Author Richard Powell recently explained his appreciation for wabi sabi spirituality in an interview with Beliefnet managing editor Deborah Caldwell.
Could you define wabi sabi?
The words are old--they go back to the beginning of the Japanese language. Originally, wabi just meant poverty, and sabi meant loneliness, or solitude. The word wabi was first used to describe hermits and other people who went out into remote areas to contemplate nature. That idea is very important to Japanese culture.
The idea of solitude?
The idea of being alone, of being mindful, noticing nature and patterns, and the beauty of the natural world. Sabi is the feeling that goes along with that. It's the simplicity, the appreciation of things that are fragile and changing--that is what wabi sabi means. It was used by the tea masters to perfect their alternative to fancy tea ceremonies in China. It was trying to capture the unique Japanese way of being in the world.
When did wabi sabi as a concept start in Japan?
The two words were put together by Basho
, the haiku poet. They had been used separately and together up until that time, but he changed them. He changed the literary history of poetry. Prior to that, poetry had been in longer form. He took the very first part of the poem, the hoku
, and he made that into a separate form. He said what he was trying to do was to capture wabi sabi. He helped people to see the importance of that beauty, and how it could be really moving.
So he invented the concept?
He didn't invent it, but he took the ideas that were already there in the culture. He put them together, he put wabi and sabi together, and that's really when it took off capturing the ethos of what it means to appreciate nature and the seasons, and just noticing them for what they are. He was influenced by zen ideas.
When did Basho live?
Basho was born in 1644 and died in 1694.
So the idea has been floating around in Japanese culture for a very long time.
How did it migrate here, and when?
The first popularization of it was with the Beat poets
Because they picked up on some of those ideas, though not calling them wabi sabi, because that term hadn't been imported yet. But that's when haiku first arrived in American culture. And actually, the Beats were a lot like Basho. He wandered through the Japanese countryside looking for inspiration. That's what Jack Kerouac did too.
The term wabi sabi didn't actually become part of American culture until the publication of Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers
by Leonard Koren, in 1994. I'd been introduced to the ideas early on by writing instructors, but they didn't have the words for it. I think what happened was the term "wabi sabi" helped us get a handle on it.
How is wabi sabi a spiritual path?
I've been thinking a lot about that, thinking about enlightenment and awakening, and what they mean in relation to wabi sabi. The idea of satori
of enlightenment, a sudden appreciation for the way things are, is pretty close to a haiku moment--those times when you see things and you have an awareness you didn't have before. And that's spiritual.
So is wabi sabi spirituality like enlightenment, because you're fully aware?
Right. I haven't studied Zen, so I'm not saying it's the same kind of enlightenment you would have after years of practice--but it is the kensho
that momentary glimpse of something beyond yourself. The one word that often gets associated with wabi sabi is yugen
which means the profound mystery of things.
One idea the Japanese had from early on was an appreciation of things' ability to touch you or to move you. That's the old idea, and I think that's what Basho was looking at that was so important to him--wandering in the natural world and being inspired by it. He took that idea of things being able to inspire you, combined that with ideas behind these two words, and created a new, more profound idea.
Are you still a Christian?
How do you combine wabi sabi spirituality with Christianity?
For me, truth is truth, no matter where you find it. Beauty is beautiful no matter where you find it. Part of wabi sabi spirituality is being open to that. The tea masters were the first ones to perfect the idea of being a wabi person-they believed someone who was wabi was not a poor person, but rather somebody who is free from attachment to wealth. And four of the first disciples of Rikyu, who created the tea ceremony, were themselves Christian. They recognized that being a wabi person had a lot in common with the gospels-Jesus' teaching that the poor are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
A lot of Christians would be surprised to learn that there's a connection.
A lot of my Christian friends have asked me about this, and they're leery at first. They think wabi sabi is some strange Eastern theory. But as soon as you talk to people about it they say, "Oh, I know exactly what you're talking about." It's just that we didn't have the words or the language to describe that.
I was also interested in what you've said about C.S. Lewis and his idea of longing and how that relates to wabi sabi.
The haiku moment is that moment where you perceive something that's beautiful, and you realize that it's just temporary, but you can appreciate it in that moment, and it doesn't have to be perfect, and it doesn't have to last, but you're there noticing it. Lewis had those experiences and wrote about them. He had the experience of seeing a bush in his yard and it reminded him of his childhood. He asked the question, "What's behind that?" What he said was behind it was a longing. And that really is sabi. It's receptivity and acceptance of the way things are.
Why is wabi sabi of such interest now in our culture?
I think it's probably a maturing of something that's been going on in our culture for a while. There's been a desire to have a simpler life--the voluntary simplicity movement and back to the land ideas. But people who tried that found it was difficult to do consistently. You have to make a living, and keep going on with your life. The reason wabi sabi has caught on is that it's something you can appreciate in everyday life. You don't have to go back to the country. You can look for wabi sabi all around you and change the environment right where you are to make it more wabi sabi.
I didn't have any vocabulary for it, but I remember waking up in my safe house as a four-year-old child, and I didn't have a concept that I needed to go anywhere, or be anywhere. I came out in the hallway, and walking down the halls, there was this shaft of sunlight coming through the kitchen window.There was dust playing in the light, that was probably the first time I'd seen that; the beauty of it was just amazing, and I was asking my mom what it was and I was getting this idea that dust is everything, and you're all a part of it, it's all around you. It was a beautiful thing.
And that idea stayed with you your whole life?
It did, and I never thought about why it was important until later, when I had the vocabulary to explore it.
How does wabi sabi differ from feng shui, which is a Chinese idea?
It does differ. Feng shui has a lot of application, and there's some mysticism involved in it--whereas wabi sabi has to do with aesthetics more than feng shui does. The thing that attracted me to wabi sabi was the fact that there wasn't a lot of mystical baggage to it. It's a pure appreciation for the way things are.
When you use the word "mystical," do you mean that feng shui encourages you to make your space around you be a certain way so that good things happen to you?
Right, and there's probably some truth to that, so I'm not discounting it. I'm just saying that what I like about wabi sabi is being in the moment and appreciating things for what they are and not manipulating things--just letting things be.
Can you give us some examples from everyday life of things that are wabi sabi?
I have a chair--I'm looking at it right now--that my grandfather made. The things that make it wabi sabi are that it's old, and has that depth, the patina. The arms are worn from people wearing away the wood. I've restored it and made it a part of my life, so for me it's a connection with my grandfather and all the people who sat in that chair over the years.
Does something have to be old to be wabi sabi?
Most things are old that are wabi sabi because they've gained character that comes with age. But they don't have to be, because pottery with crackled glaze can be brand new but it has the same qualities as the kind of bowl would that's been there for a long time.
So it's perfect in its imperfection?
Recently I was looking at some beautiful stereo equipment-it was white and sleek. But that wouldn't be wabi sabi, right?
Yes, that's right. In Japan there are four kinds of beauty. The beauty you're describing is iki
--refined, stylish. Whereas wabi sabi would be shaboi
, a different kind of beauty.
How have you have learned to live wabi sabi?
I suffer from an anxiety disorder, and I think most people have a lot of stress in their life. Wabi sabi ideas contain a lot of the stuff that helps me deal with daily stress. Making time to appreciate nature--that's the first part of it, the time factor. But then I also found there were lots of things--I'd be sitting in a business meeting, and I'd look out the window and there would be sparrows outside the window. Once you start to look for them you see them everywhere. I'll be sitting in the bank and I'll see a little girl playing in the bank line, or I'll see an older woman leaning on her cane. And you start to appreciate all these things that are in your life that you didn't see before.
The main job of living wabi sabi is to notice?
Yes, to find the appreciation for beauty in unlikely places.
One of the catalysts for me was writing haikus. I'd been a writer for many years, but hadn't paid much attention to haiku. I found that when I was seeing these little glimpses, these little beautiful snapshots of life, I wanted to share that. I think part of wabi sabi is the tendency to trigger a desire to be creative.
Let's say you live in a typical suburb outside a typical American city. You drive your minivan down a freeway to work, you're taking your kids to soccer games, you're connected to you your Blackberry or iPod and your life moves fast. What's the advice you give someone--which is most Americans--who have these very fast, plugged in lives?
It's not going to change for most of them, so one of the things I would say is that what wabi sabi did for me was help me have perspective. When you are so busy like that, you lose sight of what's valuable and important. Because you're so busy doing everything, you don't have time to stop and appreciate things. What a wabi sabi mindset can do for people is give them mindfulness--give people an opportunity to see things that are happening while they're busy. It's a cliché, but seeing the sunset.
What if you saw an odd license plate or a strange jalopy on the freeway? Does that count?
Exactly, definitely. It's about character and authenticity and things that are unique. Wabi sabi isn't about anything that's manufactured or normal. It's a bit of eccentricity.
How can you live wabi sabi at work?
Work is more complicated, because you've got things that you have to do, but certainly you can use a different kind of inquiry. When you're faced with a business problem, you simply ask questions and are open to alternatives. Instead of reacting to problems as they arrive, and feeling fearful about them, you could take that opportunity to say "What's happening here? Let's appreciate the situation rather than being scared or worried or anxious that we have to change it." That ability to see things in a different way is very valuable to a business environment.
It has to do with the physical environment too. Making the work space more conducive to tranquility.
The hardest thing for me is clutter. Part of it is just saying, how much of this stuff do I really need, and what can I do to make this space more calming? When you get a lot of clutter around, it clutters your mind too. Can I do something organizationally to make things run more smoothly, so I'm not anxious about it? Those kinds of things.
I notice a thread in your ideas that is somewhat anti-consumerist. Tell me about that.
I guess that's probably true. When you start to appreciate some of the older things, you realize you don't necessarily need the latest, newest gadget.I bought a new computer, but that's going to do me for as long as I need. I don't have to have the latest one.
But there is a flip side. For instance, decorating your home, or wearing fashion, are not necessarily bad when they're new, because you are also creating beauty right?
So how do you get the balance?
That's a tricky one. You really have to ask yourself what you want to tell people with what you wear. If you are interested in presenting an image that has a certain kind of beauty, which I think most people are, they want to look good.And if wabi sabi is valuable to you, then you can think about what it means to have simple clothing, and clothing that is respectful to people.
Maybe this is an example. Last summer I was with a bunch of parents watching my 10-year-old son play a baseball game. It was a summer night, warm, perfect, a little humid. The grass was tall and green, and there was dust blowing from the kids running the bases. I turned to one of the mothers and said, "This is so great. It was summer and our kids are 10, and they're playing baseball, and it's a beautiful evening." But it's also temporary, passing.
Absolutely. That's beautiful. A lot of us would see that out of the corner of our eyes, because we're focusing on rooting for our sons, or seeing the competition on the field. But to be able to share that feeling with somebody beside you, that's beautiful.