To understand Japanese people, one must know something of the wabi sabi concept. The Japanese sense of beauty, unlike some of the gaudy Chinese manifestations, usually relies on delicate understatement. What is left out is just as important as what is put in. A cultivated Japanese man changes the hanging scroll in his tokonoma about as regularly as he changes the flower arrangement in front of it. If he owns a hundred such treasures, he will usually show only one at a time. The idea of displaying all his treasured possessions, as did the New York City entrepreneur who shocked me by having Old Masters hanging all the way up the staircase (and in the bathrooms) would seem inconceivably vulgar to him. A “one corner” black and white sumi-e painting will show all the action in a small part of the scroll; the viewer’s imagination can vividly take care of the rest. So a stark drawing of what seems to be a man in a small boat, with nothing else in our sight, becomes a graphic portrait of a stormy ocean with the lone fisherman riding out the swells to the promontory of land behind. As with sex, what is suggested is far stronger than that which is explicitly stated. How subtle the pathway, in the traditional Japanese garden, that leads nowhere. It is a sure commentary on living.

Having mentioned what I consider the acme of art (the living, changing Japanese garden) in the most aesthetic of countries, Japan, it would seem wise to include a commentary on the Zen garden that I once read in a text. Unfortunately, I do not have the name of the writer, although there is a vague recollection that he was a university professor. Should this ignorance be rectified, it would be my hope to include this name in a future edition of this book; I do not want the reader to think this profound commentary is mine.

The Seven Principles of a Japanese Zen Garden

In Japan, flowers are never used on the dining table or at odd points about the house. They are never worn as corsages and never used at weddings or funerals. As a matter of philosophy, essentially, flowers are considered to have a very special life of their own and are never used as decoration.

The basic philosophy of the Japanese house and garden resolves about the seven principles of Zen, which, freely translated, are as follows:

Fukinsei – Asymmetry or dissymmetry; suggesting things that are irregular; the opposite of geometric circles or squares.

Kanso – Simplicity; without gaudiness; not heavy or gross; clean, neat, and fresh, yet reserved, frank, and truthful; not ornate.

Koko – Austerity, maturity, reduction to essentials; lack of sensuousness; referring to things that are aged, weathered, venerable.

Shizen – Naturalness, artlessness, absence of pretense and artificiality; not meaning raw nature; involving full creative intent without force; unselfconsciousness; true naturalness that is a negation of the naïve and accidental.

Yugen – Subtly profound; suggestion rather than total revelation; things not wholly revealed but partly hidden from view; shadow and darkness; involving the shadow area of the garden.

Datsuzeku – Unworldly; freedom from using compasses and rulers; freedom from worldly attachments, bondage, and restrictive laws; involving transcendence of conventional usage; often a surprise element or an astonishing characteristic.

Seijaku – Quietness, calmness, and silence; the opposite of disturbance. The saying that “stillness in activity” should be strongly felt in a Japanese garden.

This is, of course, far more than a description of a Zen garden. It is actually instruction in the Zen way of thinking and a glimpse of the traditional Japanese restraint so foreign to the West (and disappearing so rapidly in Japan).

It is said that the four essentials of the Japanese tea ceremony (chanoyu), as with Zen itself, are: harmony, respect, purity, and serenity. There is exquisiteness in the black and white scroll of a lone bird on a dead branch in winter or a wild flower growing on a barren rock. There is a feeling of livingness and a seemingly absurd inner gratitude that no amount of self-canceling lushness could ever afford. Reducing life to such bare essentials, we feel the overwhelming immensity of it all.

To define wabi sabi seems impossible, even when we know that sabi is related to the adjective sabishii, which implies a loneli-ness. I have often talked to Japanese scholars about the meaning – as with the related noun shibui – but none have dared define what it really is, although most Japanese will agree on examples of wabi sabi. For instance, some language students of mine in Japan – failing utterly to explain wabi sabi – all agreed that the famous gate in the ocean at Miajima was much too red and not wabi sabi at all. “Perhaps in a hundred years it may become so,” explained one embarrassed student, a university graduate. All agree that the unfinished interior of Ginkakuji (Kyoto’s Silver Pavilion) was wabi sabi, and all agreed that the much photographed and ornate Kinkakuji (Kyoto’s Gold Pavilion) had few elements of wabi sabi.

“The interior of Ginkakuji is dear to my heart,” admitted one slightly inebriated student, who would never have made such a stark statement if he had not been drinking sake and beer for several hours. I understood him to mean that the wabi sabi quality of Ginkakuji caused him to feel particularly Japanese, a warm and unsharable feeling.

In an old issue of The Middle Way, a Buddhist publication from England, I accidentally came upon a passage by my old friend, Zen priest Sohaku Ogata, that seems to aptly illustrate wabi sabi. It says, in part:

“Sen no Rikyu is considered the father of the tea cult. One summer he grew morning glories in his garden, and their loveliness became known among his friends. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the generalissimo, heard of the beauty of these flowers and wanted to see them. Rikyu, learning of this, invited Hideyoshi to a tea party in his retreat.

When the generalissimo (who was the tea master’s sponsor) entered Rikyu’s garden, to his surprise there were no morning glories at all. They had been cut down, and not a flower was to be seen. Dismayed, he said nothing. But when he entered the tea house, there in front of him was one spray in a bamboo vase – the essence of morning glory. Hideyoshi, the distinguished guest, was immensely pleased. He was able, in a setting of utter simplicity and cleanliness, to experience fully the unique beauty of the flower.”

Ogata sensei goes on to tell a second story:

“One morning after a stormy night, Kaga no Chiyo, a famous haiku poetess, went to her well to draw water. She found a vine of morning glory bearing a beautiful flower that had blown down and entwined itself around the handle of the water-bucket. Such fragile beauty should not be disturbed, she said to herself, to accommodate such a practical need as drawing water. As she went to a neighbor to borrow some water, her nature-loving impulse asserted itself and her poetic genius woke up. She wrote:

Being captured, my well bucket,
I beg for water from my neighbor.”

The fuller, more complete approach to life and feeling is suggested in Kaga no Chiyo’s actions. It is the willingness to accept and affirm life more purely, with naturalness and directness and in each movement as it is found, without conditioned intellect and response. This represents the wabi or sabi life – and Zen.

Such stories knock me out. But they might not be everybody’s cup of tea. In Japan during the 1964 Olympics, I remember the Japanese people’s well-concealed chagrin when the Russian athletes, asked to take part in a tea ceremony, snorted, “All that fuss for a cup of tea.”

One time in Los Angeles, an old painter friend and I went to see a Japanese exhibit at the art museum. Afterwards, we idly wandered into the Italian section of the museum. My sensitive friend took one look and shuddered. Viewing them immediately after the delicate statement of the Japanese scrolls, the lush and opulent colors of the great Italian work were too much of a jolt to the system. Both have their place but not together. There is much aesthetic and philosophic value derived from the understated, austere, pseudo-natural approach of the Japanese. Many times, when we admire a teahouse or the rock formations of a garden, we are startled to realized that the work is not natural at all. It had used nature as a starting point and gone on to develop a wabi sabi aesthetic from there. So nature becomes a point of departure. As my friend, Masao Abe, the eminent Buddhist scholar, declared, “Fukinsei – certainly a wabi sabi characteristic – does not mean asymmetrical at all. Rather, it implies going beyond symmetry.” This reminds me of the jazz instrumentalist who must learn technique so he can forget technique in freeing himself to express what cannot really be expressed.

To find the greatest beauty in a weathered old door (or person) implies respect for that which has lived and endured. Such respect for age is endemic in the Eastern way of thought. Haven’t we all admired the features of an old woman who has had children and grandchildren and known triumphs and times of despair? Can any paint do to wood what the harsh hands of time will do? One of my favorite buildings is a small art gallery near Big Sur, California, and built from discarded timbers of an old bridge. This wood has never been painted; it is indelibly stained by time. A new car has little character, but when we see an ancient classic, we involuntarily gasp with admiration. Old manuscripts and examples of calligraphy that have been burned in fires are greatly prized in Japan. I find that moss-covered stones replacing pavement is highly evocative of the past and pleasing to the spirit. The rapidly changing old capital of Kyoto has always afforded me an aesthetic bath. I feel the wabi sabi even more in the mountains, where one spies a heavy iron kettle hanging by bamboo from the ceiling over an open hole in the floor holding charcoal. What a wonderful way to boil water for tea and cook the vegetables – so important in the country way of eating.

This article is published in Climb the Joyous Mountain.