It’s difficult to say…
‘Sabi’ appeared to me recently in Writing and Enjoying Haiku: a Hands-On Guide. I’ve just properly read this book, which I scan-read years ago as reference material for a university task. This time I read every word and added to them, writing all over its pages as the author recommends!
A sister to the *brother-word ‘wabi’ (more on him another time), ‘sabi’ has been part of Japanese culture for centuries, but is known as a concept which we cannot fully comprehend. One way in which the author describes it is “beauty with a sense of loneliness in time, akin to nostalgia”. When put like this, I felt that I could feel ‘sabi’. The author creates a vision of ‘sabi’ too. It is ‘a split-rail fence sagging with overgrown vines’ she says, but not ‘a freshly painted picket fence’. Yes, that fits in with what I felt and here there are multiple layers.
To give an idea of the problem with really pin-pointing what sabi is though, you will find it linked to varied and sometimes contradictory words such as ‘evanescence’, ‘pitiable’, ‘solitude’, ‘poverty’, ‘decay’, ‘misery’ and ‘contentment’… A quick internet search finds it often described it as an aesthetic concept (especially when accompanied by ‘wabi’). Yet there is a greater depth than pure aesthetics here. Karthik Suresh relates ‘sabi’ with ‘life-cycle’ in Beauty in Time: The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi with ‘life-cycle’; I like this connection best.
Decay is a natural part of the life-cycle. Sabi is often about that decline, but also new growth. It is life giving to life; life fading, merging and transforming… The recognition of this reminds us that we are all connected and of the transient nature of everything. Wise people say “This too shall pass.”, but ‘sabi’ reassures us that nothing really ends. The chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was guillotined in the French Revolution (The chief of the tribunal said ‘The Republic doesn’t need experts’, by the way), gave us the quote “Rien se perd, rien se crée, tout se transforme.’, which translates as ‘nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything transforms’. This awareness helps with acceptance of change (for me at least).
Perfection is not ‘sabi’, unless it is of the ‘perfectly imperfect’ variety. Matching sets of crockery are not sabi either. Chips on teacups are valued, as are bowls which are assymetrical. It’s all about history and memories you see… Then as for us humans, as my father once said when I got concerned about my looks, the lines on our faces show our lives. So let’s be kind (to ourselves included) and find peace in ‘sabi’…
*I do not know whether ‘sabi’ is usually considered feminine and ‘wabi’ masculine, but I have noticed that wabi-sabi has been referred to as bringing together the male and the female.