Wabi - Sabi and how it relates to Suiseki

By Peter Warren  

A reprint of an article written for the Aiseki- Kai about the concepts of Wabi - Sabi and how it may relate to suiseki practice

Over the last couple of weeks I have been giving a lot of thought to the concept of Wabi-Sabi as I was asked to give a talk to the BAB club in Belgium on the topic. It gave me an opportunity to rethink and revisit the ideas which were always there in the background during my time in Japan, and is an aesthetic and philosophical concept that I am attracted to. In lieu of writing anything new, here is an article that the majority of people will have missed, it was written for the Aiseki Kai newsletter in October last year after a talk which I translated at the US National Arboretum, given by Mr. Seiji Morimae. For those of you that don’t know, the Aiseki-kai is a group of stone lovers based mainly in California, where there is an active suiseki/stone appreciation scene. It is organised by Larry and Nina Ragle who are two of the nicest people I know and dedicated to suiseki practice. If you are interested in stones, then go to their website.

Wabi-Sabi and how it relates to Suiseki

Recently I had the privilege of accompanying the highly respected Mr. Seiji Morimae on his recent trip to the East Coast where we gave a talk about the concept of Wabi Sabi and how it relates to Bonsai and Suiseki practice. I tried my best to translate the difficult concepts into English and explain something that is essentially philosophical and spiritual, rather than physical. As part of the preparation for the talks, and during the week, Mr. Morimae talked to me privately, explaining his ideas and I had the opportunity to ask questions. Here is a distilled version of Mr. Morimae’s talk, his essay and my own personal experiences and interpretation of the concept of Wabi Sabi with regards to Suiseki.

The word Wabi Sabi has become common parlance in the West to describe anything irregular, impermanent, worn, aged, imperfect, hand made; the list goes on for whatever wonky, artisanal home furnishing they are trying to sell. In actual fact there is no easy to translate definition as much of the concept of Wabi Sabi is dependent on the individual and their perceptions of the universe, life experience and emotional sensitivity.

This idea that Wabi Sabi is just one word doesn’t help us to explore the concept, as it is in fact two separate words that have very different meaning. Wabi is something subjective, a feeling or thought, whereas Sabi is something objective, a phenomena or object you can hold.

Mr. Morimae gave the example as “an object or scene which displays a peaceful and simple tranquility, devoid of extravagance can be described as Sabi. If one can perceive this, and contemplate upon it, the feelings that it evokes can be described as Wabi. In short, if there is a mutual resonance between the observer and the object, then the aesthetic concept of Wabi Sabi comes into being.”

In essence, Wabi is the feeling that could be evoked in the viewer when looking upon, in a deeper way than just glancing and seeing the superficial; an object imbued with Sabi characteristics. Note I said “could be evoked” in the viewer, as not all viewers are capable of feeling Wabi. If we place a six year old child, a teenager or even a person in their twenties, in front of a stone with the deepest of Sabi characteristics, for example this bonseki that was displayed at the Genkoukai, then all they will see is a rock that looks a bit like a mountain, or err, like Mount Fuji maybe, or something that they may have seen in Karate Kid.

Place that same stone in front of somebody who has no experience of suiseki yet has lived a full life, filled with happiness and cruel vicissitudes, someone with an understanding of how neither wealth nor material things actually matter as they can be taken away from us in an instant; that person is likely to see beyond the simple stone and feel the Wabi spirit.

Experience of suiseki can be a hindrance as well, imagine that somebody with many years of suiseki experience, with an academic understanding of Japanese aesthetics may find themselves in front of the same stone and deconstruct it in their mind. “Is this a mountain stone or an object stone? If it is a mountain stone, is this a near view or a far view mountain? Why isn’t it on a daiza or a suiban?, that isn’t common practice? It’s too dark in here. That table is too big, why is it directly under the scroll? I thought you had to…”. This type of approach will evoke nothing in the heart and only questions and confusion in the mind, causing the viewer to simply look at an object with Sabi character and not have an emotional reaction.

The true Wabi spirit must be felt rather than conceptualised, and for each individual that will be different, but in essence it is the feelings we may experience when considering being alone, free from attachments and the stress of a busy public life. Wabi is the feeling of simplicity and tranquility that one has after ignoring the man made world in order to relate directly with nature and reality. The freedom from material attachments also frees one from self indulgence, grandeur and arrogance. Wabi also involves elements of the spiritual and philosophical, drawing on its roots in Zen practice; the thoughts and feeling evoked may include the concept of nonduality from a Buddhist perspective, the fear of death preventing us from leading a fulfilling life, the clinging to ego and the material world as the root of all suffering, and the appreciation of the ephemerality of life.

We can neither expect a six year old nor someone with little life experience and understanding of Zen Buddhism concepts to experience and understand that, when placed in front of a such a stone or situation, no matter how deep the Sabi character.

Looking at what defines Sabi character, it is difficult to describe a stone that was collected yesterday, or even twenty years ago as having Sabi character. It has yet to be exposed to the conditions necessary to imbue that essential character of age which is fundamental to the “Sabi” aesthetic. So does simply being old make a stone Sabi? Looking at the following examples, clearly not, as we can have aged stones, heavy with patina that evoke images of vast spreading landscapes, aged stones that have sharp lines and edges or gorgeous looking decorative stones. None of these, although very worthy and absolutely fantastic examples of the beauty of suiseki, are imbued with the Sabi character.

This Kuzuya stone is dripping with Sabi character. We can easily imagine a dilapidated hut, deep in a forest and contained within are the bare essentials for living a simple yet fulfilling life. The roof is heavy with patina, yet under the eaves, the texture is naturally different, not quite so weathered. The organic feel to the “windows” and the overall shape give a sense that it has been standing for a hundred years. What then gives it a much deeper Sabi character is the context and space in which it is displayed.

This Kurama stone is halfway towards developing the Sabi character. The form is simple and uncomplicated, the texture is organic and the colours are starting to dull, yet it still has not achieved the level of patina that really pushes it over the edge. Another twenty years and it will have reached peak Sabi

Indistinct, smooth surfaces, build of dust and a dull sheen.

This stone for example has developed a sense of patina after handling and exposure to the elements for a long period, over a hundred years at least, smoothing off the edges, and gathering dust in the cracks. It has a subtle yet deep texture, with hints of red. One can imagine wandering on a high plateau in the mountains somewhere above the clouds, alone, chilled by the autumnal air. Such a stone could be described as having Sabi character, and displayed correctly, it can evoke feelings of Wabi within a sensitive viewer.

A point must be made here that there are many aesthetic ideas within Suiseki and Japanese art and culture in general, Wabi Sabi is simply one of them, neither any better nor worse than the others. This discussion is not designed to put this aesthetic on a pedestal above others, rather to give deeper understanding.

Stones which can be described as Sabi, in addition to their age, have simple forms, subtle and quiet surfaces and textures, and tend to, but not always depict intimate or lonely scenes

In the tokonoma of a near silent tea ceremony room, built in the 16th century, in the grounds of a Zen Temple in Kyoto, one is transported to the lonely hut, deep in the bamboo forest; you can hear the wind rustling through the forest and the rain on the roof of the hut, you can smell the wood burning in the brazier, you can see the moon high in the sky. In such an environment you can hear the unspoken voice, see that which is not in front of your eyes; and most importantly feel the spiritual fulfilment that comes from the contemplation of such phenomena. To quote Mr. Morimae directly,

“Arising from the surroundings of the natural world, there is a feeling of “dignified beauty which although invisible, has a solemn severity and tranquility that is unbroken and continuous.” Once one has assimilated this, so too does one’s position in the universe become perceivable.”

In order to achieve this ideal, not only do the objects involved have to be imbued with a Sabi character, but the environment in which they are displayed needs to be appropriate, equally imbued with the same aesthetic principles; aged, organic, subtle, a lack of ostentation and indirect lighting to name a few. This strips away all that is unnecessary in order to allow the viewer to interact with the stone in a personal way, to create a relativity between viewer and object that transcends the simple act of looking; something that can only be achieved if the viewer is in a suitable frame of mind, and understands such concepts. The theory and explanation however, is only one half of Wabi Sabi, the rest is a moment of physical experience, which is in fact the most important aspect. It is something that can be experienced in everyday life and not just Suiseki practice or within the confines of temple walls, if one is attuned to it. If one listens carefully with a clear heart and open mind, then there will surely be a time when something, or some scene from within our day to day existence which is imbued with Sabi character, permeates the heart, causing tears to well forth.

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