Learning to see the invisible
What is wabi sabi? Ask a Japanese this question and there will likely be a long silence. Pose the same question to an American, however, the answer will often be quick and sure: “It’s beauty of things imperfect!” Why do the Japanese struggle for an answer to the meaning of wabi sabi that seems to come easily to Westerners? Could they be searching for a different answer altogether?
“Translation,” wrote Kakuzo Okakura, author of the classic The Book of Tea, “can at best be only the reverse side of a brocade, – all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of color or design.” Few examples illustrate this better than the Japanese concept of wabi sabi. Westerners tend to associate wabi sabi with physical characteristics – imperfection, crudeness, an aged and weathered look, etc. Although wabi sabi may encompass these qualities, these characteristics are neither sufficient nor adequate to convey the essence of the concept. Wabi sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it. As long as one focuses on the physical, one is doomed to see only the back side of the brocade, while its real beauty remains hidden. In order to see its true essence, one must look beyond the apparent, one must look within.
The term wabi sabi is derived from two characters shared by Japanese and Chinese. Originally, wabi 侘 means ‘despondence’, and sabi 寂 means ‘loneliness’ or ‘solitude’. These are words for feelings, not for physical appearance of objects. The term embodies a refined aesthetic sensibility that was very evident in ancient Chinese art and literature long before the concept was popularized in Japan through the introduction of Zen Buddhism and the Tea Ceremony. Asians are not born with this aesthetic sensibility. They develop it through long exposure to classical literature, brush painting, and especially to poetry. Consider this famous poem by the eighth-century Chinese poet Cheung Chi (張繼) :