July 1: 1-4: The Techniques of Wabi and Sabi

(See this post for an explanation of what’s going on here.)


The Technique of Sabi

“… [T]he Japanese have maintained for centuries that no one can really, truly comprehend what sabi really is and thus, they change its definition according to their moods. Bill Higginson, in The Haiku Handbook, calls sabi – ‘(patina/loneliness) Beauty with a sense of loneliness in time, akin to, but deeper than, nostalgia.’ Suzuki maintains that sabi is ‘loneliness’ or ‘solitude’ but that it can also be ‘miserable,’ ‘insignificant,’ and ‘pitiable,’ ‘asymmetry’ and ‘poverty.’ Donald Keene sees sabi as ‘an understatement hinting at great depths.’ So you see, we are rather on our own with this!

I have translated this as: sabi (SAH-BEE)- aged/loneliness – A quality of images used in poetry that expresses something aged or weathered with a hint of sadness because of being abandoned. A split-rail fence sagging with overgrown vines has sabi; a freshly painted picket fence does not.

rocky spring
lips taking a sip
from a stone mouth

coming home
by flower”

[Note: In Jane’s book “Writing and Enjoying Haiku” (published later than and containing a revised version of this essay) she gives the example haiku for sabi as:

listening ears
petals fall into
the silence]

The Technique of Wabi

“The twin brother to sabi … can be defined as ‘(WAH-BEE) — poverty — Beauty judged to be the result of living simply. Frayed and faded Levis have the wabi that bleached designer jeans can never achieve.’ Thus one can argue that the above haiku samples are really more wabi than sabi – and suddenly one understands the big debate. However, I offer one more ku that I think is more wabi than sabi because it offers a scene of austere beauty and poignancy.

parting fog
on wind barren meadows
birth of a lamb”

– Jane Reichhold, Haiku Techniques



More on wabi and sabi:

I think that when Jane originally wrote this the concepts of wabi and sabi (or wabi-sabi, the way they’re usually conjoined and made into one concept these days) were not really familiar to Americans. Then, of course, a segment of the interior design industry got hold of it and the next thing you knew there were entire shelves of the home-decorating section at Barnes & Noble dedicated to explaining how to improve your home by bringing home junky things from garage sales (or pre-distressed knickknacks from Target), arranging them artistically on your coffee table, and telling everyone they were part of your Japanese Zen aesthetic.

I’m being facetious. Kind of. I mean, in some ways my house is Wabi-Sabi Central, if only because I don’t have any actual money to buy shiny new stuff. (Also, shiny new stuff hurts my eyes.) Lots of my furniture was retrieved off curbs on trash day. (“Oh look! Another not-completely-broken chair that doesn’t match any of my other chairs! Score!”)

I buy all my clothes at thrift stores so I never have to worry about breaking in my jeans. I like museums and antique stores because they’re full of worn-out objects that lots of other people have touched and left psychic imprints on, and I would love to bring home more of these objects — you know, like beautifully weathered old maple furniture, and frayed hundred-year-old quilts made by thrifty ladies using up their fabric scraps, and those gorgeous grayish-brown stoneware jars to store your dry goods, and — what’s that you say? That stuff all costs a fortune?

Yeah, see, that’s the problem with wabi-sabi — once everyone started thinking how great it was to have worn-out old stuff, the worn-out old stuff got really expensive. And it all started feeling a little trite and silly, this frantic rush to spend lots of money to make your house look like you were impoverished.

But that surface interior-decorating concept of wabi-sabi isn’t — I know, I know — what it’s really about. What it is about, exactly — as Jane points out — nobody exactly knows, and the Japanese, I believe, are not all that eager to explain — detailed explanations, obviously, not being very Zen. I did find a really cool essay on the subject by someone who appears to be an American tea expert (tea ceremony master? hard to tell from the site). Here are some of his or her thoughts on the matter (it’s a long and really interesting essay, so as usual I recommend reading the whole thing even though — sigh — I know nobody will):

“Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. … It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. … My favorite Japanese phrase for describing wabi-sabi is ‘natsukashii furusato,’ or an old memory of my hometown. …

“Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquillity, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi. …

Sabi by itself means ‘the bloom of time.’ It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust — the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting. … An old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, could be considered America’s contribution to the evolution of sabi. … We seek sabi in antiques and even try to manufacture it in distressed furnishings. True sabi cannot be acquired, however. It is a gift of time. …

Wabi-sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, which was brought from China to Japan by Eisai, a twelfth-century monk. Zen, with its principles of vast emptiness and nothing holy, stresses austerity, communion with nature, and above all, reverence for everyday life as the real path to enlightenment.”

— From noble harbor, “What is Wabi-Sabi?

So. Now that we are all hopelessly confused (and have concluded that wabi-sabi and haiku have a lot in common, chiefly the complete inability of any two people to agree on a definition of them) … on to the poetry.

your roses
how few petals

the steam
from the kettle
floating dreams

one petal
on the tablecloth
your name

the empty bench
the wind sweeps away

I had to throw this in … this is the most wabi-sabi-ish place I’ve ever seen. It’s part of the ruins of an old hotel that are now in the middle of a state park. This structure was a fish hatchery on a trout pond. You can click on it to get a much larger, more interesting view.

13 thoughts on “July 1: 1-4: The Techniques of Wabi and Sabi

  1. assalamu alaikum!

    “Wabi Sabi Simple” by Richard R. Powell is an okay read on the subject. It’s meant as a guide to harmonious living and the author is maybe a little too new agey, at times, for my taste but he includes a lot of background and historical information.

    For me, wabi sabi falls into the “I don’t quite know what it is but I know it when I feel it” category.

    I understand (I think) the feeling it invokes but I surely don’t know the words to express it – a brief, aching melancholy mixed with humbling awe and resigned nostalgia? A painful beauty? I don’t know. I do know wabi sabi (in its fullest form) can take me outside my head.

    Also, for me, I need to be able to (theoretically at least) touch the item with my hands, even if I choose not to. So much information is conveyed through the weight and texture of things.

    So, I’m not sure whether words alone, haiku, can give me that feeling. Maybe they can. Now I’ll have to keep that notion in mind. So much to think about!

  2. Wrick — Nice variation on my pitiful efforts to express wabi-sabi in words. 🙂 And I will have to read Alan Watts then. Suggestions for titles? Or should I just Google?

    Steve — I like how international our greetings are getting around here. 🙂 I will also check out Richard Powell. And yeah, I know what you mean about knowing wabi-sabi when you see it. (Frankly, my house is really too cluttered and disharmonious and, um, dirty to really be wabi-sabi, despite the shabbiness of my furniture.) Interesting point about needing to be able to touch something to feel the wabi-sabi. Yeah, I found trying to get at the concept in haiku to be a little, um, abstract. Okay, impossible. I wasn’t crazy about Jane’s examples either. I’ll have to go read the classical poets and see if I can identify wabi-sabi-ness in their haiku. Or maybe my time would be better spent cleaning my house. 🙂

    • aloha Melissa – i like alan watts. altho i think now there are a lot of books that get at eastern thought in ways the western mind can grasp, he was one of the best for a long time (imo).

      the book i was thinking of – which had a short bit in it on wabi-sabi is Uncarved Block, Unbleached Silk: The Mystery of Life. there are other books by him that i like tho. some are talks like i believe that one is, some are essays. others are more… book-like??

      i liked:
      – The Wisdom of Insecurity
      – The Way of Zen
      – This Is It” and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience
      – Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal

      among others – altho by no means have i read all he’s written.

      • So I go to Amazon to look up Alan Watts and was like, “WHY haven’t I heard of him before? Have I been under a rock?” (I like it here under my rock, actually. It’s dark and cool and I can get some sleep.)

        This was my favorite review of “The Way of Zen”: “Generally speaking, Watts doesn’t appeal to new-age crystal fairies, channelers, and so forth, and if you prefer your Zen texts all poetical and mysterious, then this book isn’t for you; but if you want a treatment of Zen as an important, credible and viable philosophical tradition, then you’ll like this book.” SOLD!

        Well, OK, not exactly. Am getting it from the library today …

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    • Hmmm … I don’t think I’m familiar enough with that concept to be able to answer that question. There is certainly that sense of nostalgia for old, familiar things contained in it (insofar as I understand it), but I am not familiar enough with German culture to know whether it’s really an appropriate parallel. It’s certainly similar in that it is a term which is really untranslatable into English!

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