Annotation: Wabi Sabi

Considering that it is virtually impossible to define the Zen philosophy in a succinct fashion, it should be largely unsurprising that an art-form that grew out of Zen required an entire book to even begin to explain. That is not to say that the author evaded the question, far from it: the fault (if it could be called such) lies directly in the subject. I found the topic of wabi sabi fascinating, while at the same time finding my own tastes justified within a larger school of thought on art. It really all comes down to impermanence. In fact, that is the subtitle of the book: the Japanese art of impermanence.

Of course, that title might be a little misleading. While yes, they do discuss the tea ceremony and other transient events as art, there is a great deal more to wabi sabi than that. It is more an acceptance of your surroundings and letting nature have a role in the creation of things. The example used that really encapsulated the feeling for me best was when he was discussing ash-glazed pottery. The author described an old kiln that is still in use, though it only burns once a year. The pots are placed in or near the flue, and as the ash is pulled upwards through the chimney, it glazes the pots. Each pot is in a different spot in the kiln, and so the glaze is different for every pot. That act of abandoning the work and letting nature take its role in creation is wabi sabi in a nutshell, for me at least.

The words wabi and sabi both have extensive histories, during which time they have gained enough meanings to become too ambiguous to have a direct and literal translation. The basic gist when used together, is finding beauty in solitude and natural desolation. The author related a story of Sen No Rikyu, master of the tea ceremony, whom had a marvelous garden with flowers in it that his guests would pass through to reach the tea room. The Emperor, Hideyoshi had heard of the garden, and in particular desired to see the morning glories in it. He was invited to a tea ceremony, and upon his arrival discovered that all of the morning glories had been cut. Upon arriving to the tea room, he discovered a single, beautifully arranged morning glory adorning the tea room. This sort of attention and focus really appeals to me, aesthetically speaking, and grounds my sentiment that simplicity and letting things fall where they may can prove to be provocative and striking on a level that more complex and ordered images might not achieve. (A case in point: one of my favorite pieces that my mother has painted is a single maple leaf, done in ink and water color… she’s done a variety of more complex and detailed images, but my attention is invariably drawn to the leaf.)

Overall, the book manages to avoid being pretentious, which makes it a significantly better read than it could have otherwise been. There are a few points where the subject was treated a bit too much like a golden calf (notably, in the introduction itself), but they are thankfully few and far between. Mostly, the sentiment I gathered out of the book was that the author had a genuine interest in (and knowledge of) the material.

Wabi Sabi is broken into a few parts. It starts out with a reasonably in depth history of the art form, which grew out of Zen philosophy when Buddhism first started making a cultural impact in Japan. This was a fascinating topic for me, and really elucidated a lot about the origins of different forms of Buddhism. One thing that really interested me about it stems from an ongoing conversation I have had with my father about Baha’i Art. He is of the sentiment that there largely isn’t any currently being made, and that what is currently touted as such is really nothing more than ecclesiastic art. Reading about wabi sabi really drove home that idea. Wabi Sabi is essentially Zen Buddhist art. Yet it rarely if ever has anything to do with images of the Buddha or others. What makes it stem from Zen Buddhism is that it is a representation and extension of the philosophy that underlies Zen Buddhism, not that it depicts religious scenes, individuals, or icons.

The next section discusses the interrelationship between wabi sabi and the culture it originated in. I was less impressed with this section, though I can’t put a finger on exactly why. I think what it comes down to is that in trying to make a distinction between Japanese culture and American culture, the author relied too much on his own opinions, and less on objective observation and facts. It was clear that he had lived in Japan for several years, and disagrees strongly with the adoption of aspects of western civilization.

The third section discusses wabi sabi art specifically, and was pretty interesting. This is where the author talked about the ash-glazed pottery that so intrigued me, as well as going a bit more in depth about how the philosophy behind wabi sabi can be applied to various kinds of art. It was a little short, however, and made the next section somewhat jarring, since the fourth section quite literally laid down basic ground rules for using different materials in your designs. The whole notion of setting down firm rules of how materials must be applied seemed to go against the entire notion that he had been describing for the rest of the book. I think that there is a lot more flexibility to the form than what he laid out.

The fifth and final section was a personal diatribe on the state of things in modern western society, and an argument to justify why adopting wabi sabi principles is important. I largely agree with him: we are an increasingly disposable society, with huge amounts of luxuries and technology, all the while lamenting our unhappiness. In the current generation especially (the post-gen-x generation), there is an overwhelming sentiment of feeling spiritually lost, a disconnect with our surroundings and ourselves. I can’t help but feel that encouraging the sort of reconnection with nature that occurs in wabi sabi art would help that sentiment.

While it had very little to do with drawing explicitly, I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in eastern art It was well worth the time to read it.

Juniper, Andrew. Wabi Sabi. Boston, Tuttle Publishing, 2003.