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Lions Roar : March 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN MArcH 2009 33 In A geSTure OF enCHAnTIng IrOny, Amazon now sells plastic Wall-e lunch boxes. Built to “withstand years of use,” they’ll nevertheless be uncool within months and on the trash heap, where their very durability will jump the fence to become part of the problem, not the solution. The irony is that Wall-e the movie is actually a “wabi sabi” parable of our time. Wall-e is the big-eyed, sweet-willed, rust- bucket robot left behind to clean up after humans have trashed the planet and gone off to circle space for a millennium or so while it is cleaned. Said humans, in lives now devoid of dif- ficulty, get fatter and fatter until they can no longer walk and must be trolleyed about between liquid meals and entertain- ment options. eventually they are forced to wrest control from the autopilot that they have allowed to run the spaceship and return to face the earth-music, learning once more to walk on their own pudgy feet. To this extent, it’s the same face-the-in- convenient-truth moral underpinning disney’s Lion king. But in Wall-e the love story embroiders another, wiser commen- tary onto this theme. Wall-e falls for eve, a beautiful and smooth-skinned but lethal femme-bot sent to discover whether life on earth has resumed. eve does not touch the ground, or anything else (including Wall- e), but hovers dangerously aloof, and Wall-e adores her precisely for this impervious superiority. We the audience, however, warm to his endearing simplicity rather than to her elegant perfection. Only when she finally learns empathy is eve redeemed. It’s an eco-fable, yes, but a fable too of the overlap between ethics and aesthetics that is the Japanese aesthetic, wabi sabi. Seen by some as the next big thing in the Western misappropriation of eastern ideas—next after yoga, kung fu, meditation, and feng shui—wabi sabi is our most promising antidote to the reverse entropy that afflicts the contemporary world; a relentless drift from authentic to synthetic, from down and dirty to schmick and span, from whole grain to lip gloss. The originator of the wabi sabi concept is considered to be Murata Shuko, a fifteenth-century zen monk and tea master from nara who forswore the gorgeously lacquered foreign tea utensils of fashion, furnishing his tea ceremonies instead with objects that were aesthetically understated and locally made. It was further developed by Sen no rikyu, a sixteenth-century tea master for whom wabi sabi was a means of raising the crude anonymity of Korean and Japanese folk craft above the slick and flawless treasures imported from China. rikyu’s tearooms were similarly pastoral. Modeled on the farm- er’s hut, they were mud-walled, rough-thatched, misshapen, and small. But his style, far from being welcomed by the authorities, was taken as a profound threat. eventually, aged seventy, rikyu was forced by the emperor to commit ritual suicide, but his ideas have lived on to form one of the core concepts of Japanese culture. The term is a composite one. Wa b i had originally referred to a state of hermetic, nature-wrapped melancholy (as for example in Chinese ink-brush landscapes), while sabi meant “chill,” “lean,” or “withered.” gradually, though, as the terms coalesced around the wide-ranging yet intricate skills of the tea ceremony—architec- ture, interior design, landscape design, flower arranging, painting, performance, and food preparation—they took on a more posi- tive spin. Over the centuries, wabi came to imply a philosophical or spiritual outlook, while sabi came to signify the aesthetic quali- ties of an object, be it building, painting, or poem. yet wabi sabi is still somewhat countercultural. In promoting the humble, the irregular, the accidental, the timeworn, the am- biguous, and the awkward, wabi sabi prizes qualities that many, even now, consider ugly. like modernism, wabi sabi values use, but its take on use is wholly different. PHOTOBylIzAMATTHeWS Imperfect Beauty Prizing newness with its sleek and perfect lines has some ugly consequences. An aesthetic alternative, offers elizabeth Farrelly, is wabi sabi, the Japanese philosophy that beauty lies in what is flawed.