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96 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1994
I have attempted to grasp the totality, the holism of wabi-sabi, and make some sense of it.
The result, this skinny volume is thus a tentative, personal first step toward “saving” what once constituted a comprehensive and clearly recognizable aesthetic universe.
Artfully obscured “exotic” concepts like wabi-sabi also made good marketing bait. Obscuring the meaning of wabi-sabi, but tantalizing the consumer with glimpses of its value, was the most effective means of iemoto-style entrepreneurism.
Let us now look at wabi and sabi, the traditional Japanese aesthetic terminology most famous in the West, perhaps because the accidental alliteration of the words suggests a fruitful affinity. And the two are related, to be sure, both in their affinity and in their histories.
Sabi is an aesthetic term, rooted in a given concern. It is concerned with chronology, with time and its effects, with product. Wabi is a more philosophical concept, a quality not attached merely to a given object. It is concerned with manner, with process, with direction.
As dusk approaches in the hinterlands, a traveler ponders shelter for the night. He notices tall rushes growing everywhere, so he bundles an armful together as they stand in the field, and knots them at the top. Presto, a living grass hut. The next morning, before embarking on another’s day journey, he unknots the rushes and presto, the hut de-constructs, disappears, and becomes a virtually indistinguishable part of the large field of rushes once again. The original wilderness seems to be restored, but minute traces of the shelter remain. A slight twist or bend in a reed here and there. There is also the memory of the hut in the mind of the traveler—and in the mind of the reader reading this description. Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealized form, is precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness. (p. 42)
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.
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.
[Translation by Toshihiko and Toyo Izutsu.]
As I look afar I see neither cherry blossoms
nor tinted leaves;
Only a modest hut on the coast in the
dusk of autumn nightfall.
Many anecdotes, most of them probably apocryphal or greatly embellished, continue to circulate about Rikyu’s “entrance exam” before being admitted as a student of the famous tea master Taken Joo. Rikyu was asked to clean Joo’s leaf-strewn garden. First he raked until the grounds were spotless. Then, in a gesture pregnant with wabi-sabi overtones, he shook a tree trunk, causing a few leaves to fall. (p. 78)
The aesthetic philosophy of Kyoto’s oldest and most famous inn (the 300-year-old Tawaraya, $700 per night per person including two meals as of this writing), boils down to two unswerving wabi-sabi-like principles that, according to its owner are: (1) “No one object or element in any room shall stand out above any other” and (2) “Thou shall not revere the old for old’s sake. If it’s new and it fits, use it.” (p. 88)