“Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry.”-Leonard Koren
We have entered the mini season of Minor Snow. This season runs from November 23 until December 06. This mini season contains the micro-seasons of:
- The Rainbow Hides Unseen (Nov. 23 – Nov 27)
- The North Wind Brushes the Leaves (Nov. 28 – Dec 01)
- The Tachibana First Turn Yellow (Dec 2 – Dec 06)
Established in 1685 by Japanese astronomer Shibuka Shunkai, the traditional Japanese calendar has 24 mini seasons and 72 micro-seasons. Each season highlights a slight change in the natural environment. The micro-seasons are specific to the climate of Japan. However, just because this calendar focuses on Japan doesn’t mean that it isn’t applicable to others. The seasons can become a starting point for your personal exploration into the world around you.
This mini season of Minor Snow is marked by cold winds and regular snowfall. In northern Vermont, it is the time that the temperature starts to settle in the low 30s and upper 20s, and we start accumulating snow.
In reflecting on this time of year, the authors of 72 season app say,
“The sight of a cold and dried-out landscape that suddenly appears when the wind dies down allows for discovery of beauty that is incomplete. . . . It’s a season for feeling gratitude to the ancient tea masters who sublimated withered and cold things into the world of wabi and sabi”(1)
It is interesting that an ancient Japanese aesthetic practice would show up during this season. But it makes sense when you think about the changes in the landscape that are happening during this time.
What is Wabi-sabi
Wabi-sabi is a part of Japanese aesthetics that finds elegance in the imperfect and transitory. Wabi-sabi is related to the Buddist teaching of the Three Marks of Existence which include: impermanence, suffering, and emptiness or absence of self-nature. With wabi-sabi we recognize the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete nature of things. We also recognize these parts as a beautiful aspect of life.
The term wabi-sabi is made up of two kanji characters Wabi and Sabi. Wabi has been roughly translated to mean things that are simple. “It denotes simplicity and quietude, and also incorporates rustic beauty. It includes both that which is made by nature, and that which is made by man.”(2) Sabi, on the other hand, “means things whose beauty stems from age. It refers to the patina of age, and the concept that changes due to use may make an object more beautiful and valuable.”(2) While these terms started out as separate concepts, over the years they have been blended into one aesthetic ideal. Leonard Koren explains this in his his book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers:
“Originally, the Japanese words wabi and sabi had quite different meanings. Sabi originally meant ‘chill’, ‘lean’ or ‘withered’. Wabi originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society… Around the 14th century, the meanings of both words began to evolve in the direction of more positive aesthetic values. … Over the intervening centuries, the meanings of wabi and sabi have crossed over so much that today the line separating them is very blurry indeed.”(3)
Today, the concept of wabi-sabi may be defined as finding the beauty in natural things. Or, it could be defined as “an intuitive appreciation of ephemeral beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world.”(4) Perhaps part of the reason it is difficult to define wabi-sabi is that it is not only an aesthetic ideal, but a philosophy of life.
The Origins of Wabi-sabi
Wabi-sabi is linked back to the early Japanese tea ceremonies and Sen no Rikyu, a sixteenth century Zen monk. One telling of the legend starts with Rikyu seeking out a tea master by the name of Takeeno Joo. Nearing the end of his training, Takeeno Joo wanted to test his young apprentice and asked Rikyu to take care of the garden. Rikyu raked and cleaned the garden until it was perfectly groomed without a leaf or flower out of place. However, before he was ready to present his work to his master, he shook a cherry tree and some flowers fell to the ground. This touch of imperfection brought a new beauty to this garden and thus the concept of wabi-sabi was born.(3,4)
This legend tells the origin of a concept that recognizes the perfectly imperfect aspect of things. This concept, which began in the tea house, spread out into the other aspects of Japanese culture including art and architecture. The adoption of this idea became so prominent that it has become as much of an artistic view, as it is a personal philosophy.
The Wabi-sabi in Nature and Poetry
In Leonard Koren’s book, he explores wabi-sabi in relation to modernism, metaphysics, spiritual values, moral precepts, and a personal state of mind. It is within the exploration of the wabi-sabi state of mind that we find a description of how poetry and nature come together. Koren explains, “Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life. The luxuriant tree of summer is now only withered branches under a winter sky.” He then continues by stating, “Wabi-sabi is often communicated through poetry, because poetry lends itself to emotional expression and strong, reverberating images that seem “larger” than the small verbal frame that holds them (thus evoking the larger universe). Rikyu used this oft-repeated poem by Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) to describe the mood of wabi-sabi.
All around, no flowers in bloom Nor maple leaves in glare, A solitary fisherman’s hut alone On the twilight shore Of this autumn eve”
With this poem, we can visualize the beauty that is found in nature’s transitions. We notice the passing of leaves, the absence of flowers, and the loneliness of a fisherman’s shack. Yet it unfolds in a scene of contentment and grace. We can see the shifting of the seasons, the unfolding of life, and the beautiful truth that is revealed through nature.
- 72 Seasons App
- Unknown Author; Wabi, Sabi, and Shibui: MIT Intelligence Lab
- Leonard Koren; Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers:
- Anne Walther; What is Wabi Sabi: JapanObjects.com
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