All Flesh is Grass or Wabi-sabi: Whitterings, March 2007

Since I was a boy I have been fascinated by traditional Japanese art. My father lived in Hokkaido in the North of Japan after the Korean War and my mother collects Japanese pottery and ceramics. My mother is an interior decorator and designer and is known for her ‘Japanese’ style. When I was a teenager my brother gave me The Book of Tea, written by Okakura Kakuzo in the early twentieth century, which lays out the basic philosophical and aesthetic principles that lie behind the Japanese tea ceremony. I was hooked but I did not know why.

Most people know that there is something about traditional Japanese art, you just know the style when you see it. The simplicity and the rustic beauty and the asymmetry give it away. Most do not know that there is a deep religious purpose that lies behind it. That principle is known as Wabi-sabi. The word refers to comprehensive world view that take sits origin in the first Noble Truth of the Buddha – Anicca know in Japanese as Mujyou. The first Noble Truth is that of Impermanence. All that is passes away. Nothing remains the same. Wabi-sabi as an aesthetic is beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.

Japanese traditional art, music, poetry and literature all reflect the principle of Wabi-sabi. It is as central to the Japanese aesthetic as Greek art is to Western art. It is characterised by transmitting to the beholder a sense of tranquil melancholy. It awakens a peaceful spiritual longing for that which is always just beyond our grasp. Three simple spiritual truths lie behind the art: nothing lasts; nothing is ever finished; and nothing is perfect.

Wabi origionally meant the isolated feeling of living alone in nature. Sabi meant something withered or frozen. In the 14th century began to take on a changed meaning. Wabi is now taken to mean something that shows the characteristic of rustic simplicity and serenity while Sabi now means the beuty that comes with time, in the wear and tear of the use of an object. Both words evoke a sense of isolation and melencholy. To the Buddhist mind these are eccential truths about the nature of life and the universe. Wabi-sabi is, however, more of an aethetic feeling than a concept. This traiditional Haiku by Basho (1644-1694) invokes the feeling.

“Standing in Kyoto
I long for Kyoto
O sweet bird of time.”

The feeling one has when one returns to a place where one once belonged and finds it changed and empty. Thomas Wolfe said that you can never go home again. People change and more importantly you change. You stand in the very place you remember and find it occupied by the ghosts of your past life.

Basho describes it like this: "Sabi is the color of the poem. It does not necessarily refer to the poem that describes a lonely scene. If a man goes to war wearing stout armor or to a party dressed up in gay clothes, and if this man happens to be an old man, there is something lonely about him. Sabi is something like that."

The Japanese flower arranging art of Chado is another example. Unlike the formal flower art of Ikebana, Chado usually involves the simple arrangement of one flower or one flower and a twig, frshly picked and placed in a simple and rustic vase. The arrangment reflects the simple beauty of nature in such a way to focus the mind on that which we never notice. By drawing attention to just a couple of things such as a single flower or a simple vase one becomes aware of the swiftly flowing stream of time all around us. Wabi-sabi pottery is always hand made and is produced in a way to allow imperfections in texture and shape. This shows the individuality and imperfectness of all things.

All of these elements are present in the Japanese tea ceremony. The cememony is a meditation in action with the purpose of invoking in the participant an awareness of time and the futility of trying to hold onto it. The concept is that if one allows oneself to stop struggling against time then one can appreciate the universe for what it is. It is quite similar to the Western philosophical concept of death consciousness found in the writings of Heidegaar. It is also what lies behind the service of the impiosition of ashes on Ash Wednesday: Remmeber man that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return; Memento Homo Quia Pulvis Es.

I would interpret the purpose of being a way to help one become aware of God. God is not found in the past nor is he found in the future. God is only found in the eternal present. God simply ‘is’. “I am that I am.” Most of us spend most of our time either dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. Neither the past or the future is actually real. It is always the present and has alweays been the present. Wabi-sabi is not only an aethetic response to that reality but it is also a way to transend it. The three priciples behind it prys our fingers off of the edge of the bridge of control and allows us to fall into the flow of the river of time. Nothing lasts: if we really understand this then we are able to let go of trying to control everything in our lives. Nothing is ever finished: this allows us to step back from that sense of desperate control freakness that poisons so much of our daily activity. Nothing is perfect: reminds us that God alone is the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – not us. Wabi-sabi helps us avoid the heresy of Pelagius that we can accomplish salvation by our own will alone.

“All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; bu the word of our God will stand for ever.” Isaiah 40: 6-8.

Lying behind the ever changing reality of the universe lies the one thing that does last, the one thing that is perfect, the one thing that is finished: God.