Wabi (usually written in hirigana as above, but also sometimes written with the character 侘 ) is one of the crucial aesthetic terms in Japanese culture, and fundamental to an understanding of any of the arts, including gardens. It may be particularly applied to the world of the Tea garden, though its scope is clearly wider than being restricted to a single expression of garden art. The form of Tea ceremony developed by the master Sen no Rikyu is often referred to as 'wabi cha', the tea of wabi. It is a term that is closely associated with another term, sabi (さび). Sabi refers to the quality of been worn or well used, the 'not newness' of something, and is particularly associated with patina and the feeling of that comes from something that is well used. The term sabi will be explored in another blog post later.
Wabi may be translated as 'loneliness', 'poverty', 'subdued taste', or 'simplicity'. All of these terms offer some guide to the meaning of the concept without actually defining it absolutely. All of these tentative definitions must be understood in the spiritual or metaphysical sense. The 'loneliness' that is referred to, is a sense of detachment from the everyday world, both in the manner of a physical separation, as well as a separation that is brought about by a conscious act of intention. It is not a detachment of unsociability, rather a conscious withdrawing from the hustle and bustle, in order to seek out a space wherein the mind and spirit may achieve a sense of peace, through a lessening of distraction. Tea is after all a social occasion that will be shared with others. Likewise the appreciation of the garden is not by definition a solitary activity, but one that may be shared and enriched by the presence of others of a like mind. There is a long tradition of the 'hermit-poet' in Japanese culture, though these were not by any means people who were driven to such a state by a feeling of malice toward their fellow men, rather people who sought out quiet places in order to sharpen their perception and thereby be capable of seeing and understanding deeper the human condition. Thus the garden may be seen to be a place that offers refuge, and the material composition of the garden a path toward that quiet space, which ultimately lies within. The poet Ryokan expresses it this way;
"Truly, I love this life of seclusion.
Carrying my staff, I walk toward a friend's cottage.
The trees in his garden, soaked by the evening rain,
reflect the cool, clear autumnal sky.
The owners dog comes to greet me:
Chrysanthemums bloom along the fence.
These people have the same spirit as the ancients;
An earthen wall marks their separation from the world.
In the house volumes of poetry are piled on the floor.
Abandoning worldliness, I often come to this tranquil place-
The spirit here is the spirit of Zen."
Likewise the 'poverty' that is spoken of is not the poverty of destitution, rather is is a deliberate turning away from the world of ostentation and glamour. It is a recognition that the generation and accumulation of wealth in this world is a temporary experience that has no depth in the metaphysical sense. To the Buddhist or Taoist, reality lies in the recognition of the non-absolute ( 'emptiness' ) as the only constant. When everything is in a state of constant change then the path toward enlightenment lies in detachment from acquisition and accumulation of material objects, as these ultimately have no true reality. This has a bearing on the form of the garden, whereby the intention is to present the garden free of ostentation ( ego ) and glamour, the 'hands of the garden-creator' are hidden. Nature itself remains the prime source of inspiration of motif and the ultimate model for garden builders, the garden-creator is simply the facilitator, working as a medium through which the garden form will emerge.
Likewise the interpretation of wabi as 'subdued taste' or 'simplicity' may be understood in the light of what has been set out above. The materials chosen for the garden are of the simplest kind, earth, stone, plants and water, presented in a manner that resolves to express something of the spirit of the landscape, rather than being a detailed reconstruction of landscape scenery. Naturally we see here an influence of Zen Buddhism, in particular the concept of presenting those elements that are deemed absolutely essential and avoiding all extraneous material. By this process of reduction there is an allowance made for the imagination of the garden viewer to have maximum scope for involvement in recreating within his own heart the landscape scene that is being presented. The potential for distraction from this course is thereby minimised, through the discipline of 'subdued taste' that a greater freedom of expression may be acquired.
It is in these ways that the concept of wabi may be understood to have a strong bearing on the creation and appreciation of the garden as a whole. Though wabi is associated in particular with the world of Tea, its resonance goes far beyond that particular aspect of the Japanese garden tradition. There is a poem by that is much beloved by the Tea masters for its capacity to capture the essence of wabi.
All around, no flowers in bloom are seen,
Nor blazing maple leaves I see,
Only a solitary fisherman's hut
On the sea beach, in the twilight of this autumn eve.
Lord Teika 1162-1241