Part of being a deshi in a classical Japanese martial arts school is trying to understand the Eastern mindset that our predecessors held. This is complex and I have touched on a few of these ideas in the past, Shinto being one of the most important for TSYR.
Recently I was listening to a podcast which was discussing the tea ceremony of Japan and as part of this talk, the term wabi-sabi came up. This is not the first time I have heard this term but I was encouraged to dig further and think about what this might mean for me as a TSYR deshi. Before I go any further please let me explain that my grasp of Japanese is limited to 'dojo Japanese' with a few other phrases I have picked up along the way. So my opinion is based purely off what I have read or heard over the years.
The Japanese language has many words that do not have a direct equivalent in English. I believe wabi-sabi is one of them. Put in very basic terms it describes the concept of beauty found in imperfection. Wikipedia goes further to say "Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." An object that is aged or worn can have wabi-sabi, so can a carefully repaired cracked bowl or a rustic handmade object. Scratches and marks on an object give it a story and makes it unique to any other. But does this mean everything that is old and worn has wai-sabi? Apparently, its not that simple.
To understand this further we can look at the Western worldview of beauty. In contrast, we find beauty in symmetry, perfection and newness (or youth). This is the cultural value of beauty I was raised in. From what I can tell, it was as far back as the ancient Greeks that held this idea of beauty dear. Its not hard to believe when you look at such things as the Ancient Olympics, where the athletes performed naked, showing off their amazing physiques (oiled if wrestling!). The idea of perfection in mathematics, universal laws (physics anyone?) and being obsessed with the eternal all contributed to our Western concept of beauty. So jump forward to 2020 and we see the obsession with youthfulness and the eternal in such things as fake-looking, flawless, Hollywood stars, plastic surgery, fitness fads and the need for having the latest new phone.
The roots of wabi-sabi comes from Buddhism which suggests wisdom is gained by coming to terms with imperfection, impermanence and emptiness. Through Japan's history wabi-sabi became more refined and permanently entrenched in the culture partly due to the tea ceremony.
In the 1500s, a tea master known as Sen no Rikyu redefined the etiquette for the tea ceremony, with emphasis on humility. He favoured efficient movement with no fuss, plain and simple utensils and respect for the guest. In doing this he imbued the tea ceremony with wabi-sabi. There is a story about Rikyu that shows how he viewed wabi-sabi. One version (there are many) tells how one of Rikyu's sons built a beautiful tea garden strictly to the teachings of his father and then invited his father to view his new project. The father took one look and frowned. The son was shocked, he had done everything according to his father's rules. Rikyu walked over to a cherry tree and shook the branches. The blossoms drifted lazily to the ground. The falling of the flowers brought imperfection to the otherwise new tea house and garden. This was wabi-sabi. Today, all schools of the tea ceremony still follow the rules Rikyu put in place so long ago.
The concept of wabi-sabi can also be found in the aesthetics of flower arranging, Japanese pottery and zen gardens.
So what does this mean to a Westerner practising an Eastern martial tradition? Well, it gives me a change in perspective, a different worldview and an insight into the thought processes of men who lived a long time ago in a different society. It helps me understand how these people would have thought about their world and how it affected their martial training. When I go for a walk in the NZ bush or along a beach on the wild West Coast of my country I can appreciate wabi-sabi. The flow of impermanence and imperfection is all around me and at the same time I see beauty in it all. It lifts my spirit. The simple act of waves rolling in and out as the tide comes in, removing any trace of footsteps. The changing of the trees with the seasons. Watching my children grow and change, as I grow older and change. There is an acceptance that comes over me. My life is fleeting. That one thought can make me sad and happy in the same instant. I will not live forever but how lucky am I to be here now experiencing the world, seeing my children grow and my wife laugh. These same thoughts the Japanese warrior must of had. For he is also human.
As a deshi of TSYR I am aware of my impermanence while the ryu can flow though me and carry on beyond my life time. Back through history one fleeting life after another has persevered with this art, contributed to it and let it flow onto the next generation of deshi. It is an amazing feeling to know that generations of people have practised what I am practising even though it was at different times over hundreds of years. I can appreciate the simple beauty found in humble moss climbing over a rock in a zen garden, just as my predecessors did, or marvel at the patterns found on the bark of a gnarled tree in the New Zealand bush. Even though I am hundreds of miles from Japan itself, the birthplace of TSYR's founder. It is trying to understand wabi-sabi that connects me to the people who practised the ryu before me. That let's me carry on the flow of information from one generation to the next and reminds me that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Train safe, everyone.