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Wabi-Sabi: the quiet rock'n'roll of 16th century Japan

Simplicity is not so simple, ugly can be beautiful and obfuscation may protect from misinterpretation. Sounds bizarre? Welcome to the world of Japanese zen spirituality that informed the philosophy and aesthetics of tea ceremonies hidden from the world for much of history due to Japan’s remote geography.


If you ask the Japanese what ‘wabi-sabi’ is, they would say it’s more of a feeling than rational articulation. They know it, but seem reticent to explain it. They know it in their bones rather than their minds, which is not surprising as for a long time there were no books explaining wabi-sabi directly. Even Kakuzo Okakura avoided using the term explicitly in his famous ‘The Book of Tea’ written in 1906 exclusively for the Western audience.


Wabi-sabi – this elusive and mysterious term – is more rebellious and rock’n’roll than it may first appear. In 16th century Japan it was the punk, the shake, the twist and the shout; a quiet zen revolt against Chinese influence and dominance propagated through the ostentatious use of tea houses reserved for the rich elite only.


The roots of wabi-sabi can be traced back to Taoism and Chinese Zen Buddhism. It can be found in the minimalism of 9th and 10th century Chinese poetry and monochromatic ink paintings. But it was most fully expressed within the context of the tea ceremony in Japan. The first recorded wabi-sabi tea master was Murata Shuko (1423-1502), a Zen monk from Nara, who opposed foreign influence and consciously used understated, locally made tea utensils.


One hundred years later, tea master Rikiu took wabi-sabi to greater heights and reached a peak that’s never since been surpassed. He managed to place folk Japanese and Korean craft - things wabi-sabi – on the same artistic level, or even higher than, slick, perfect, Chinese treasures. He also created a new kind of tea house – small and modest – and insisted that everyone participating in the tea ceremonies were equal despite their social status. He encouraged women to become tea masters and was a vocal opponent against Japan’s military ambitions. Was it revolutionary? You decide. He certainly hit the nerve of his ruler, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ordered him to commit seppuku, ending his own life at the age of 70.


Fast forward another hundred years and you find that although the tea ceremony was in part preserved by institutionalised practice - the spirit, the art, the inspirational sparkle and true meaning of tea eluded the bureaucratic fingers that boxed up a definitive set of rules that tea schools in Japan are now famous for. Wabi-sabi is no longer at the core of tea philosophy although it may look like and sound like it. So where do we go to find it?


If Rikiu was alive, he would probably suggest to look into our own cultural contexts. What needs to be revisited? What is crying out for reinterpretation, reinvention and restoration? What annoys us and what do we want more of? Isn’t our consumeristic behaviour a little too ostentatious? Aren’t we tired of flashy but shallow luxury? Isn’t it suffocating the planet and everything that make us proud to be human? Isn’t it breaking our relationship with nature and other fellow human beings? Could we be happy with less but more enduring?


In his book “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers” Leonard Koren shares how for him this nature-based, deep and multi-dimensional paradigm provided the perfect antidote to the “pervasively slick, saccharine, corporate style of beauty” that he felt was desensitising American society in late 1960’s.


Using disappointment (experienced in a major tea event in Japan) as a catalyst, Koren beautifully captures the essence of the elusive and mysterious term wabi-sabi. Koren’s book is impactful and influential, a must-read for anyone interested in the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete and the deeper meaning behind it.


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