Traditional Culture of Japan - Traditional crafts and culture

The wabi-sabi concept: the spirit and wisdom of the Way of Tea


The wabi-sabi concept: the spirit and wisdom of the Way of Tea

“Wabi-sabi” is a word often used in tea ceremony. While it is a tea ceremony term, it is also a concept that is very much alive in the everyday lives of Japanese people .


It is very difficult to explain this concept. People interpret it in different ways, so it can not be defined precisely. However, it can be said that the basis of wabi-sabi is an aesthetic that finds beauty in imperfection.


  The meaning of wabi and sabi
There is a tendency to prefer the gorgeous and the beautiful in works of art, and indeed, the tea ceremony, which originated in ancient times, was a lavish affair until the Muromachi period (1336-1573).


As time passed, Japanese people began to prefer simplicity and frugality. Extravagance was removed from the Way of Tea, and the ceremony was changed to a simpler form. This simple tea ceremony is also known as “wabi tea.” Tea ceremony as performed today in Japan has inherited this wabi-sabi principle.


“Wabi” means discouraged and pessimistic, while "sabi" means becoming old, fading away.


Ordinarily, neither of these would seem to have a positive meaning. It can be said, however, that the Japanese people have a characteristic sensibility that finds a certain beauty in a gloomy, desolate landscape or in fading colors.


For example, when fall comes in Japan, the mountains are covered with the rich reds and yellows of the leaves of the trees. Many people walk in the mountains at this time to view the colorful landscapes. In particular, there is a unique atmosphere at temples that can be enjoyed at this time of year.


  The wabi-sabi concept: the spirit and wisdom of the Way of Tea    The wabi-sabi concept: the spirit and wisdom of the Way of Tea


However, once autumn ends, the cold winter comes. How do you feel when the leaves are gone and you cannot see that wonderful landscape again? If you are not Japanese, that bleak landscape would probably look depressing.


However, there is a kind of beauty of imperfection in this kind of scene. Japanese people feel that you can find true beauty in the desolation of a place that until recently was so charming, or in a red leaf that bravely clings to a tree even after all the other leaves have fallen. This can be said to be a Japanese way of looking at art.


Wabi-sabi can be thought of in simple terms as plainness. However, it is something different from just plainness. It involves the artistry of removing the superfluous.


  Wabi-sabi in tea ceremony
The Way of Tea embodies the wabi-sabi concept taken to the extreme. Tea ceremony as performed nowadays does not use flowers for impressive floral displays. In a lavish floral display, the individual flowers are not seen in their natural state, so in tea ceremony, just one or two flowers are used.


The wabi-sabi concept: the spirit and wisdom of the Way of Tea

If you consider the utensils used in tea ceremony, you will notice that often they are not uniform in shape. In fact, they tend to be rather irregular.


Rather than creating symmetric and perfect tea ceremony utensils, the Way of Tea seeks beauty in imperfection.


Gorgeous things are made by adding unnatural components. On the other hand, you can find beauty if you keep only what is necessary and seek the ultimate simplicity.


If you pare something back to its simplest form, you will see it in its most natural form. When things are displayed just as they are, their pure, unconcocted form can be seen.


Looking around the world, it would seem to be something rather unique that Japanese people find beauty in plain things in this way. This is closely related to the uniquely Japanese wabi-sabi aspect of traditional culture embodied in the tea ceremony.

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