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Wabi and Sabi:
Concept of Japanese Beauty

(c) Aine

Submitted to Mr. Francis Britto
English Composition
January 15, 2001

Making Tea during Tea Ceremony


Thesis sentences: Even though the beauty of wabi-sabi is deep rooted in our minds, it is difficult for us to define the beauty. Seeking the meanings of Wabi and Sabi means seeking our own hidden minds.
  1. What was the meaning of Wabi?
  2. What was the meaning of Sabi?
  3. Nowadays, the beauty of Wabi-sabi influences many ideas of our culture and spirits.


Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty. We often see and hear the word, Wabi-sabi, in Japanese media and conversations. Wabi-sabi influences our daily life in many ways. And we know that it is the core concept of Japanese culture. However, very few can explain what it is. The main reason is that most Japanese never learn about Wabi-sabi in intellectual terms.

What exactly is the beauty of wabi-sabi? Koren defines in Wabi-Sabi that "the closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably 'rustic'." Then what are the meanings hidden behind Wabi-sabi other than rustic? Are Wabi and Sabi different in meanings? Yes, originally, the Japanese words Wabi and Sabi had quite different meanings.

1. Wabi

A) The change in meaning

We can see the word, Wabi, in the Manyousyuu, 'Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves', whose writers are unknown and which is defined as the oldest(c. 759) Japanese poetry. Some poets used the word, Wabi, as the deep grief of love in Manyousyuu. The following is my translation of the poem written by a woman whose husband fell in love with another woman. "Now, I feel Ki no O, a string of feelings, that is Wabi ing . . .when I think of you." Ki no O literally means a string of feelings. It meant "life" or to "put all of something into life". The husband was the woman's life itself. She could live because her husband was there. But when she thought of him, he was not hers anymore. Losing love meant losing the foundation of her self. She explained her feeling as Wabi in the poem. (Yoshimura, 7-8) Wabi meant the powerlessness that is equal to death, the loss of the foundation of life.

People disliked the early idea of Wabi during the time of wars and disasters. The idea of Wabi and the standard of beauty changed. In order to survive, people had to go through horrible and harsh political world. People tended to think that meaningful life existed away from human dwellings and luxury. They saw beauty in living in a simple straw house than in living in a golden house. Wabi did not mean a loss of love anymore. It meant to sink deeply into one's mind, rejecting luxury.

B) Cha and Wabi

Cha, tea ceremony or tea, reflects the idea of Wabi and visa versa. The Japanese people have fostered the culture of tea enthusiastically. After green tea was introduced into Japan for medicinal purposes, "it did not take the Japanese a long period of time to perceive that green tea is not only good for the health but also tasty"(Sugawara. 92). The Japanese even established a unique philosophy of space and time in the green tea culture.

During the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600), Wabi became to be the essence of Cha. Wabi changed the idea of tea ceremony. Expensive tea controlled by generals used to be important in the world of Cha. But, after the change, wabicha was more important. In the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who had been in the lowest class, turned to be the leader in Japan. People found the importance in the hidden class. Cha was not for powerful people with expensive tools anymore. People built the policy of equalitarianism in Wabi. It was the "denial of authority and of wealth"(Sugawara, 94).

A warrior drank wabicha with the harsh tense before wars. Yoshimura analyzes that "the tea was a life and sometimes a death". Making tea and exposing his sole was the proof that he was alive, and sometimes the will before a death. To be mu, nothingness, to be free from sleepless nights before the fierce battles, he went into the teahouse. Sen Soshitsu XV records in his article that Rikyu, the legendary expert, said, "'wabi' expresses a Buddhist world of purity and cleanliness". That does not refer to the cleanliness of external appearance. The purity should be the beauty that is not visible externally but manifest within one's heart. (Sen, 6)

C) Experts' efforts to make the Wabi atmosphere

Sen Rikyu and others did their best to achieve the real wabicha. For example, teahouse built the world of Wabi. It used and appreciated nature without going against it. For instance, teahouse has unique brightness. Shoji, paper screen, which soften the sunlight, makes the brightness. Shoji brings in not only the brightness of the sun but also the season, the weather, and the time. What Shoji brings in may be light, brightness, darkness or shade. The true idea of tea ceremony is to relate with nature and also not to be disturbed by it.

Nijiriguchi was also made in teahouse. It was the tiny entrance to the tearoom. Kumakura, in his essay "Sen No Rikyu: Inquiries Into His Life And Tea", describes the Nijiriguchi as "the wicket entranceway to theaters".

By crawling through the mouse wicket, people entered a world of the theater separate from the everyday space in which they usually moved. They entered, indeed, a world of dramatic space. Thus the mouse wicket was the dividing line that prevented the "ordinary" of one place from merging with the "extraordinary" of another . . .. The rite of passing through was a means for gaining new life force, even rebirth. (Kumakura, 38)

Wabi changed its meaning many times. In that process, Cha was the big key to make Wabi more important to the people. And experts' efforts to achieve the situation of Wabi made the existence of Wabi spirit stronger.

2. Sabi

A) The change in meaning

Sabi originally meant the gradual appearance of the inner essence of things. At the end of the Heian era, people started to seek truths of things in the atmosphere of roughness, susabi, and calmness, sabi. And the words started to appear in Japanese poems. During the Muromachi era, the Sabi idea became deeper in meaning. Sabi meant the acme of spiritual deepness. This deepness meant aesthetic feeling that was full of silence and transient withering. Influenced by Cha, Sabi started to mean a calm and peaceful situation. People achieved the situation after they realized the contrast and the difference between luxury and Wabi. (Haibunngaku Daijiten)

B) Haiku, Haikai and Sabi

Haiku and Haikai have influenced Sabi and visa versa. Haiku is Japanese poem with 17 syllables. Haikai is poems with humor or sometimes another way of saying Haiku.

An aesthetic experience is important in Haiku. The experience is the realization of an object and is "the interaction of a man and his environment"(Yasuda, 12-13). Not all poets experience the same feeling. For example, even if they are in a same room, they feel differently. As Yasuda holds, "in virtue of their different funded experiences", each of them achieves his or her unique aesthetic feeling. He can achieve "an aesthetic experience or, as Otsuji calls it, a unity in life, arising from the poet's very being: 'Before a poet can compose Haiku, he must find a unity within his life which must come from the effort to discover his true self.'"(Yasuda, 15-16) The aesthetic experience is very unique because of the uniqueness of each life. Basho (the expert) seemed to achieve perfectly the unity.

One of the outstanding characteristics of Basho is that life and art are in perfect harmony . . .. In his work, art is the expression of the whole man, and in it, the whole man was able to emerge in the art. (Yasuda, 18)

Mujou is one of the Sabi ideas. Reminding Mujou is important in an aesthetic experience. Mujou means nothing is constant. Everything is worthy because it changes all the time. People can put great importance on time, because people change. And people can love somebody. Basho thought that people could not accept beauty of Sabi unless they reminded Mujou of every life. Haiku or Haikai is a very small size literature whose contents capture just a momentary phenomenon. However, that experience suggests the huge existence of nature. It symbolizes the calm and sedate heart. (Ogiwara, 62-68) And he or she can interact with his or her environment.

Sabi's fundamental ideas are loneliness, calmness, being old, and being plain. Also, we cannot exclude humor in Sabi. The humor was born in the time of Provincial Wars period. In chaos with wars and battles, many people would have felt the vein and sadness of the world. However, the chaos had other values than the minus images of collapse. For, local people, it was the time full of opportunities to be free from the power from upper class. "It was a bright Ukiyo, transitory world."(Narikawa, 34)

Narikawa introduces one of the types of the humor by introducing us a famous poem written by Basho.

A cricket in early autumn starts making sounds and then stopping it again and again. The light of dawn was about to disappear but soon appeared again. I recognized that it was raining in the night outside the window by the sound of the rain falling to the leaves of basho, a plantain. (Narikawa, 188)

People in upper class used to use rain and basho as the topics of their poems in the old days. In contrast, the idea of hearing the rain falling was very local. Local people used to hear the sound of rain falling to tubs, which people put to stop leaks. "This poem suggested that he brought down the luxurious world of high class and brought up the vulgar world of local or low class."(Narikawa, 188) The contrast made in the poem to lower something high and heighten something low was an ironical humor.

Basho's humor, which is also based on the insane self-irony, is the free laughter, which is not disturbed by any self-centered values. "Sabi does not only mean lonely feelings but also the heart of nature of this space." (Ogiwara, 71) Basho looked things from the space-centered point of view. It was the deep sympathy to the nature and the way of life. The humor was the laughter to his shallow mind, immatureness and foolishness. It was not a sneer of self-rejection but was the broad-minded laughter, which liberated self from self-centered illusions, by revealing them. (Narikawa, 256)

The developments in Haiku and Haikai formed the wide meanings of Sabi idea. And the meanings of Sabi gained a Mujou aesthetic experience and humor other than the feeling of loneliness.

3. The influence of Wabi-sabi

We recognize Wabi and Sabi not separately but as one set of idea nowadays.

Leonard maintains his idea that "since wabi-sabi is not easily reducible to formulas or catch phrases without destroying its essence, saving it becomes a daunting task". Indeed its definition is forgotten. But, without realizing, many Japanese have Wabi-sabi idea deep rooted in their minds, even though they are not used to explaining the idea. For instance, as for me, when I observe a living plant, I see a reflection of my own existence, my hope and ideals in it. This experience and the respect to plants reflect Wabi and Sabi ideas. As Ikenobo holds "we see not just a pure love of flowers, but also the relationship between man and flowers and, concurrently, the resulting relationships between people". Japanese are very sensitive to very small season change. They see the huge nature in a very little thing it. Also, many Japanese respect things that are clear and pure and try to reflect them to their everyday lives. Wabi and Sabi ideas are deep rooted in many Japanese minds and identities.

Works Cited

Ikenobo, Sen'ei. "Flowers And Mankind." Ikebana 101 Plants & 147 Arrangements. Tokyo: Shufunotomo Co., 1991.

Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets&Philosophers. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 1994.

Kumakura, Isao. "Sen No Rikyu: Inquiries Into His Life And Tea." Trans. Varley, Paul. Tea in Japan Essays on the History of Chanoyu. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

Narikawa, Takeo. Basho to Humor Haikaisei no Tetsugaku. 'Basho and Humor The Philosophy of Haikai'. Tokyo: Tamagawa University Syuppanbu, 1999.

Ogata, Isao. Kusama, Tokikazu. Shimazu, Tadao. Ooka, Makoto. and Morikawa, Akira. Haibunngaku Daijiten. 'Encyclopedia of Literature of Japanese Poems of 17 syllables'. Tokyo: Tsunokawashoten, 1995.

Ogiwara, Seisensui. Basho no Kokoro. 'The Heart of Basho'. Tokyo: Nikkei Insatsu Kabushikigaisha, 1994.

Sen, Soshintsu XV. "A Disclosed Soul of "Roji"." The Tea Garden. Tokyo: Graphic-sha, 1989.

Sugawara, Makoto. Zen and Zoni The Culture Behind Japanese Cuisine. Tokyo: The East Publications, 1993.

Yasuda, Kenneth. The Japanese Haiku. Vermont: Charles E. Uttle Company, 1957.

Yoshimura, Sadashi. Wabi no Zoukei. 'Molding of Wabi'. Kyoto: Tankoushakan, 1984.

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