Just as in English there is a whole vocabulary available for the discussion of Art and Beauty, so too does such a vocabulary exist in Japanese. There is a tendency among people with a passion for and some experience in Japanese art to use the word “Wabi sabi”, and yet so little understanding of what the term refers to. Leonardo da Vinci said that, “If you cannot explain something, you don’t understand it.” To be anecdotal for a moment, there was one young American anthropologist who had studied pottery briefly in Mashiko, who gave a slide lecture here to coincide with an exhibition of American ceramics. Anything in his slides which seemed even vaguely Japanese influenced he described as possessing “Wabi sabi”. One of the thirty or so professional Japanese potters in the audience enquired, “What do you mean by Wabi sabi?” He laughed as he responded, “Nobody knows what Wabi sabi means!” The entire audience laughed also, but the young gentleman never realized that it was not because they agreed with him, but because of his naivety. Wabi sabi is not some mystical secret, but a basic aesthetic principal. Merely because he didn’t understand it doesn’t mean that it cannot be understood.
Historically “Wabi sabi” was first coined by Sen Rikyu, the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony. Tea was used as a political tool at that time, and the Daimyou, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, often invited political opponents to enjoy tea with him. The sheer richness and lavishness of his style of tea were designed to impress and intimidate. In contrast to this Sen Rikyu proposed a style of tea which was about simplicity and minimalism. Essentially the tea ceremony is about enjoying a nice cup of tea, with all of the five senses. The word for “Delicious” in Japanese is “Oishii” which literally translates as “Beautiful flavour”. So, tea was about beauty. Beauty of sound, of touch, of taste, of fragrance, of vision. If all five senses are to be involved then it is imperative to control the environment in which the ceremony takes place, hence the birth of the tea house and garden. For Sen Rikyu, beauty was not about lavishness. What he proposed was that by eliminating all of the extraneous clutter it was possible to appreciate the essential quality of beauty.
Etymologically, “Wabi sabi” is based on the root forms of two adjectives, both of which are generally translated as “Lonely”. “Wabishii” however focuses on the object which is lonely, where as “Sabishii” focuses on the absence which makes the object lonely. The principal of “Wabi sabi” is therefore; Beauty reduced to its simplest form, and that form brought to a peak of focus by its relationship with the space in which it exists. That is to say, the presence of an object and the presence of the space interacting to strengthen each other.
The idea that space has presence is not new. Two and a half thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Parmenides proposed that it is impossible for anything which exists to conceive of anything which does not exist and that therefore even the space between objects “exists”. This remains in modern English as the concept that “I have nothing”. In Japanese however, it is grammatically impossible for “Nothing” (Nanimo) to exist (aru). “Nothing” (Nanimo) must be followed by “Is not” (nai). The idea of the presence of a space was therefore revolutionary.
To take it one step further, a tea bowl, being a vessel, is defined by the space it contains. It is not the pot which is important, but the space. In the tea bowl it is therefore possible to have the object (Wabi) and the space (Sabi) interacting within the same pot.
There is a story about Sen Rikyu having a hedge of Morning glory planted in his tea garden, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi was to enjoy the tea ceremony when it blossomed. On the morning of the ceremony, the hedge was in full bloom, a swathe of pink flowers. Sen Rikyu came along and clipped off every flower, saving only the single most perfect blossom, which he displayed in the tea house. Had he left the flowers as they were this single blossom would have been lost in the crowd. In the space of the tea house, however, it was beautiful beyond compare. That is the essence of “Wabi sabi”.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi was apparently extremely angry, and it is interesting to note that shortly afterward Sen Rikyu was forced to commit “Seppuku” suicide.
The long and the short of it is that “Wabi sabi” is about simplifying the beauty of nature to its essential elements, and the vitality brought to that beauty by the mutual interaction of object and space, even within the same object. That which is not there is just as important as that which is. This concept has pervaded the Japanese aesthetic and is not confined to pottery, but can be found in any art, including literature and cuisine. It does not exist in every piece of art work, though, and care should be taken in using the term appropriately. It does not mean somber, that would be “Shibui”, nor calm, that would be “Ochitsuita”. There is a whole vocabulary in Japanese to describe art and beauty, just as there is in English. Perhaps we would be wise to use the one we understand the best.
Trees are generally beautiful, but a leaf is beautiful in a very specific way. Having a thousand leaves does not make a tree a thousand times more beautiful than a single leaf.