Friday, January 12, 2007

Wabi Sabi

In a recent post, I responded to a comment posted by a Punahou student asking me if I had heard of wabi sabi. The Wikipedia has a nice capsule summary of the meaning of the two terms:
Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.
Then yesterday I found myself quoting a passage from Charles Baxter, in the last line of which he offered a slightly more colorful definition of sabi as "noble shabbiness." Now, at the close of the first semester, with the new semester beginning next week, and as I close in on my 60th birthday, I've been thinking about that term, and, somewhat wistfully, perhaps about the "beauty and serenity that comes with age."

In the summer of 2005, I spent two weeks in Japan with a group of teachers from Punahou on a trip sponsored by the Wo International Center. Before we left, we all took a field trip to the Japanese teahouse University of Hawaii campus, where a UH professor spoke with us about the tea ceremony in particular and Japanese aesthetics in general. He cited one source I had not previously heard of, a collection of essays by Kenko, called The Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness). I went online to try to find a copy, but was unable to do so. After I got back from Japan, I was browsing in Borders one day and came across a copy a Columbia University Press translation by Donald Keene. It occurs to me, re-reading it now, that if Kenko were reincarnated today he might well be a blogger. The book consists of 243 short essays or reflective pieces on a wide variety of topics. The essays are opinionated, sometimes funny, often self-contradictory, and occasionally profound. This excerpt from essay number 137 was one passage cited by the professor as being essential for any full understanding of wabi sabi. I offer these few paragraphs for your enjoyment and reflection without further comment, mostly because whatever I might have to say in their wake would look, well, shabby, by comparison:

Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of spring—these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration...People commonly regret that the cherry blossoms scatter or that the moon sinks in the sky, and this is natural: but it is only an exceptionally insensitive man who would say, "This branch and that branch have lost their blossoms. There is nothing worth seeing now."

In all things, it is the beginnings and the ends that are interesting. Does love between men and women refer only to the moments when they are in each other's arms? The man who grieves over a love affair broken off before it was fulfilled, who bewails empty vows, who spends long autumn nights alone, who lets his thoughts wander to distant skies, who yearns for the past in a dilapidated house—such a man truly knows what love means.

The moon that appears close to dawn after we have long waited for it moves us more profoundly than the full moon shining cloudless over a thousand leagues. And how incomparably lovely is the moon, almost greenish in its light, when seen through the tops of cedars deep in the mountains, or when it hides for a moment behind clustering clouds during a sudden shower. The sparkly on hickory or white-oak leaves seemingly wet with moonlight strikes one to the heart. One suddenly misses the capital, longing for a friend who could share the moment.

And who are we to look at the moon and the cherry blossoms with our eyes alone? How much more evocative and pleasing is it to think about the spring without stirring from the house, to dream of the moonlit night though we remain in the room!

1 comment:

CT said...

This passage is beautiful. I'm now writing a story, for a new collection I'm working on, about a samurai who ends up taking the "gannen mono" voyage to Hawaii in 1868, and so have been steeping myself in samurai poetry, haiku, metaphor and proverbs. The tone of this passage is something like what I'm striving for in sections of my story, and I find I'm particularly drawn to this line: "The sparkly on hickory or white-oak leaves seemingly wet with moonlight strikes one to the heart." But the last paragraph also seems to me to speak to the joy of the act of writing, of imagining worlds that are a long flight from one's corner desk, while you peck at the keys during the highlight of night. Thanks for sharing. - Christine