When tea is made with water drawn from the depths of Mind
Whose bottom is beyond measure,
We really have what is called cha-no-yu (i.e. the tea ceremony).
[Toyotomi Hideyoshi; in D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), p. 280]
Wabi and Sabi in the Tea Ceremony
Evidently, beauty does not necessarily spell perfection of form. This has been one of the favorite tricks of Japanese artists—to embody beauty in a form of imperfection or even of ugliness.
When this beauty of imperfection is accompanied by antiquity or primitive uncouthness, we have a glimpse of sabi, so prized by Japanese connoisseurs. Antiquity and primitiveness may not be an actuality. If an object of art suggests even superficially the feeling of a historical period, there is sabi in it. Sabi consists in rustic unpretentiousness or archaic imperfection, apparent simplicity or effortlessness in execution, and richness in historical associations (which, however, may not always be present); and, lastly, it contains
Wabi or sabi, therefore, may be defined as an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty; when it is used as a constituent of the tea, it is the creating or remodeling of an environment in such a way as to awaken the feeling of wabi or sabi. Nowadays, as these terms are used, we may say that sabi applies more to the individual objects and environment generally, and wabi to the living of a life ordinarily associated with poverty or insufficiency or imperfection. Sabi is thus more objective, whereas wabi is more subjective and personal. [Zen and Japanese Culture, 284]
Essays in Idleness
Scenes from “Essays in Idleness”
A deeper appreciation of the principle of wabi/sabi can be further gleaned from Donald Keene’s discussion of “Essays in Idleness” in Seeds of the Heart, where he talks about as a combination of simplicity, irregularity, a profound awareness of the beauty of what is left unspoken/unseen, and the beauty that arises through the passage of time. The following passages nicely exemplify this distinctly Japanese aesthetic taste:
Somebody once remarked that thin silk was not satisfactory as a scroll wrapping because it was so easily torn. Ton’a replied, “It is only after the silk wrapper has frayed at top and bottom, and the mother-of-pearl has fallen from the roller that a scroll looks beautiful.” This demonstrated the excellent taste of the man. [Seeds in the Heart, 860]