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QUINTESSENCE

Transience and Imperfection

Gardens of Kyoto: branch supports, moss, cherry blossom petals

THE SOUL FOX
by David Mason

My love, the fox is in the yard.
The snow will bear his print a while,
then melt and go, but we who saw
his way of finding out, his night
of seeking, know what we have seen
and are the better for it. Write.
let the white page bear the mark,
then melt with joy upon the dark.


My recent travels throughout Japan and her islands have left me with a profound appreciation of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, as indelible to the Japanese expression of beauty as classical composition and line is to the Greek.

Often described as an aesthetic infused with the beauty of "the impermanent, the imperfect, and the incomplete," wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society, and sabi meant "chill", "lean" or "withered." Wabi now connotes a gentler rustic simplicity, freshness, or quietness of both natural and human-made objects. An understated elegance. It can refer to the unexpected unique: the marks or anomalies in construction that add originality and elegance to the object. Sabi is that beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear. Sabi encompasses the imperfection and its visible repairs. I think of a cracked piece of worn pottery. The 300 year old branches of a pine tree leaning on man-made supports across the pond. Wabi-sabi mirrors the inherent integrity of the natural world. Extended to the arts, or to a philosophy of life itself, wabi-sabi connotes elements of the unique, asymmetry, asperity, austerity, simplicity, intimacy, modesty. The appeal and the flaws in all that is organic.

Buddhist author Taro Gold has described wabi-sabi as "the wisdom and beauty of imperfection." Several definitions of wabi-sabi address the lingering emotional impact of the artistic world I experienced in Japan. Performances from drumming to geisha dance, curated objects of both the ordinary everyday and those of prized rarity. Extraordinary landscape gardens both grand or intimate, and the elaborate but intriguing meal presentations. "Wabi-sabi," Richard Powell writes, "nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." Andrew Juniper succinctly addresses what I frequently felt throughout Japan, "If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi."

Understanding emptiness and imperfection is honored as the first step to satori, or enlightenment. In today's Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to "wisdom in natural simplicity." In art books, it is typically defined as "flawed beauty." For me, wandering through zen gardens perfected in moment by moment evolutions...where the smallest corner of a garden holds a rock basin of rain water reflecting leaf and sky, wabi-wabi carries within it a sense of presence. Attention to the moment; to existence in all its profound renewal and decay. And to balance between what is natural and man-made design. The raked white rocks of the Zen meditation garden are not to be trod upon but to invite reflection. The fallen pink cherry blossoms scattered by the breeze on the forest moss are a distinct beauty: a perfection separate from the riotous bloom of the blossom upon the tree. When we pause to appreciate the patina of an antique, the weathered barn, the accidental poetry of birdsong against a thunderous sky, we experience wabi-sabi.

The Japanese venerate the old. The poignancy of time on all things. What I brought home with me from my travels was a sense that everything is at all times in transience and imperfection. This asymmetry, this attachment and release, is our deepest sense of understanding of what it is to exist.

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