Wabi Sabi

By Yossi Sheriff

What is beautiful and what is not? Many years ago, in Greece, a man wrote that beauty derives from something that is perfect. From then on it was made clear that a thing of beauty is that of elegance, symmetry, sometimes something new, sometimes a thing that does not decay, eternal.

Many words have been written since Plato equated beauty with perfection, words that tried to define what fits ideal beauty and what does not. Thus flows a great river of western thought, a current which still propels us today, putting us in the new car, inside clean-cut sky scrapers, admiring tight skin and symmetrical facial features of a young model.

The western ideal of beauty is filled with contradictions and interpretations all leading mainly in the same direction. A certain picture is beautiful in the eyes of the beholder since the clowns’ tear appears so real. The ancient Japanese temple is beautiful to another Platonist beholder due to its symmetrical appearance.

This perspective of what is beautiful and perfect penetrates all venues of life, slipping even into our place, the Dojo, the training area, a never ending confusion begins. Our occupation, walking down the paths of ancient warriors, may become a show, and then it no longer is a practice of fighting, but a performance of western style esthetics, maybe even a nice performance, suitable for the National Geographic Channel.

Even in Japan different opinions exist regarding beauty, but a different way of thought exists as well, a way in which simplicity is not equal to asceticism but to that which is natural.
The origin of this esthetic thought lies in Zen Buddhism, and from there it penetrated several other disciplines, even the tea drinking ceremony. Morata Juko, a Zen Manara priest, stopped the then popular use of fine (and imported) chinaware in the tea ceremony. A century later, Sen-no-Rikio (1522-1591), a master in the tea ceremony for the infamous Hidioshi, created a new kind of tea house resembling a peasant’s house: rough mud walls and plain wooden beams. Parallel with the perfect Chinese decoration, San-no-Riko presented, with the same degree of esthetic importance, crude pottery made by local craftsmen.

In this competition over “who will decorate the room with imported paintings” and “who will buy walls coated in golden leaves” – these two masters looked at things in a fresh perspective and created something old. They created a new form of esthetics: Wabi-Sabi.

Wabi-Sabi is a Japanese term, which since then has received many meanings: old, natural, imperfect, worn down, blunt, rough, etc. This new-old concept of Wabi-Sabi, of “beauty”, had its affect on many things.

Pottery made in this manner are not always symmetrical, they don’t have to shine. They have a natural quality about them that improves with time. Thus, the aging of matter adds to the beauty, something that becomes more beautiful with time.

I have an old T-shirt, which has already been to several “24” training and to tens of morning practices at the beach, full of holes, faded. To me it’s Wabi-Sabi. And the mythical AKBAN teapot, burned, black, full of smoke from many campfires, its handle fixed with wire, dented – it too is Wabi-Sabi. Every year that passes, every tea leaf that has been in it only adds to its beauty.

Not every old and ruined object is Wabi-Sabi, a purposeful interference is needed, awareness to the beauty of what is going to end (awareness, intent, ability to execute, without these there is no Do).

I especially like the story of Rikio’s entrance exam for Jo-o: When Jo-o asked Rikio to clean and prepare the yard, covered with fallen leaves, Rikio raked the yard perfectly, and then, just before the teacher arrived, grabbed the branch of the tree above the yard and shook it so that some leaves fell to the ground. That too is Wabi-Sabi.

Sometimes I look at the faces of some of the veterans in the Irgun, and see the beginning of creases made by the hardships and by the sun, see the smile lines around the eyes, and I think: this too is Wabi-Sabi, Wabi-Sabi people.

On the wall in the old Dojo in Kiriat Shaul some nails were sticking out of the walls, under which long lines of rust were seen against the white walls, right behind the Bamboo planted by my teacher. The beauty of wearing out, aging, imperfection.

I contribute as well, when sometimes, rarely, a technique comes out too perfect, I spread a few leaves, change my breathing a little, maybe slightly trip at the end of a throw. Just in order not to fall into the trap of the new, the polished and the perfect.

Around all of us, everything is not perfect, intentionally not finished, intimate, natural, and very beautiful in my eyes: the techniques, old sword’s scabbard, my T-shirt filled with holes, the people.

Slowly slowly – our organization turns Wabi-Sabi.

07/06/2007