Is this beautiful? What we find beautiful says a lot about us.
Not everyone agrees on beauty.
Autumn leaves are always gushed about with words like, “stunning” and “magnificent”.
Look at those Japanese gardens. Aren’t they pretty? Neat and orderly.
No one climbs up Mt. Fuji to see that ugly view. No one afterwards says, “That sunrise was the grossest thing I’ve ever seen!”
Some things are beautiful by universal-agreement. And other things… are up to debate.
A modern art piece on display in Yokohama
“What is beautiful?” is a question that has been argued over by philosophers for thousands of years. No one can get universal-agreement on that answer. The greeks tried.
According to Plotinus in the Enneads, this is beauty:
And this is the Absolute Ugly: an ugly thing is something that has not been entirely mastered by pattern, that is by Reason, the Matter not yielding at all points and in all respects to Ideal-Form. But where the Ideal-Form has entered,it has grouped and coordinated what from a diversity of parts was to become a unity: it has rallied confusion into co-operation: it has made the sum one harmonious coherence: for the Idea is a unity and what it moulds must come into unity as far as multiplicity may.
The Greeks concluded that beauty is essentially really good symmetry.
Or is it?
A society’s idea of beauty will be reflected in how it presents itself. You’ll see it in the style and tastes of the people and in their buildings. What a culture thinks is beautiful will filter into every aspect of life. It’s not something we think about, but it’s true. After all, beauty is the most desired state of anything. We don’t want our garden to look like a bunch of dogs dug it up and weeds took over. If we really want it to look right we’ll look towards the experts for gardening tips. This trickles down the beauty standards. The best of the best get mimicked.
When beauty standards vastly differ between cultures you get a great deal of confusion. One of the reasons Japan can look so funny to others is because of its quirky ideas about what looks good. Many of their ideas are opposite of western beauty standards.
Is it interesting because you think it’s beautiful or because it’s different?
When something is unexpected and contrary to our views it can catch our attention. We might puzzle over it, stare at it, and wonder about it.
Now there is symmetry in the picture above, but it’s kind of empty.
The Japanese concept of beauty is woven deeply into the fabric of their culture and language in ways even most Japanese don’t understand. They were just raised to understand certain things just as I was raised to understand certain ideas in my culture.
One of the most central concepts to the Japanese idea of beauty is
Wabi-Sabi is notoriously difficult to translate. Most Japanese experts say that westerners focus too much on the physical manifestation of this concept when it is also about the beauty experienced by a feeling in the mind and soul.
One of history’s most famous pioneers of this idea of beauty was Sen No Rikyu, the man who greatly influenced the Way of Tea in Japan, bringing the Wabi-Sabi style to the tea ceremony.
When describing this concept, many tell the story of his son. According to the story, Rikyu asked his son prepare the garden for guests that day. His son went to work, pruning trees, raking leaves, and made the garden look flawless.
Upon seeing his son’s work, Rikyu was displeased. With a shake of his head, he walked up to one of the now neatly-manicured trees and shook the branches until a few leaves fell across the raked paths. Now it was right. The imperfects made it Wabi-Sabi beautiful.
Let nature have it’s way.
In Wabi-Sabi thinking there is greater beauty found in things that are cracked and marked by time. The cycle of growth and decay is to be admired. A few flaws make something more beautiful than the flawless. It is an idea of beauty that adores melancholy things and teaches to enjoy a passing moment.
Aw, the quiet solitude is beautiful.
The word Wabi alludes to a feeling of solitude, like a hermit who lives alone in the woods. This used to be a negative word, but it has become a positive now in Japan. In fact, a hermit’s life is called:
Wabi alludes to a feeling of solitude, like a hermit who lives alone in the woods. Once upon a time this was a negative word, yet now it has become quite positive in Japan. In fact, a “hermit’s life” is called:
The hermit’s lifestyle is no longer looked down on, but seen as a beautiful thing. You can see it used a story device in many Japanese characters, even video games have their “hermit” characters. The hermit is not a loner to be shunned, but someone living a peaceful life.
Sabi has evolved into a positive word. It is hard to translate. Maybe “chill” or “lean” or “withered”. It is no coincidence that it has the same pronunciation as sabi, the Japanese word for “to rust”.
A very familiar word in Japanese is sabishii:
It means “lonely” or “missed”. There is a strong connection between sabishii and Sabi.
The best definition is that Wabi is the idea of beauty in what is transient while Sabi is the idea of beauty in the natural aging of things.
Thus the bud or fallen cherry blossom petal is more beautiful in wabi-sabi than the fully-blooming flower.
In western thought, this is the most beautiful form of the cherry blossom.
Now, about those sakura or cherry blossoms, why are the Japanese so captivated by them?
Reasons #22 to get drunk in Japan
The sakura’s fleeting and fragile nature fit Wabi-Sabi thinking perfectly.
A breeze can blow them off? They die easily? They don’t live long? Perfect! I mean, imperfect! I mean… anyhow that’s beautiful! That’s a metaphor for youth and life. So deep.
The petals beautifully symbolize the march of time, stark beauty, imperfection, and the “bloom of the ages” which is what wabi-sabi beauty is all about. Time should show in beautiful things.
Another seasonal event that displays wabi-sabi beauty, perhaps more so than the cherry blossoms are autumn leaves in Japan.
Some experts in Japan argue the autumn leaves are better wabi-sabi beauties than cherry blossoms. Others argue than the beauty of cherry blossoms have been corrupted by the focus on loud social posturing (aka the heavy, rowdy drinking at hanami). The hanami was born of wabi-sabi thought, but now has mutated into a display of drunken cavorting that no longer represents its true purpose.
Japanese wabi-sabi is often described as “the Japanese heart”. Everything in its culture connects back to this difficult-to-describe idea of beauty and style that infects Japanese culture in every way, even if it’s not always obvious.
Wabi-sabi might be defined as the beauty of “rustic simplicity” or “poverty”, yet you’d still miss the mark. Western views of beauty certainly don’t see it that.
Ain’t it pretty? It’s imperfect, decaying, and looking worn. What a beauty!
Actually that still might be an inaccurate view of this concept of beauty. It has been described as more a feeling, even if it does get displayed visually in Japanese Temples and Tea Ceremonies. Some have called it the beauty in suffering and toil.
It is a beauty in transient things that show the irreversible flow of life. Nothing lasts forever, and appreciating something while it’s here is a beautiful thing. There are other terms like Mono no Aware and Yuugen that add to this Japanese concept of beauty, but wabi-sabi is one of the most fundamental.
There is something wonderful in enjoying the ebb and flow of time. That’s not to say there isn’t a consequence to this thinking, but I’ll talk about that another day.
For now, just enjoy them while they last.