and I attended the tea ceremony for the second time since my coming to Japan. As we sat eating manju, drinking matcha, and observing ikebana (flower arrangements) and calligraphy scrolls, I began to get a sense of what wabi-sabi is all about.
Wabi, as defined online (www.hermitory.com), refers to a philosophical construct: one that creates a sense of space, direction, and/or path. Originally it meant poverty – the absence of all material possessions, but as Japan’s ‘cultural capital’ developed, and Japanese aesthetics gained more importance, wabi came to mean “non-dependence upon material possessions.” This subtle transition allowed wabi to rid itself of any negative connotations, and instead, to become a ‘way of life,’ or ‘spiritual path.’
Sabi is literally defined as solitude or loneliness. However, around the same time that wabi was re-defined, sabi also came to mean something more rich and less bleak: “an outward expression of aesthetic values, built upon the metaphysical and spiritual principles of Zen.” It is because of this, that we so often associate minimalistic style Japanese aesthetics (drawings, paintings, calligraphy, flower arrangements, tatami rooms) with Zen. This aesthetic culture is not Zen per-se, it is merely inspired by Zen philosophy and we have to be careful not to think of the two as one and the same; just as we have to be careful not to think of wabi and sabi as one and the same. In the process of translation into English, these subtle distinctions that are so essential in Japanese aesthetics, get lost, and everything just gets lumped together in these, “that’s-so-Zen” type remarks. The other exchange students over here have a witty saying for this: they call it the “gaijin(outsider) smash” – when Western foreigners come along and blunder through all the delicate nuances that traditional Japanese culture cultivates.
The tea ceremony aims to function somewhat like a moving meditation. I found it incredibly calming and it gave me a new take on my own meditation practice – perhaps we don’t have to be sitting so still, after all?
The tea rooms are open-aired so that the surrounding moss gardens and trickling of the ponds become intimate with the process of serving and drinking the tea. Such intimacy, between my own actions and the surrounding textures of nature, allowed for deep reflection and contemplation – even a sense of nostalgia – as I philosophized over the value of solitude and time alone with natural surroundings.
Wabi-sabi activities, like tea ceremonies, are intended to instigate this contemplative response within us. It creates a kind of double-mirror effect: a reflection on wabi and then on sabi then back to wabi (and so on), with the ultimate goal of leading the participant into “a holistic perspective that is peaceful and transcendent.”
I also find it a tough task to describe my experience of wabi-sabi without sounding like a bit of snob – its pretentious undercurrent results from its importance in Japan’s ‘cultural capital.’ Nonetheless, the process of engaging with activities that are based in wabi-sabi are far from snobbish; in fact, they are intended to bring us back down to Earth so that we can find humbleness in our selves, in order to better connect and harmonize with the world around us.
What is this?
Writings from the Summer of 2013 during study abroad in Kyoto, Japan.