Literary critics first used the word sabi
to describe a kind of beauty captured in 12th-century Japanese poetry. It is a beauty that aches with melancholy longing, a beauty of unseen selfless deeds, unrecognized acts of goodness, and a piercing beauty of moments that have passed and will not come again.
C.S. Lewis, the writer and Oxford theologian of the last century, described three moments in his life that contained this kind of longing. The first was a memory of his brother's miniature garden, triggered one summer day while he stood by a flowering currant bush. The second was a troubling shock while reading Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin
, which contained the "Idea of Autumn," and the third was a blast of longing while casually reading a poem of Longfellow's about the death of a Nordic god.
Lewis explained that his longing was for something reflected in, yet beyond, these triggering experiences. The longing he felt was instantly itself desirable. He wanted to feel it again. Lewis described the longing as intense and surprising. He compared it to Milton's description of the "enormous bliss" of Eden. Yet at the same time, it was an unhappiness similar to grief. When you experience wabi sabi like Lewis did, you yearn for a desire deeper than your daily desires. A desire ephemeral and out of our control, that comes on you when we least expect it. The Japanese call this thing longed for muso
, the "unchanging formlessness behind all phenomena." Lewis concluded, "The form of the desired is in the desire."
C.S. Lewis's description of a haiku moment is important because he wrote from outside the haiku tradition. He gives independent witness to the power of the haiku moment and reveals that the moments themselves are universal, as likely to occur in the life of an Oxford scholar as in the life of a master Japanese haijin
, like Basho. Not all haiku moments are as intense as Lewis or Basho described and not all haiku will translate that deep longing to others, but the fact that we can read Lewis or Basho and connect with their feelings reinforces the value of writing haiku or expressing the haiku moment in other creative ways.
The bite in the air, the smell that crisp October wind brings, the earth moist and pungent, ripe grapes scenting the air, the mossy wet aroma of decay and the leaves coming on like paper lanterns, dressing for death in colors of sun and blood; this is autumn, the most wabi sabi season of all.
The latest theory suggests that the colors of fall leaves are signals to discourage insects. It is as if the tree is saying, "See how healthy I am. I can go to bed early this fall because I have lots of resources to fight you off with." Whatever the message, bugs do seem to avoid the most brightly arrayed trees. This is, so far the only survival advantage anyone has been able to come up with for such brilliant and vibrants shades of red, yellow, and orange that appear once each year.
We have a broad-leaf maple tree in our backyard, which produces truly ipressive leaves, some measuring 17 inches or more across. While sitting in a chair by our window one late windless afternoon in October, I looked out on this tree and heard a hollow snap as one of the giant leaves broke away from the tree, and then heard only silence as it glided down toward the ground with aerodynamic grace. Over the course of the next few weeks, I watched a maple tree across the small field behind our house change from green to yellow in a steady progression from the top down. Once the transformation was complete, the leaves began to fall away from the top of the tree and continued to the bottom. This process of stripping first the greenness, then the leaves themselves, revelas a deep effect of wabi sabi. There is a grace in falling leaves, a gentleness in the loss of foliage.
This process begins when the tree redirects water and other nutrients away from the leaves and toward the roots. Without these supplies and the temperatures and light of summer, the leaf cannot produce energy and as the master molecule chlorophyll xanthophylls, shine from behind. Sunlight also transforms sugars left in some leaves into anthocyanin, a pigment that gives leaves the color of bright red or warm rust. Tannins, the protective chemicals in oak leaves, give them more subdued colors. And as the leaves on all these trees dry, the trees seal off all contact with the stems, the brittle connective tissue weakens, and the leaves break away in the wind and rain.
Since I was a child I wondered why such beauty was linked hand in hand with loss, wondered why the grand lights of autumn shone so briefly. But it is a part of the natural process of preparing for winter; the leaves form a blanket for the tender forest-floor plants and animals, which benefit from this generous gift from the trees.
More recently I have come to see that fall reflects an important value. It is the shining value of transition. It is the value of wu wei
, of letting go of one stage in life and moving to the next. In this grand yearly display the trees remind me that each season has its time and that the most advantageous thing to do with leaves that cannot last the winter is to let them go.
The rich golden hues of autumn represent not the gold of coin and commerce, but the gold of a more ephemeral currency, a gold that spends itself as a gift back to the forest. It is the gold of survival, the simple mindless efficiency of a technique that works. It is a sort of natural wisdom learned without consciousness, by trees that manage to shine even as they prepare for the hardship of winter. I am reminded of Solomon, the wisest of all biblical characters, who was praised by God for choosing wisdom over wealth. And along with wisdom, wealth was given to him as well.
As we grow older we discover that our most important experiences can be rarified, our life lessons distilled, and our choices matured even as our youthful glory fades.The leaves that seemed so important, the outer foliage that we thought defined who we were, falls away and leaves us bare to the winter winds with a subtler kind of beauty. This can be devastating for those trying to hang on to summer, or youth, or prestige, or position, or privilege. Yet for those who have felt the change of temperature, who have responded to the longer lines of light, who have prepared for the change by redirecting energy toward the roots of their lives, it can be the most spiritual time of life. Just as maple sap descends from the leaves to the roots, so our own rich knowledge can travel from our heads to our hearts. And just as maple sap can be reduced to sweet syrup, our knowledge can be reduced to wisdom.
The Chinese say, "To attain knowledge, add something every day; to attain wisdom, remove something every day." As I move further into wabi sabi, I see tha tloss can help attain wisdom. Along with the sad losses of life there are also the liberating losses of pride, and fear of what others will think. By realizing that the leaves of life come and go, a person is free to focus energy in the deep and earthy storehouse that trees call roots and we call soul.