Posts Tagged ‘weathered wood’

In our culture, new is usually considered better. And where so-called home improvements are concerned, that is often the case, especially if the new item is a high-efficiency furnace or a forty-year roof or an energy-saving kitchen appliance. But sometimes the situation is more complex than that, the effect more problematic.

Recently we installed new vinyl windows in our home. In contrast to the fifty-year-old relics they replaced, the new windows bring a soft, expansive light into our darker rooms. Gone are the small panes and splintered mullions. Gone, too, are the uncaulked cracks and loose-fitting frames that let out heat. Our house feels tighter now, and our carbon footprint will almost certainly be smaller.

Yet with this welcome change has come an unexpected loss. Clean and efficient though they are, our new windows lack a quality that was palpably present in the decrepit pine windows they replaced. In American parlance that quality is sometimes called “character,” and it is said to reside in such objects as weathered deck chairs, antique tools, and Willie Nelson’s battered guitar. Our rattling old windows, such as they were, had character; our new vinyl windows, whatever their environmental virtues, do not.

In Japanese culture, the quality I’m describing is known as sabi, and it has an integral connection to the practice of Zen. Often linked with wabi, which connotes simplicity and a life free of materialistic striving, sabi once meant “loneliness” or “solitude.” In modern usage, it means the quality of being old, worn, and faded—and all the more beautiful for the wear and tear. The architect Tadao Ando defines the quality in this way:

Sabi by itself means “the bloom of time.” It connotes natural progression—tarnish, hoariness, rust—the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting. .  . Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace: the chilly mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegant withering of a bereft autumn bough.*

Noting that sabi “transcends the Japanese,” Ando finds it in “an old car left in a field to rust, as it transforms from an eyesore into a part of the landscape.” This, he suggests, might be considered “America’s contribution to the evolution of sabi.”

Beyond the aspect of age, the word sabi also connotes imperfection. Rooted historically in the tea ceremony, the aesthetic of sabi developed in the sixteenth century as an indigenous reaction to the expensive teaware imported from China. In contrast to the brilliant colors and ostentatious perfection of Chinese wares and utensils, the tea masters Murata Shuko, Takeno Jo-o, and especially Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591) introduced such rough, imperfect objects as stoneware buckets and tea bowls produced by local craftsmen. In subsequent centuries, the aesthetic thus established extended to a general appreciation of imperfect objects, whether the object be a bamboo screen or a leaky vase. As the feudal baron Lord Fumai (1751-1819), himself the owner of a leaky vase, explained, “The furyu [sabi] of this  bamboo vase consists in the very fact of this leakage.”**

Yet if the objects that embody sabi are imperfect, it is not because they were poorly made. Nor is their imperfection a sign of neglect. On the contrary, as Tadao Ando remarks, “wabi-sabi is never messy or slovenly,” and an unmade bed or a room cluttered with junk is not an expression of sabi. Objects that possess sabi do so because they are visibly in the process of breaking down and reverting to the state of nature. Their imperfection is a mark of their impermanence. To contemplate sabi is to be reminded of the emptiness from which all things come and to which they will return. It is also to be reminded of the dynamic web of life, in which energies are constantly being exchanged, and new forms are coming into being.

The aesthetic of sabi and the practice of Zen are branches of a single cultural tree, and they have much in common. In both, a heightened awareness of impermanence draws us closer to the evanescent beauty of the present moment.  In both, the pathos of things going in and out of existence mingles with a sense of infinite possibility. And in both, the realization that all things are transitory prompts us to value and care for our lives.


*Tadao Ando, “What is Wabi-Sabi?”   http://nobleharbor.com/tea/chado/WhatIsWabi-Sabi.htm

**Daisetz T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture ( Princeton 1970), p. 326.

See also Leonard Koren, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, & Philosophers (Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1994).

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