Posted in Reference
Today we turn once more for inspiration to the Japanese tea ceremony. As you may remember from the initial introduction both Zen Buddhism and an appreciation of natural beauty are at the core of the ceremony, or Way of Tea, as it's also known. The preferred rustic simplicity of a Japanese tea house and the implements used are integral to the aesthetic known as wabi sabi. Practitioners learn to accept impermanence and imperfection and to find beauty in simple objects. If you collect pebbles and shells and find solace in their unique pits, dents, marks and idiosyncrasies, then you're on the right track. If you can see the beauty in the softly tattered leather of your sofa, lovingly clawed by your cat each day, then you might be closer to appreciating this kind of beauty than the person for whom pristine perfection and material wealth are key to personal happiness!
Until the sixteenth century the tea ceremony was a more luxurious affair, with valuable Chinese porcelain and utensils and impressive tea houses. Continual civil conflict took its toll however and the Japanese turned to their own more rudimentary equipment. At the same time monks from the Zen Buddhist tradition gained influence with the ruling classes and so the appreciation of a simpler way of life became the norm. It was during this period that tea houses became modest, rustic affairs with small doors that required guests to leave their worldly goods outside and stoop to enter. Loss of expensive tea sets led to improvisation such as making do with rice bowls as tea bowls. People began to learn to appreciate imperfection and so a new ideal of beauty was embraced and has continued by way of the tea ceremony to this day.
The calm and thoughtful attitude that is required of the participants is key to the appreciation of the wabi sabi aesthetic. A tea master would point out that it is an ideal that must actually be experienced to be truly understood because words alone are not adequate to describe it. The beauty isn't necessarily in the object itself, but in the state of mind that perceives it. 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder' might be a useful western phrase to think of at this point.
While the term wabi sabi has come to signify something along the lines of beauty found within imperfection and the acceptance of the eternal cycle of growth and decay, the term as a whole won't be found in a Japanese dictionary. The two words originated separately, centuries apart. The term sabi is the more ancient of the two and can be found in Japanese poetry anthologies dating back over a thousand years. It referred then to an appreciation of old, withered things. Wabi came into use in the late fifteenth century in relation to the emerging aesthetic element of the tea ceremony. The two terms waxed and waned in their individual popularity and gradually came to be used as a pair to define that beauty and serenity which can only be achieved through the ageing process. If you take nothing more from this tentative exploration of the aesthetic surrounding the Way of Tea than that wrinkles and scars are more beautiful than a face full of botox, perhaps that's enough...