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Lions Roar : January 2003
66 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 they become even less perfect, more irregular. 3. All things are incomplete. All things, including the universe itself, are in a constant, never- ending state of becoming or dissolving. Often we arbitrarily designate moments, points along the way, as “finished” or “complete.” But when does something’s destiny finally come to fruition? Is the plant complete when it flowers? When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout? When everything turns into compost? The notion of completion has no basis in wabi-sabi. “Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Wabi-sabi represents the exact oppo- site of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring. Wabi-sabi is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of incep- tion or subsiding. Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes. Like homeopathic medicine, the essence of wabi-sabi is apportioned in small doses. As the dose decreases, the effect becomes more potent, more profound. The closer things get to nonex- istence, the more exquisite and evocative they become. Consequently to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow way down, be patient and look very closely. Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non- beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace. To the wealthy merchants, samurai and aristocrats who practiced tea, a medieval Japanese farmer’s hut, which the wabi-sabi tea room was modeled on, was a quite lowly and miserable environment. Yet, in the proper context, with some perceptual guidance, it took on exceptional beauty. Similarly, early wabi-sabi tea utensils were rough, flawed and of undistinguished muddy colors. To tea people accustomed to the Chinese standards of refined, gorgeous and perfect beauty, they were initially perceived as ugly. It is almost as if the pioneers of wabi-sabi intention- ally looked for such examples of the conventionally not-beautiful—homely but not excessively grotesque—and created challenging situations where they would be transformed into their opposite. THE WABI-SABI STATE OF MIND How do we feel about what we know? Acceptance of the inevitable. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life. The lux- uriant tree of summer is now only withered branches under a winter sky. All that remains of a splen- did mansion is a crumbled foundation overgrown with weeds and moss. Wabi-sabi images force us to contemplate our own mortality, and they evoke an existential loneliness and tender sadness. They also stir a mingled bittersweet comfort, since we know all existence shares the same fate. The wabi-sabi state of mind is often communicated through poetry, because poetry lends itself to emotional expression and strong, reverberating images that seem “larger” than the small verbal frame that holds them (thus evoking the larger universe). Rikyu used this oft-repeated poem by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) to describe the mood of wabi-sabi: All around, no flowers in bloom / Nor maple leaves in glare, / A solitary fisherman’s hut alone / On the twilight shore / Of this autumn eve. Certain common sounds also suggest the sad-beautiful feeling of wabi-sabi. The mournful quarks and caws of seagulls and crows. The forlorn bellowing of foghorns. The wails of ambu- lance sirens echoing through canyons of big city buildings. Right: Aged well-bucket used as a flower container.