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Lions Roar : November 2009
65 SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2009 process known as “iron smacking.” Iron corrodes especially fast when exposed to an electrolyte like water, and, for better and worse, the human body is awash with an electrolyte broth. “Rust, I bow to you,” I say silently, not wanting to disturb the birds that have begun to pipe, trill, and bark, chasing each other at speed across the sky. My rusty, weathered chair is rich with the fetching poverty the Japanese call wabi sabi. Wa b i originally meant living miserably alone in nature, far from human society, and feeling gloomy, bleak, comfortless. And sabi, whose beauty comes from the patina of age, originally meant “chill,” “lean,” “withered.” but the phrase wabi sabi changed in the sixteenth century, when the hermit’s life of chosen isolation in the woods seemed to offer a spiritual richness society lacked, and the words came to mean an intimacy with nature and delight in the rustic details of daily life. The hermit’s eye turned toward the minute, the crude, the cracked, the incomplete, those objects with interesting crevices—especially if something were rusted, weather- ed, or worn, revealing the passage of time. It’s a nice felicity that the Japanese word for rust is also pronounced sabi, returning us once more to the rusty origins of life and the rust at the heart of the word “rustic.” partly as a rebellion against the glory of the decorative arts, wabi sabi favored the purity of humble forms, but unlike european modernism’s ideal of smooth, streamlined, futuristic creations, wabi sabi valued the organic, imperfect, faded nature of earthy things that were handmade one at a time, not mass produced, and all the more appealing when worn through loving use. Wabi sabi relies on intuitive, right-here right-now observation, without any glance toward the future or even the idea of progress. A pastoral aesthetic, wabi sabi not only accepts nature as un- ruly and uncontrollable, it welcomes nature’s rule, beyond the scope of any technology we can create, however sleek and obedient. so, wabi sabi embraces the idea of corrosion, decay to the point of disintegration, and ambiguity, in warm fluid shapes and quietly resonating earth tones. poetry, too, can be wabi sabi, if it arouses serene melancholy, an acceptance of reality at its most exquisitely mundane, a reality in which things and people break down, but are no less beautiful for that. Japanese also has many names for beauty. One feels awaré while appreciating the ephemeral, say the transient beauty of de- cay in the luminous green moss spreading over rotting trees, the mushrooms and toadstools rising from the rich soil, the patches of brilliant gold and red lichen. After a bird has flown, one may feel yoin, silent reverberations that remain. It’s this sensation that poet Wallace stevens writes of in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a blackbird,” when he celebrates both “The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” One may also experience the poignant beauty known as yugen, described in this way by thirteenth-century author Kamo no Chômei (in An Account of my Hut, 1212): “It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. some- how, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.” Or: “When looking at autumn mountains through mist, the view may be indistinct yet have great depth. Although few autumn leaves may be visible through the mist, the view is alluring. The limitless vista created in imagination far surpasses anything one can see more clearly.” solar energy lights our days and fuels the plants that prey animals eat before they’re eaten by predators. We eat the sunshine stored in those plants and animals, burning it for energy, which we spend to work, cook, make love, play music, pursue games. And so we’re con- nected to every other life-form on earth in a skein of interrelated victories of fire, including rust. The universe is most likely littered with planets as rusty as our own. Are they florid with life? If so, There are only these molecules, this energy pooling here for a short while as Diane, and never again in the same way.