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Wabi-Sabi – Zen of Things. On Buddhism and Beauty.

In 2003, I already wrote once about Wabi-Sabi, the aesthetic concept closely related to Japan and Zen Buddhism. Now, more than 15 years later and many semesters of philosophy wiser, I am deepening the subject and examinine which and especially how Buddhist concepts and views become tangible in Wabi-Sabi.

1 Preface

"Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
It is a beauty of things modest and humble.
It is a beauty of things unconventional."(1)

Wabi-Sabi is an aesthetic practice that is closely related to Japan and Zen Buddhism. However, perceiving Wabi-Sabi merely as a creative concept, as an art form or a collection of creative principles, is not enough. Wabi-Sabi has always been very closely connected to the core concerns of Zen Buddhism. Eventually it can be best described as a way of perceiving and expressing things. Some people even call Wabi-Sabi the Zen of Things(2) because many of the basic principles of Zen Buddhism can be found in objects that have Wabi-Sabi quality.

The present text argues that Wabi-Sabi objects should be understood as materialized koans, i.e. objects that can be used to train the human mind to perceive reality in its entirety, an ability that is characteristic of the awakened mind.

2 Wabi-Sabi: A Buddhist Way of Perception

2.1 Original Meaning

Originally Wabi and Sabi were two independent, separate concepts. Nowadays, however, Wabi and Sabi are usually combined as Wabi-Sabi and are treated as one single concept.(3)

First of all, Wabi refers to "subdued, austere beauty"(4) – the ideal of a retained, bare, almost severe beauty. In the 15th century in Japan when the concept first emerged, objects were valued primarily if they showcased exuberant splendour and opulent bloom, and the tea ceremony was performed with expensive, exclusive accessories imported from China.(5) Against this background, Wabi-Sabi represents a downright revolutionary approach: Suddenly the focus is on simple tools and objects, minor faults, cracks, kinks, visible signs of use or well executed repairs are valued more than any form of perfection or untouchedness.

It is important to note, however, that Wabi is not a form of elitist asceticism, but an attitude of serious modesty and moderation expressed in unagitated, elegant simplicity(6), as it also becomes apparent in the following description: "'The meal for a gathering in a small room should be but a single soup and two or three dishes; sakè should also be served in moderation. Elaborate preparation of food for the wabi gathering is inappropriate' (Hirota, 227)."(7)

In this sense, Wabi thus refers to a voluntary self-restraint and concentration on the essential – and to a discipline of thought: Even under difficult circumstances, in the midst of all inadequacies no thought of deprivation or scarcity is allowed or even complained about.(8)

Another line of thought that resonates within the concept of Wabi is the following: If we understand the world as impermanent and in a state of constant change, then we must value things equally throughout their life cycle. We must not focus solely on that brief moment when they face us in their highest perfection, the moment of utmost completion. Instead, we must understand all moments, be it of becoming or of passing, of each thing and, continuing this thought, also of our own life, as equally temporary and thus equally valuable: the moment of buds, the moment of blossoms, the moment of withered leaves. Whoever rejects the withering, the dissolving, or even slightly damaged objects has not understood anything, writes tea master Sen no Rikyū.(9)

The other word in the pair of terms, Sabi, has developed from its original meaning of desolateness(10) (sabireru means to become desolate) to "rustic patina"(11). It refers to a surface of raw, original simplicity, a structure that has aged well, possibly rusty, that has acquired patina.

It is precisely this patina that gives the object aesthetic quality and connects it - and therefore ourselves - to the past in a way that new, modern things cannot. And because older everyday objects before the plastic age were usually made from untreated natural materials, the term Sabi also reflects preferences regarding the materiality of an object.

2.2 Conceptual History

The first written evidence of Wabi-Sabi dates back to the 15th century: The Zen monk Murata Juko(12) uses – contrary to common custom(13) – simply shaped and locally produced utensils in his tea ceremony. In the 16th century Sen no Rikyū(14) establishes this practice, which focuses on simplicity, under the name Wabi-Cha(15) as one practice within the traditional tea ceremony. Rikyū not only designs special tea utensils, but also creates small, crouched tea houses modeled on peasant sheds(16), whose low entrance forces all guests equally, from rich businessmen to poor students, to bend down and literally crawl in.(17) After Rikyū, this practice gets institutionalized and the elaborate tea ceremony eventually becomes the path of tea, Chadō, whose aim is to gain spiritual insight. Chadō is still taught today in schools that claim to pass on Rikyūs teachings authentically and in direct line.(18)

2.3 Wabi-Sabi as an Aesthetic Concept

But what is Wabi-Sabi? Is it an aesthetic concept, a collection of design principles?

Well, even if all Wabi-Sabi objects have a specific kind of aura, it can be stated that they do not follow a theoretically conceived aesthetic program and that Wabi-Sabi is certainly not an aesthetic in the way Baumgarten, for example, established it as an independent philosophical discipline in Germany in the 18th century.(19)

Japanese and, in contrast, Western culture are undoubtedly rooted in very different world views and traditions. Europe, for example, is largely dominated by the Platonic world view, which claims unchanging, absolute ideas. At the core of Japanese culture, on the other hand, is a Buddhist view of the world, with reality being understood as fundamentally impermanent and in a state of constant change. However, in Japan this concept of impermanence as the basis of all existence is not limited to the religious sphere, but permeates the entire culture, including its aesthetic expressions. And while enlightenment is one of the - or perhaps even: the - central concept of Buddhist religious life, Wabi-Sabi may be the predominant idea in Japanese culture as a whole.(20) (21)

But not only in their underlying world views and basic assumptions, also in their concrete cultural practices, Europe and Japan differ greatly. To the present day, in Japan there are different disciplines(22), all of which are rooted in the tradition of Confucian practices of self-cultivation(23) and whose main focus lies in a cultivation in action – and not, as is often the case in Europe, in a detailed theoretical superstructure.

This proximity between cultural-artistic and spiritual practice, or rather their mutual reference and interweaving, is very different from the contrast between culture and arts on the one hand and intellectual-religious life on the other, as cultivated in the West.(24)

This circumstance may also explain why, in Japan, independent aesthetic theories could only develop after its opening and increased contact with the West.(25)

2.4 Wabi-Sabi as an Endangered Species

So far a preliminary interpretative grid. But how dominant is Wabi-Sabi today in its country of origin, Japan? If you conjure images of Tokyo's shiny facades in your mind's eye, you may suspect that the beauty of the imperfect, unfinished and transient may not be doing too well.

Leonard Koren, an American artist and author who lived in Japan for a long time and whose book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophersintroduced the concept of Wabi-Sabi for the first time to a larger audience outside Japan, diagnoses that Wabi-Sabi is indeed in acute danger in brightly lit, technology-obsessed Japan.(26) And eventually his diagnosis proved to be correct, as the Tsunami of 2011 and the subsequent nuclear accident in Fukushima made clear.

For in the wake of these events, light-loving Japan experienced bottlenecks in its energy supply. Various city councils reacted by restricting public lighting, especially subway stations, and underground restaurant and shopping areas were affected. Tanizaki(27), one of Japan's most venerated authors, who in his essay In Praise of Shadows developed his ideas of beauty and exemplified them with individual examples(28), is said to probably have been very taken with this fact, because the prescribed darkness re-introduced some of the shadows he so eloquently praised.(29) However, in the meantime Tokyo's lights are back again and probably shining as brightly as ev.

But it is not only the electric light that endangers Wabi-Sabi, as Koren notes, it is also the fact that Wabi-Sabi is quite elusive. His concern is to save Wabi-Sabi in so far as he wants to make it tangible and thus available, and he does this with the distanced gaze of a Japan expert who is aware of his own roots. So he is only consistent when claiming that "Wabi-Sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of traditional Japanese beauty. It occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West."(30) In theoretical considerations and pictorial examples he concretizes the nebulous feeling of Wabi-Sabi that is familiar to almost all Japanese. And examines why it is so difficult to put this quality into words.

"Throughout history a rational understanding of wabi-sabi has been intentionally thwarted."(31), Koren asserts and argues for his thesis with three lines of reasoning: First, as we have seen above, Wabi-Sabi has a close connection to Zen Buddhism, where true knowledge can only be transmitted from mind to mind, but not through the written or spoken word. This prevents misinterpretations but at the same time leads to exclusions or protectionist knowledge, which he – reason number two - sees negatively realized in the Iemoto-System(32). As a third reason, Koren cites aesthetic obscuratism: Wabi-Sabi is unfinished and thus inscrutable, a mystification that is also found in the other Japanese arts and that makes it impossible to intellectually convey the essence of Wabi-Sabi.(33)

3 Wabi-Sabi: an Approach from the West

But, in keeping with Western tradition, how can we grasp and possibly even intellectually convey what Wabi-Sabi means or at least define what a Wabi-Sabi object is? Of course, the first thing to do is to examine the original roots from which Wabi-Sabi emerged, i.e. Japanese culture and its influence through Zen Buddhism(34). But before we turn to this endeavor, a brief remark on what exactly is meant by the Western aspect of this approach to the phenomenon of Wabi-Sabi.

In addition to the above-mentioned (and many other) differences between Japanese and Western culture, there is another special feature that plays an important role, namely the way knowledge is conveyed in a cultural area permeated by Western thinking and committed to the heritage of the Age of Enlightenment: All intellectual cognition finds its way into discourse(35) (36) and knowledge cast into words in this way is - printed in books or verbally communicated - accessible to every individual.

This is difficult to understand for people who are not socialized in the West with its communicative traditions. The Zen master Taisen Deshimaru answers the question why he came to Europe: "I came here to teach true Zen to Europeans, because they do not understand it. Intellectuals have only a literary notion of it."(37) And Kenzo Awa, the master who makes a sincere effort to teach Eugen Herrigel the art of archery and who even goes so far as to read into European philosophy just to better understand his European student's difficulties, comes to the sobering conclusion that "it must be extremely difficult for a person who is occupied with such things [meaning: European philosophy] to acquire the art of archery."(38)

In this sense, the following explanations – just as Leonard Koren's book - are a clearly Western influenced approach to the phenomenon of Wabi-Sabi.

3.1 Zen Buddhism and Japanese Arts

As already mentioned, in any cultural area influenced by Zen Buddhism direct, individual experience plays an essential role as a source of knowledge. But since this experience - as the basis of knowledge - has to be made by each individual himself, any spiritual knowledge is conveyed primarily through personal experience. In other words: "Essential knowledge, in Zen doctrine, can be transmitted only from mind to mind, not through the written or spoken word. 'Those who know don't say; those who say don't know.'"(39)

In this sense, the practice of Japanese arts, such as the Japanese tea ceremony (Chadō), the art of flower arranging (Ikebana) or the art of archery (Kyūdō), play a special role: they serve neither useful nor aesthetic purposes, but are rather a path of education for consciousness(40) or "a kind of pre-school"(41) before one can turn to Zen itself.

Here, unlike in the West, knowledge and practice are closely interwoven. The one who knows does not live in an ivory tower of books, but stands – taking practical action! - in the midst of life. Daisetz T. Suzuki concretizes this approach as follows: "The characteristic difference between Zen and all other teachings of a religious, philosophical or mystical nature is the fact that it never disappears from our daily lives and yet, for all its practical applicability and concreteness, it contains something within itself that makes it stand out from the spectacle of worldly maculation and restlessness."(42)

Baso Matsu(43) calls this the daily consciousness: a state of immediate access to reality, without thinking and without forming concepts. A state of childishness which is the result of a long practice in the art of forgetting oneself(44) and which results in "'One Mind,' which is 'the Mind of all sentient beings.'"(45), "'the naturally functioning mind' or 'the properly working mind.'"(46)

Enlightenment as the goal vision of spiritual practice is in this sense not an extraordinary event, but rather the normal, natural state of our being:

"If you practice zazen [...] you can experience satori unconsciously. The posture of zazen itself is satori. Satori is the return to the normal, original condition. It is the consciousness of the newborn baby. [...] Unlike what many people think, satori is not some special state, but simply a return to the original condition. [… I]t is your normal state."(47)

3.2 Emptiness and Impermanence

But what exactly are the contents that are taught through the practice of Japanese arts? Or, to put it another way: What is Zen Buddhism actually about?

If one allows the above-mentioned concept of One Mind to take effect, its proximity to Daoism, the teaching of the Dao as the All-One, the empty center where everything falls into One and from which all things emerge, is quite self-evident. The teaching of the Dao as the hub, as the essence of the wheel, that makes the wheel a wheel, while, but itself, being empty.(48)

Many times already this closeness of Zen Buddhism and Daoism has been observed and metioned.(49) However, the modern Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan, describes Zen - in contrast to Daoism - as a negative philosophy, in the sense that Zen Buddhism "does not speak of what can be spoken about, but of what cannot be spoken about, or perhaps better, of what can neither be said to be spoken about nor cannot be spoken about."(50)

In both philosophies, Daoism and Zen Buddhism, the doctrine of emptiness and impermanence of all things(51) plays an important role. But the way these principles are conceived marks a fundamental difference between Daoism and Zen Buddhism: "Ancient Chinese philosophy in general and the Daoist one in particular is oriented towards success, it is effects-centered and not truth-centered. [...] Not about the question what something is, but the question how something can be best achieved is paramount."(52) In Daoism the "World of the Ten Thousand Things"(53) that is impermanent in essence and constantly changing, is in its reality not relativized but confirmed by the Dao, its empty center.(54)

In Zen Buddhism this relationship between reality and emptiness is conceived differently: "The authenticity of the 'here and now' [is affirmed...], but with simultaneous recognition of non-authenticity. At the stage of enlightenment, the insight into the paradox and non-authenticity of all phenomena is understood as authentic and included in the originally simple authenticity. In the end, non-authenticity as well is recognized as authentic."(55)

Thus, while Daoists recognize all that is as originally genuine and the Dao, the emptiness, serves as a kind of warrant of reality, in Zen Buddhism reality is saturated with non-reality. Only when reality and non-reality are recognized simultaneously - dialectically so to speak - things are perceived in their truth.(56)

But even if the reciprocal link between being and nothingness with regard to the What of things only became a core theme in Buddhism, the reciprocal link with regard to the How - the best way how to do things - is already relevant in Daoism:

"The Daoist 'path' consists of a special interweaving of 'being' and 'nothing', of presence and non-presence, [...] or, in foreign words, of presence and non-presence. [...] This means while executing a certain activity one no longer consciously perceives that one is carrying out this activity, it happens, so to speak, all by itself and in a remarkably pleasant way for the person doing it. [...] As soon as the 'center' of a process [...] becomes completely empty, the process itself [...] reaches highest perfection. [...] The perfect emptiness or non-presence [...] enables the perfect fullness or presence[...]."(57)

3.3 The Paradox of Emptiness and Fullness

This principle of intertwining emptiness and fullness, being and nothingness, in order to carry out an activity in an ideal way, is continued in Daoist inspired(58) Zen Buddhism.

"Sesshū’s life and work are exemplary for Japanese aesthetics given that his practice was not aesthetic in a restricted sense, but also encompassed the religious and philosophical principles of Daoist-inspired Zen Buddhism. [… B]oth his meditative as well as his artistic practice would have aimed at self-negation, at achieving "non-self" as per the goal of Zen training. [... His] 'Splashed ink landscape' thus showcases a mode of ink painting that projects both cultivated artistic agency and a state of subjectlessness [… and] disclose[s] how this aesthetic-religious goal was approached in painting practice [that] reveals the Daoist roots of Zen Buddhism."(59)

It is precisely this subjectlessness, the self-forgetfulness, that causes Herrigel so much trouble while learning the art of archery. His master analyses his difficulties in the following way:

"The right shot at the right moment is missed because you can't get away from yourself. You don't tense up for fulfillment, but wait for your failure. As long as this is the case, you have no choice but to cause an event that is independent of yourself, and as long as you do that, your hand does not open in the right way - like the hand of a child; it does not burst open like the skin of a ripe fruit."(60)

And at a later point:

"It is all so simple. You can learn from an ordinary bamboo leaf what is important. The weight of the snow pushes it down, deeper and deeper. Suddenly the snow load slides off without the leaf having moved. [...] When the tension is fulfilled, the shot must fall, it must fall off the shooter like the snow load falls off the bamboo leaf, even before he has thought it."(61)

When this happens, when emptiness and fullness merge, when selflessness, purposelessness and unintentional action are achieved, when the soul is completely absorbed in herself, then the paradox is real and "she is in the power of her nameless origin"(62).

Archery is therefore neither a sporting activity nor an art in the sense of Western arts. The art of archery, like the other Japanese arts, is a religious act, a ceremony "that interprets the 'Great Teaching'."(63) An art that only succeeds when the practitioner is "no longer present as 'himself'. [....] Only the mind is present, a kind of alertness [...] that penetrates all vastness and depth 'with eyes that hear and with ears that see'."(64)

3.4 The Master who no longer Seeks but Finds(65)

The Japanese arts are thus to be understood as interpretations of the Great Teaching of Zen Buddhism, the Madhyamaka teaching of emptiness and impermanence of all things.(66) Learning and practicing them is a path that serves to train the human mind. But where in this construct do Wabi-Sabi objects come into play?

We have already seen above(67) that Wabi-Sabi has emerged in the context of the tea ceremony, one of the classical Japanese arts. At the beginning of his book, Koren quotes a description of Wabi-Sabi that often appears in professional articles on the topic:

"Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional."(68)

This description of Wabi-Sabi objects as "imperfect, impermanent and incomplete"(69) directly refers to the doctrine of the emptiness and impermanence of things: Things are imperfect and incomplete because they do not possess independent essence, but were created in dependence and are therefore empty themselves.(70) (71) At the same time, however, they are part of the phenomenal world and thus impermanent, since becoming and dissolving are properties of all things in the phenomenal world.

But the description of Wabi-Sabi goes even further, it speaks of a beauty that is characterized as follows: "modest [...] humble [...] unconventional"(72). Koren explains: "Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. [...] Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else."(73)

The question that arises at this point - the question that, if you like, the Wabi Sabi object asks of the viewer - is: Where exactly is this beauty or ugliness located? In the object itself - or in the viewer? Koren: "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."(74)

That sounds almost like... an enlightened moment, a moment where everything falls into place. A moment in which the self has dissolved and the things in their entirety face the ego-less viewer(75).

3.5 Suchness and Beauty

We have already seen that Buddhism conceives things as lacking an essence of their own, and thus as empty. But this emptiness of things does not mean that they do not exist. On the contrary, they do exist in their suchness: "Beings that exist in emptiness exist just as they are."(76)

The phenomenal world of suchness is per se a beautiful world, "wondrous and enjoyable beyond description."(77) What makes things - or people - ugly is their self-assertion, the assertion of being or possessing something, be it beauty or any other quality. "The self-advocacy of beauty is the suicide of beauty; the self-assertion of goodness ends up as evil."(78) writes Nagao.

Things cannot possess beauty because they are without own essence and therefore empty. If we humans consider them beautiful, we do so out of our own self-assertion: "Any independently existing [.] beauty is simply a projection of one's own desire for self-assertion. In the struggle between competing desires, only what profits me appears as beautiful."(79)

Thus the beauty we perceive in a Wabi-Sabi object is not the beauty that we encounter in the generally beautiful things, but it is a true beauty, a beauty that lies in the emptiness of things: "The wonder, beauty, and joy of the dependently co-arising world is entirely due to its being free of essence and empty."(80)

True beauty thus lies in the negation of conventional beauty, which in turn goes together with a negation of self-interest and leads to an attitude of selflessness. When we confront a thing, the whole world in this selfless way, something surprising happens: "Only then is the world, just as it is, replete with beauty."(81)

4 Conclusion

So it is the observer who can open up to the beauty of things - or obstruct it. True beauty can only be perceived if we are aware that "beauty 'is not intrinsically beautiful.'"(82)

For the rich merchants, the samurai and aristocrats, the peasant sheds, the rustic equipment with which Rikyū carried out its tea ceremonies, initially were an imposition. But with spiritual training and the right guidance, unexpected beauty was revealed. Not because things change - but because the viewers changed.

It is our attitude that makes the difference, that is what the - in the conventional sense - unattractive Wabi-Sabi objects point out to us. They face us like a mirror and show us how our mind works.

Like koans(83) that have materialized.

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