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Lions Roar : January 2003
68 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 Appreciation of the cosmic order. Wabi-sabi suggests the subtlest realms and all the mechanics and dynamics of existence, way beyond what our ordinary senses can perceive. These primordial forces are evoked in everything wabi-sabi, in much the same way that Hindu mandalas or medieval European cathedrals were constructed to emotionally convey their respective cosmic schemes. The materials out of which things wabi-sabi are made elicit these transcendent feelings. The way rice paper transmits light in a diffuse glow. The manner in which clay cracks as it dries. The color and textural metamorphosis of metal when it tarnishes and rusts. All these represent the physical forces and deep structures that underlie our everyday world. WABI-SABI MORAL PRECEPTS Knowing what we know, how should we act? Get rid of all that is unnecessary. Wabi-sabi means treading lightly on the planet and knowing how to appreciate whatever is encountered, no matter how trifling, whenever it is encountered. “Material poverty, spiritual richness” are wabi-sabi bywords. In other words, wabi-sabi tells us to stop our preoc- cupation with success—wealth, status, power and luxury—and enjoy the unencumbered life. Obviously, leading the simple wabi-sabi life requires some effort and will and also some tough decisions. Wabi-sabi acknowledges that just as it is important to know when to make choices, it is also important to know when not to make choices: to let things be. Even at the most austere level of mate- rial existence, we still live in a world of things. Wabi-sabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom of things. Focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy. The behavior prescribed for the wabi-sabi tea room is a clear expression of wabi-sabi values. First, as a symbolic act of humility, everyone either bends or crawls to enter the tea room through an entrance purposely designed low and small. Once inside, the atmosphere is egalitarian. Hierarchical thinking—“this is higher/better, that is lower/worse”—is not acceptable. The poor student, the wealthy business person and the powerful religious leader—distinctly different social classes on the outside—are equals within. Similarly, to the sensitive observer, the essential qualities of the objects inside the tea room are either obvious or they are not. Conventional aids to discernment, like the origins and names of the object makers, are of no wabi-sabi consequence. The normal hierarchy of material value related to cost is also pushed aside. Mud, paper and bamboo, in fact, have more intrinsic wabi-sabi quali- ties/value than do gold, silver and diamonds. In wabi-sabi, there is no “valuable,” since that would imply “not valuable.” An object obtains the state of wabi-sabi only for the moment it is appreciated as such. In the tea room, therefore, things come into existence only when they express their wabi- sabi qualities. Outside the tea room, they return to their ordinary reality, and their wabi-sabi exis- tence fades away. ♦ Adapted from Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren, published by Stone Bridge Press. © 1994 by Leonard Koren Above: Antique clay vase. Right: Sake container. Antique gourd mended with lacquer. The Japanese tea ceremony implements and containers photographed for this article are from the collection of tea masters John Soyu McGee and Alexandre Soro Avdulov, of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.