Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Knowledge is the understanding that is acquired through study or experience. Insight is the innate capacity to comprehend the inner nature of something. We gain understanding.

Buddha-nature is getting-to-know one’s own self.

We are born with insight. We are also born with Buddha-nature. We may not be aware of our Buddha-nature, but if we want to really perceive the whole of existence:

1. We have to avoid immediate judgments.
2. We have to steer clear of treating an object as a mere device.
3. We have to be willing to accept things as they are without letting our intellectual concepts to get in the way.

In Japanese, this non-conceptualization and non-interpretation is the Zen state of mushin, or no mind. It’s the capacity to discern the true nature of something directly, whether it’s a rock, a work of art, or another human being.

Most of the arts in historical China and Japan draw their aesthetic
values from Taoism and from Zen. “If you want to understand Zen,” D.T. Suzuki wrote, in his book Zen and Japanese Culture, “understand it right away without deliberation, without turning your head this way or that.”

So much for the wandering preamble to this talk, which has to do with the Japanese artistic concepts known as shibui, shibumi, wabi, and sabi.

Does anyone like the taste of persimmons? Shibui has a literal translation that carries the indescribable puckering feeling you get when you bite into a green persimmon. It’s a meaning that suggests the idea of something not sweet in nature but almost harsh in its effect.

The artistic sense of shibui relates to the subtle shades of meaning that may be revealed in a work of art. Shibui relates to a sort of holding back in a painting or a sculpture.

Shibui relates also to a refined beauty that isn’t associated with popular fashions or current fads. It is a basic quality that’s unaffected by time or social changes.

Shibui is a word that’s often heard in Japan. But because the Japanese language is so rich in subtle nuances that arise from a Zen-like life style, it’s a difficult word to pin down in English.

“Austere,” “subdued,” “restrained” are terms that come nearest. Going back to persimmons, shibui means sharp and penetrating. But it also implies an insightful, calm feeling.

The word shibumi is as tricky to define as is the word Zen. In the novel, Shibumi, by Trevanian (Rodney Whitaker), a key character claims that shibumi is an indescribable quality, something beyond words. It is understanding rather than knowledge. It is powerful silence. It is simplicity. It is spiritual tranquility. It is being with no thought of becoming.

Shibumi, like Zen awakening, is not something to be sought after or achieved. It comes naturally, or it doesn’t come at all. It’s a matter of soaring through knowledge and touching down at simplicity.

Shibumi has to do with spontaneity. It implies creative restraint.

Originally, wabi meant living alone in nature, detached from society. Originally sabi mean scrawny or thin.

That describes a hermit, doesn’t it?

Wabi and sabi are different words, but their inferences are so entwined that over time they have become combined as wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is a description as well as an aesthetic principle.

Wabi-sabi has its roots in Zen. The first Japanese individuals who coined the phrase were tea masters, poets, and painters who practiced Zen. Zen emphasizes direct, intuitive insight into truth. Wabi-sabi transcends—goes far beyond—looking at objects and beyond thinking about existence.

Wabi-sabi does have some physical characteristics. Wabi-sabi objects and actions are:

Suggestive of a natural process

From the standpoint of insight, wabi-sabi considers existence as:


Wabi-sabi refers to the beauty that is inherent in imperfection, impermanence, and incompleteness.

According to Meng-hu, a modern day recluse, the original connotation of wabi is based on aloneness, or on the separation from society.

Leonard Koren, author of the book Wabi-sabi for artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, wrote: “The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and the ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. Indeed, wabi is literally poverty, but it came to refer not to the absence of material possessions but to the non-dependence upon material possessions.”

Koren goes on to say that wabi gets rid of the material that exceeds material wealth. Wabi is quietly content with plain things. Wabi is a way of life—even a spiritual path.

In Japan the life of a hermit is called wabizumai. It’s an existence of aloneness and minimalism. A hermit may not be able to tell you why he or she is a loner, but there are plenty of reasons why a person might want to remove himself from society. To name a few: recognizing duality as illusion, clinging to ego and to the material world as leading to suffering, and appreciating the uncertainty of life as a reason for living harmoniously with nature.

Hermits aren’t necessarily antisocial or rebellious. More often than not they are more deeply appreciative of life than, say, a business executive or a politician. Wabizumai—a hermit’s life—has a lot to be said for it.

Wabi-sabi is solitude, aloneness. Its essence is intrinsic in Zen gardens, in bonsai, in haiku, in calligraphy, in sumi-e (brush painting), even in archery and the martial arts.

W.Todd Dominey, a graphics designer, wrote: “The essence of Wabi-sabi is that true beauty, whether it comes from an object, architecture or visual art, doesn't reveal itself until the winds of time have had their say. A cracked pot, for example, has an essence that a perfectly round pot is lacking. Beauty is in the cracks, the worn spots, and the imperfect lines.”

Now I’ll list several characteristics of wabi-sabi objects, works, and activities. These characteristics apply to everything from Japanese brush painting, to Japanese tea ceremony, to the Japanese garden.

Materials of wabi-sabi creations are organic rather than synthetic. Plastic is false, and can’t take the place of wood, stone, or clay. In a Japanese garden you’ll see rocks and living plant materials, but no plastic flamingoes or painted elves.

The form or shape of an object—whether it’s a bowl or a small-space garden—is natural, and it expresses its own nature. Form is not forced or artificially contorted to make a point.

Once when I was backpacking with a couple of fellows in the Wind River Wilderness I picked up a dried, twisted piece of tree branch.

“Hey,” that looks like a snake,” one of my partners said.

The other fellow, who was a graphics designer said, “Don’t say that. It doesn’t look like anything other than what it is.”

Rough, coarse, irregular surfaces are preferable to smooth or slick textures. Surfaces should imply natural processes rather than exteriors devised by humans.

A hermit named Meng-hu said that the Western notion of beauty does not exist in wabi-sabi. Instead, “beauty” is a holistic concept that can’t be singled out or even described. Beauty is derived from the emotion conveyed, not from any particular detail of the work.

Another characteristic of wabi-sabi is the avoidance of garish colors. In China and even in Japan, many brush paintings are done in slick reds, greens, and yellows. Such paintings are unsettling to the eye and to the mind, compared with the simple black and white brushwork of sumi-e.

I remember the interior walls of California’s Los Altos zendo. They were painted a soft, flat beige. They weren’t distracting, but were visually and spiritually soothing.

Light—illumination—is another wabi-sabi chacteristic. Light reflected from a wabi-sabi object is diffused, it is soft, not glaring. If the light has a color, it’s a natural tone.

A 12th century poet wrote a verse on color, which I’ve abbreviated in haiku form:

To be by oneself—
An unnamable color
In the autumn dusk.

Wabi-sabi objects and actions are straightforward. Nothing is wasted on ornate embellishments—as in calligraphy—or excessive movements—as in the tea ceremony.

To wind down this talk, it’s interesting that wabi-sabi usually doesn’t have much to do with function. Some objects do have a practical purpose aside from their aesthetic significance. For example, a teapot, or a sake cup, is designed to hold liquids. But in the world of Zen, purpose is secondary to the sense of wabi-sabi.

I’m sure you have known people who will point to a piece of sculpture or a pottery object and ask, “But what’s it for?” Or else, “What does it do?”

“It”—whatever “it” is—doesn’t always have to be for anything and it doesn’t always have to do anything.

It is, and that’s enough.

If someone asks, “What is it for?” A good response would be, “What are you for?”

Now you know all there is to know about wabi-sabi. Keep in mind the three pointers to seeing and to Buddha-nature we started with.

1. No judging.
2. No thinking of an object as a mere “thing.”
3. No intellectualizing.

* * * * *

If you’re interested in reading what others have to say about wabi-sabi, I can recommend four books:

--Koren, Leonard, Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, California.

-- Juniper, Andrew, Wabi-sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence, Tuttle, Boston, Massachusetts.

-- Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Kodansha International, New York, New York.

-- Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea, Tuttle, Rutland, Vermont.


Blogger Tayphad said...

I am very moved by the "substance" vice "function" of a thought process in a life style. I will be further studying these ways of thought.

Monday, January 22, 2018 10:07:00 AM  

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