By Frederick Horne '18
The blooming of the Japanese cherry trees is one of the most pleasant times of the Washington year. The small, beautiful, ingenuous buds garland the roadway and paint the world a heart-lifting pink, embodying all the new life of spring. Yet, all good things must come to an end, and the cherry blossoms wither and die in but a few weeks, turning into dust as all things must eventually do. Considering this inevitable fact of life—that is, the inevitable fact of death—is enough to sour the buds for any Westerner. To the Japanese, however, foreknowledge of death does not detract from the blooms’ beauty; rather, this impermanence adds to their magnificence.
Wabi-sabi (侘寂) means recognizing the impermanence and imperfection of life and appreciating that imperfection. According to American author Richard Powell, wabi-sabi is based on the acknowledgment of three truths: “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” In real life, nothing is perfect or permanent, so one should not pretend that it is. One should appreciate fleeting, flawed reality, not an unattainable ideal of perfection or permanence. Wabi-sabi is inextricably linked with love for the natural world over the artificial one. Nature is not perfectly symmetrical or even, so art should not be, either. Trying to “improve” over nature by adding complexity or bright colors or durability would be to conceal the true essence of the object and of life itself. The wabi-sabi aesthetic values natural beauty over human artifice, simplicity over complexity, austerity over bright colors, rough edges over smooth, asymmetry over symmetry.
There is a small clay bowl named “Fuji-san,” made at the turn of the 17th century A.D. for the Japanese tea ceremony. It bears a stylized depiction of Mount Fuji on its sides: the white glaze on its top half, contrasted with the dark brown of its bottom half, looks like snow on the mountain’s peak. The bowl is chipped, scratched, and irregular, and its glaze is falling off in places. This quiet, unassuming cup that looks as if it had been unearthed from some pre-history archeological site, this rude and crude vessel, is the most revered bowl in all Japan. It is revered precisely because it is imperfect. It is perfectly imperfect. The irregular rim, which would suggest shoddy craftsmanship in the West, to the Japanese invokes the fundamental imperfection of all life and beauty. The bowl’s white-and-brown two-color system seems uninteresting to a Westerner, but in Japan its beauty lies in that very simplicity. The bowl says infinitely more by the subtle suggestion of a mountain than it would by painting the mountain in exquisite detail. A flawless bowl would be pretentious and shallow, not acknowledging the profound truth that true beauty lies in imperfect nature.
For someone with a Greco-Roman aesthetic background, where perfection and symmetry are the highest aesthetic ideals, wabi-sabi seems an alien concept. The first Europeans to visit Japan in the late 17th century A.D., actually honored when their hosts served them tea in seemingly crude vessels, were instead insulted and did not appreciate the bowls’ silent power. Likewise, a traditional Japanese walking into the Sistine Chapel would be disgusted by the garish complexity and largely human focus.
Nonetheless, wabi-sabi is not entirely unknown in the West. It is not loving a valueless, flawed object despite its flaws for the memories it holds. It is loving that object for its flaws. It is loving that object because its imperfection invokes all life’s fleeting nature. It is loving autumn not only for the colors of the leaves and the temperature of the air but also for how short it is. It is loving autumn because it will not last but is beautiful while it lasts. Most of all, wabi-sabi is loving autumn, loving the death and decay of the leaves, because the cycle of life and death is natural, what life should be, and to deny life’s true nature is to deny everything.