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Lions Roar : January 2003
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 65 inclined, this kind of life fostered art appreciation of the minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. In turn, unpre- possessing simplicity took on new meaning as the basis for a new, pure beauty. THE METAPHYSICAL BASIS OF WABI-SABI What is the universe like? Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness. As dusk approaches in the hinter- lands, a traveler ponders shelter for the night. He notices tall rushes growing everywhere, so he bundles an armful together as they stand in the field, and knots them at the top. Presto, a living grass hut. The next morning, before embarking on another day’s journey, he unknots the rushes and, presto, the hut de-constructs, disappears, and becomes a virtually indistinguishable part of the larger field of rushes once again. The original wilderness seems to be restored, but minute traces of the shelter remain. A slight twist or bend in a reed here and there. There is also the memory of the hut in the mind of the traveler—and in the mind of the reader reading this description. Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealized form, is precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness. While the universe destructs it also constructs. New things emerge out of nothingness. But we can’t really determine by cursory observation whether something is in the evolving or devolving mode. If we didn’t know differently we might mistake the newborn baby boy—small, wrinkled, bent, a little grotesque looking—for the very old man on the brink of death. In repre- sentations of wabi-sabi, arbitrarily perhaps, the devolving dynamic generally tends to manifest itself in things a little darker, more obscure and quiet. Things evolving tend to be a little lighter and brighter, a bit clearer and slightly more eye-arresting. And nothingness itself—instead of being empty space, as in the West—is alive with possibility. In metaphysical terms, wabi-sabi suggests that the universe is in constant motion toward or away from potential. WABI-SABI SPIRITUAL VALUES What are the lessons of the universe? Truth comes from the observation of nature. The Japanese have tried to control nature where they could, as best they could, within the limits of available technology. But there was little they could do about the weather—hot and humid summers, cold and dry winters and rain on the average of one out of every three days throughout the year, except during the rainy season in early sum- mer when everything is engulfed in a fine, wet mist for six to eight weeks. And there was little they could do about the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, floods, fires and tidal waves that periodically and unpredictably visited their land. The Japanese didn’t particularly trust nature, but they learned from it. Three of the most obvious lessons gleaned from millennia of contact with nature (and leavened with Taoist thought) were incorporated into the wisdom of wabi-sabi: 1. All things are impermanent. The inclination toward nothingness is unrelenting and univer- sal. Even things that have all the earmarks of substance—things that are hard, inert, solid—pre- sent nothing more than the illusion of permanence. We may wear blinders, use ruses to forget, ignore, or pretend otherwise—but all comes to nothing in the end. Everything wears down. The planets and stars, and even intangible things like reputation, family heritage, historical memory, scientific theorems, mathematical proofs, great art and literature (even in digital form)—all eventually fade into oblivion and nonexistence. 2. All things are imperfect. Nothing that exists is without imperfections. When we look really closely at things we see the flaws. The sharp edge of a razor blade, when magnified, reveals microscopic pits, chips and variegations. Every craftsman knows the limits of perfection: the imperfections glare back. And as things begin to break down and approach the primordial state, Left: Tea bowl. Antique black raku ware. Poetic name for the piece given by H.H . Gyalwang Drukchen Rinpoche XII: “Container of the Moon.”