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Appreciate Wabi-Sabi, But Don’t Fall In Love With It!

This body and mind
bear the Three Dharma Seals of phenomena.
That Buddha-nature realised
bear the Four Virtues of Buddhahood.

– Shilashanti

Wikipedia’s entry on ‘wabi-sabi’ opens as follows… ‘In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete” in nature. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印, sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常, mujō), suffering (苦, ku) and [emptiness (空, kū) or] absence of self-nature (無我, muga). Characteristics of wabi-sabi aesthetics and principles include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and the appreciation of both natural objects and the forces of nature.’

Google images of what is deemed to be wabi-sabi(-ish) and you will get a rather rough idea (with pun intended). It is the ‘zenny’ artless ‘art’ of the basic, rustic and crooked, of bare function in bare form, a kind of ancient minimalism without modern industrial clean-cut lines. Sometimes, naturally worn and even slightly chipped everyday objects like cups and bowls that exhibit wabi-sabi are romanticised to depict the ‘perfection of imperfection’.

This might seem to be a neat paradoxical concept, that takes a break from the otherwise endless quest for new and ‘flawless’ material stuff. To embrace wabi-sabi, to be able to see the beauty in the conventionally not so beautiful offers great relief. This is not meant to be a ‘make do’ attitude, but a genuine sense of acceptance of the ways things are. Wabi-sabi is literally ‘nothing new’. It is just the age-old, humble and ascetic practice of making peace with the age-old, humble and ascetic.

Abstract as it already is, ambiguous emotions are sometimes ‘poetically’ projected to define what wabi-sabi is. Some associate it with the character(istics) of serenity unpretentiousness, contentment, loneliness, solitude, desolation, melancholy, longing… with a sense of nothing being lasting, nothing being complete and nothing being perfect. Yet, these things, and even the wab-sabi-ish falling brown leaves in autumn, are just as they are, never with bitterness, or even bittersweetness.

Herein lies the potential spiritual danger of overly embracing wabi-sabi-ness, as if to ‘celebrate’ the three marks of existence. If hopelessly infatuated with material impermanence, suffering and non-self (due to change from moment to moment with no substantial nature), how will the trio be liberated from? There will be infinite wabi-sabi things and moments to ‘collect’ and ‘muse’ over… for what in the long run?

It is exactly due to having ever more clear perception of the three marks of existence, that all that is worldly yet lovely, the wabi-sabi-ish, are realised to not be objects for stable and lasting spiritual refuge, thus to be transcended. This is why the Buddha taught on Ultimate Nirvāṇa’s (究竟涅槃) Four Virtues (四德), of permanence (常), bliss (乐), self (我) and purity (净). These are opposite qualities of the three marks of defiled existence, to be actualised upon transcending them.

With Buddhahood attained, there is lasting (常) happiness and joy of body and mind (乐), with realisation of one’s true self (我) as a pure (净) Buddha. If there is no progress towards these Four Virtues in this life, one’s continual entrancement with wabi-sabi is just what it is, a hypnotic trance, yet to be awakened from. Remember – if you do find some vague peace in wabi-sabi culture, it is but a slight foretaste, of deeper and clearer peace to come… but only if you move on!

What seems interesting
when embraced
is even more interesting
when transcended.

– Shilashanti

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