Friday, June 4, 2010

Wabi Sabi: As Mindset and by Design

Wabi Sabi: Mindset

I’m often asked. How do I do it? How do I come up with a different sermon topic? Week after week. Year after year.

I usually reply that the world is my oyster. There’s no topic that isn’t adaptable to a UU sermon. And I have a cornucopia of interests along with a lifetime of disciplined freedom--no end of applicable stuff in my head. I have a passion for the human condition; it’s spiritual and moral aspects. And as a pilgrim on a life journey I have practical insights and interests intimate to my own self and of value for fellow pilgrims.

Regarding specific themes, sermon topics often find me. Today’s sermon is an example.

I was searching photo files on a computer for a different Facebook profile portrait. I came across this image taken a couple of years ago. The setting: an aging building in downtown Quincy, IL, one of many empty storefronts. Quincy is a relatively old river city. (In this photo I’m looking toward the Mississippi less than a quarter of a mile away.) It is late afternoon and the brightness of the setting sun’s slanting light is revealing in a beguiling golden way. The photographer, my wife of four decades, is the photographer. In this image I’m in the last years of the fifth decade of my life.

I have a fondness for Quincy. It has history. It was a refuge for Mormons driven out of Nauvoo, a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves seeking freedom, and one of the sites of the celebrated Lincoln Douglass Debates. It has a garden district of handsome and varied Victorian homes, testifying to 19th century fortunes, luxuriously spaced along red-brick streets rendered uneven by years of use. In the spring great, spreading, pink dogwoods bloom everywhere, so it seems. The Mississippi still flows relentlessly and the Burlington Northern tracks guide the Amtrak train into town. But to my sensibilities it's obvious that Quincy’s fortunes have long bottomed out. Images of yesterday prevail made more vivid by Midwestern, post-industrial poverty. I feel an aching melancholy, a sweet sadness that suits my essential nature.

Speaking of my essential nature I have a fondness for the person in the image-- me-- sitting on the crumbling steps in front of a once grand, now empty building. It’s late afternoon and I’m in my late afternoon. The light is strong and golden. As I look upon that person sitting on the steps, I see nearly six decades of SELF and I realize all that’s transpired to take me to this place and this time.

When I recently looked on this image, I literally labeled it with what’s become a defining way of seeing and living for me: wabi sabi. Hence, Wab Sabi Searl!

So, responding/reflecting on this image, that’s how I came to today’s sermon theme of wabi sabi, a long prevailing Japanese aesthetic, recently popular in the West. I’ve long been drawn to this aesthetic, though only in the last ten years or so have I known it through the lens of Japanese culture. I’ll struggle some to explain what wabi sabi is, because it’s a matter of perception and intuition, not of explanation. I speak to wabi sabi because I suspect you’ll find it useful and inspiring, if not now then one day. It's something of an antidote to what ails us relative to American culture/society.

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi is not so much a matter of philosophy or reasoned thinking about the meaning and value of beauty and how to create art; rather it is a way of perceiving and living that has been handed down through generations. It’s a matter of taste that contrasts with our Western, specifically American taste shaped by modern technology and consumerism.

The aesthetic of wabi sabi parallels Zen Buddhism’s influences on Japanese culture. Wabi sabi’s origins are traced to the well known Japanese Tea Ceremony. Tea’s popularity in Japan is associated with a 12th century Zen monk. Tea had arrived via China a couple of centuries earlier. Zen monks had offered it as a stimulant to help fellow monks undergo excruciating meditation sessions, and developed their own rituals around drinking tea. By the 14th century tea drinking had spread through the secular culture and resulted in elaborate status rituals for the upper classes. Large tea rooms evolved that were rich with hanging Chinese scrolls. These rooms had formally arranged tables with expensive flower vases and incense burners, and ostentatious displays of expensive Chinese tea services. These displays, especially by warlords, marked wealth and power in a roiling era of civil strife.

In response and even in protest, tea masters who were also Zen monks or trained in Zen began to use deliberately common utensils when they practiced tea. Two generations later, in the 16th century, Sen no Rikyu, a tea master who’d studied Zen, established the basics of a quiet and simple tea ceremony that made it possible for everyone, not just the wealthy, to practice tea. Rikyu’s simple tea ceremony offered an oasis of quietude and grace amid the prevailing rancor and gaudiness. He served tea in humble bowls fashioned by anonymous Korean potters and local Japanese craftsmen. He made his own utensils from unlacquered bamboo. Simple and natural arrangements of flowers were displayed in bamboo vases and baskets. The room was small; guests had to bow themselves in beneath a low entryway, a neat psychological trick to engender humility. Riyku’s version of a tea house resembled a farmer’s modest wooden framed hut with rough mud walls and thatched roof, the external wood aging to the weather. This deliberately populist ceremony touched a nerve, transforming a cultural mind set regarding beauty.

Rikyu’s tea ceremony became a standard and continues today; and it focused and normalized the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi. The phrase insinuates that which is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” Here’s an able attempt by Japanese architect Tadao Ando to get at the meaning of the two words, wabi and sabi.

Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquility, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. Someone who is perfectly herself and never craves to be anything else would be described as wabi. …A wabi person epitomizes Zen, which is to say, he or she is content with very little; free from greed, indolence, and anger; and understands the wisdom of rocks and grasshoppers.

[U]ndertones of desolation and abandonment cling to the word [wabi], sometimes used to describe the helpless feeling you have when waiting for your lover. It also carries a hint of dissatisfaction in its underhanded criticism of gaud and ostentation-the defining mark of the ruling classes when wabisuki (a taste for all things wabi) exploded in the sixteenth century. In a country ruled by warlords who were expected to be conspicuous consumers, wabi became known as "the aesthetic of the people"-the lifestyle of the everday samurai, who had little in the way of material comforts.

Sabi by itself means "the bloom of time." It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust--the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It's the understanding that beauty is fleeting. The word's meaning has changed over time, from its ancient definition, "to be desolate," to the more neutral "to grow old." By the thirteenth century, sabi's meaning had evolved into taking pleasure in things that were old and faded. A proverb emerged: "Time is kind to things, but unkind to man."

Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace: the chilly mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegant withering of a bereft autumn bough. An old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape, could be considered America's contribution to the evolution of sabi. An abandoned barn, as it collapses in on itself, holds this mystique.

There's an aching poetry in things that carry this patina….

Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

Leonard Koren helped introduce the aesthetic of wabi sabi to the West in his very influential 1994 book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. He wrote

"Wabi-sabi is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to the vulgar eyes....

“Wabi-sabi images force us to contemplate our own mortality, and they evoke an existential loneliness and tender sadness. They also stir mingled bittersweet comfort, since we know all existence shares the same fate."

Wabi evokes the ordinary beauty of nature— simplicity and grace creating a harmonious whole. Sabi evokes the signatures of time and tide—aging and mortality. Wabi sabi: beautiful rust.

When culture seems too much—too raucous, too contentious, too gaudy, too vexing, too whatever—simplify through nature and grace. See wabi sabi where it exists all around you in the ordinary and natural. Lead a life that embodies wabi sabi in your home, your work, your relationships, your recreation. Cultivate beauty flowing from and into graceful living.

Especially, especially, look for wabi sabi in others and in self. If I intone the notion of graceful aging, you know what I mean. Graceful aging is something that we can all gift one another with as well as gift our own self. I’m invoking wabi sabi as being arguably the most positive aesthetic for my generation, Baby Boomers now entering the retirement/elder years. I’m making my mantra from here on “Beautiful Rust.”

Wabi Sabi: Living

Wabi sabi following Leonard Koren's 1994 book had significant impact on home design. Feng-shui (remember the necromancy of directions and how a room is arranged?) and shabby chic (faux old and purposefully distressed) had prepared the ground for wabi sabi's Zen Buddhist, be content with small things, ways.

In home design it was clearly a reaction to the waning days of the days of Greed is Good/Conspicuous Consumption/McMansion Living/Uber Technology that dominated the turn of the 20th into the 21st century. Today, in the midst of the Great Recession, it allows a kind of genteel or spiritual poverty to be accepted. Actually one of the root meanings of wabi sabi is poverty, in the sense of "just enough" or "not too much." It's a letting go of negative desire.

How we live--our surrounds and environs--usually reflects our particular mind set. And that's one of the aspects of wabi sabi by those who seem to understand it from Japanese culture. The wabi sabi home, with its simplicity, natural materials, minimal furnishings, artful decorations, and subdued colors, has the quality of sanctuary. It's a place to retreat to from the toxic distresses and hazards of post modernism. It offers solitude, quiet, and most of all beauty that soothes the spirit and leads to a deeper, though marbled meaning.

Much of my 1998 book A Place of Your Own, which talks about home altars and creating sacred space in one’s home, resonate to the wabi sabi aesthetic. One of the 52 devotions in my book speaks directly to wabi sabi relative to the custom of October tea, October ensconced in autumn's season of considerable wabi sabi. (Though now out of print you can acquire copies online.

I suggest that you introduce wabi sabi into your surrounds as a means and an end to developing a wabi sabi mindset, an antidote to what ails us all, a path to what we need the most.

The wabi sabi aesthetic always reminds me of our own heritage here at UCH. This American Craftsman building with much interior wood and rusticated stone exterior reflects an aesthetic that was reactive to the Industrial Age that prevailed at the of the 19th century. Most of you know that now and again I refer to the influence of our founding minister William Channing Gannett. He designed this home-like church. He also wrote a very famous essay "The House Beautiful” that inspired the design/shelter magazine (1896) that has been published for more than a century under that name.

In his essay Mr. Gannett described the simple things that make a house a home, guided by taste, grace, and refinement.

Here's an excerpt from "The House Beautiful" (1895) that resonates to the wabi sabi aesthetic:

"The ideals of beauty are found in simple, restful things far oftener than in ornate things. Of two given forms for the same article — a chair, a table, a dress — the form that is least ornate is commonly the more useful, and this more useful form will commonly by artist eyes be found the handsomer. A man in his working clothes is usually more picturesque than that same man in his Sunday clothes; the living-room more picturesque than the parlor. "Avoid the superfluous," is a recipe that of itself would clear our rooms of much unhandsome handsomeness. Scratch out the verys from your talk, from your writing, from your house-furnishing. A certain sentence, only eight words long, did me great good as a young man. I met it in Grimm's Life of Michael Angelo: “The ideal of beauty is simplicity and repose." The ideal of beauty is simplicity and repose: it applies to everything,— to wall-papers and curtains and carpets and tablecloths, to dress, to manners, to talk, to sermons, to style in writing, to faces, to character. The ideal of beauty is simplicity and repose,— not flash, not sensation, not show, not exaggeration, not bustle."

Blessings of simplicity and repose--a life beautiful, in living and in design, to you and to yours.