Thursday, May 4, 2017

Hodgepodge 187/365 - Wabi-sabi and Friends

I spent this morning looking into Japanese aesthetic terminology. It's interesting—and, I find, healthy to view the world in a less black-and-white, cut-and-dried, dog-eat-dog, my-way-or-the-highway manner than so many Americans seem to do.

First and foremost, impermanence shades everything. Personally, I find that comforting, and instructive. It reminds me, for example, that the brilliant orange poppies that are blazing in our front yard now (and, indeed, are starting to go to seed) need to be regarded, enjoyed, savored, because they won't be here long. And when the work of removing them comes—starting next week—I can keep the memory of their glory in the back of my mind, making the task perhaps a bit less daunting.

Wabi-sabi is a key term that most of us have heard (a couple of articles about it can be found here and here). It is a portmanteau word from the 15th century, with wabi originally meaning the loneliness of living in nature, apart from society, and sabi meaning "chill," "lean," or "withered." The terms have changed meaning since the middle ages, taking on a more positive connotation. Wabi now suggests rustic simplicity, freshness, or quietness, or understated elegance; it may also apply to the quirks and anomalies that arise in the act of fabrication, which add uniqueness and elegance to an object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, the life of an object as evidenced in its patina or wear, or in visible repairs.

In a nutshell, wabi-sabi means an acceptance, even appreciation, of imperfection and impermanence, of rough earthiness. It is closely associated with Zen Buddhism.

Wabi-sabi entails seven key ingredients:

fukinsei: asymmetry, irregularity
kanso: simplicity, unclutteredness
koko: a basic, weathered quality or nature
shizen: unpretentiousness, naturalness
yūgen: subtly profound grace, circumspection, unobviousness
datsuzoku: being unbounded by convention, freedom from habit
seijaku: tranquillity, energized calm or stillness

Here are some other terms that are worth pondering, both in one's own creative work and as one goes through the world and interacts with people, places, and things:

An example of yūgen:
what is causing the smoke?
the painting gives no hint
miyabi elegance; the elimination of vulgarity
shibui simplicity, subtlety, unobtrusiveness; allowing things to speak for themselves
iki originality, uniqueness, in an uncomplicated, measured, unselfconscious manner; implies purity but also an appetite for life
jo-ha-kyū a tempo: start slowly, accelerate, end abruptly (e.g., tea ceremony, martial arts)
yūgen mystery, holding back (suggesting that which is beyond what can be said, though it is not an allusion to another world)
geidō discipline and ethics; the term is applied to arts that teach an appreciation of the process of creation, through kata, or forms (e.g., tea ceremony, martial arts)
ensō the void, often represented by a circle: infinity/nothingness (Only a person who is mentally and spiritually complete can draw a true ensō; some artists will practice drawing an ensō daily, as a spiritual exercise.)

And because shibumi or shibusa (n.), with the adjective shibui, is a concept most of us are familiar with, here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is a brief outline of its essential qualities: 

we once had two Bizen teacups;
one broke—
ah, impermanence
(1) Shibui objects appear to be simple overall, but they include subtle details, such as textures, that balance simplicity with complexity. (2) This balance of simplicity and complexity ensures that one does not tire of a shibui object but constantly finds new meanings and enriched beauty that cause its aesthetic value to grow over the years. (3) Shibusa is not to be confused with wabi or sabi. Though many wabi or sabi objects are shibui, not all shibui objects are wabi or sabiWabi or sabi objects can be more severe and sometimes exaggerate intentional imperfections to such an extent that they can appear to be artificial. Shibui objects are not necessarily imperfect or asymmetrical, though they can include these qualities. (4) Shibusa walks a fine line between contrasting aesthetic concepts such as elegant and rough or spontaneous and restrained.

And last but not least, there's mono no aware, or the pathos of things or sensitivity to ephemera. One might call it the human condition (for those humans who are paying attention, at any rate).

1 comment:

  1. Lovely post. And yes, a different perspective from ours. Thank you, Anne. You write beautifully.