wabi sabi

Posted on: Thu, 05/01/2014 - 15:02 By: Tom Swiss

There was a news story recently about how a small child almost ruined a sand mandala built by Tibetan monks for a ceremony in New Jersey. Sand mandalas are an ancient tradition, sort of sand castles taken to the nth degree: over several days, colored sand is placed a few grains at a time to make an intricate pattern or picture. I saw one being made once, and it's as slow and painstaking as anything you can imagine.

When it's finished, the whole thing is destroyed, they sweep up the sand and dump it in a river. It symbolizes the impermanence of all things. In a way, it was kind of funny that something meant to be destroyed anyway was messed up by a little kid who thought it was a toy! And I think the people involved appreciated that. But it's also nice that they were able to fix it up and finish the ritual.

I don't know much about Tibetan Buddhism, but this story reminds me of the concept of wabi-sabi (侘寂) in Japanese culture and aesthetics. (Not to say I know a lot about that, either!) Both the sand mandala and wabi-sabi grow out of the idea, found in Buddhism but also more generally in these cultures, that everything is impermanent. Wabi-sabi is also based on the understanding that all things are imperfect and incomplete to start with.

A famous example of wabi-sabi is the practice of kintsugi, or "golden joinery", where broken pottery was fixed with a glue containing powdered gold. If you or I superglued the handle back on our favorite coffee mug, we'd probably want it to be an invisible fix; but with kintsugi the crack, the flaw, the history of brokenness, is honored and highlighted.

Another excellent example of wabi-sabi is the obi, the belt, of an experienced karate student. I've had my black obi since 1995, and I usually wear it a couple times a week. Beyond the normal wear and tear of any piece of clothing it gets dragged on the floor and the grass during ukemi, dunked in the ocean at beach training...I've even dragged people around the dojo floor while they held on to it. So after more than eighteen years, it's getting a little worn out! The fabric is torn up around the part that gets knotted, you can see the white cotton batting inside.

Last year, when I was working towards my godan promotion, my sensei took this obi away for a while. I returned to white belt to (hopefully) remind me of the important of "beginner's mind". (On a practical level, it also provided an opportunity to send the belt off to get a fifth stripe embroidered on the end.) When I came to teach class, though, it wasn't appropriate to show up in a white belt, so I wore a plain black belt that I keep as a spare. One of my students commented, "Oh, I see you finally got a new belt!" Like my obi was getting worn out and should be replaced.

This is how we often think, right? "This is getting old, it's worn out, throw it away. Time for a new one." It's not perfect. It's not fancy enough. I want the faster one, the bigger one, the shinier one.

But somehow that never quite works. In a few weeks the new one isn't fast enough, isn't shiny enough.

Now, sometimes it's okay to say "Time for a new one, a better one". If your car is old and breaking down all the time and costing you lots of money to repair, maybe it's time to junk it before it breaks down on the highway. If your kumite safety gear is wearing out and is held together with tape, maybe it's time for a new set before it comes flying off during a match. Just hanging on to old things because they're old isn't the right answer.

But the idea of wabi-sabi invites us to appreciate that chasing new and fancy and perfect isn't the answer either.

And this is very important to our karate practice. This body? Not new, and not going to get any newer. The left shoulder doesn't work quite right, neither does the right ankle. The knees were never right to start with. (And this hair used to be all black, like the obi used to be. Both are getting more white as the years go by.) But that's okay. Our technique? Not perfect, and never will be perfect. And our understanding of karate is never finished, never complete.

So we go about this art imperfectly and with incomplete understanding, with bodies that are wearing down. And, says wabi-sabi, this is a beautiful thing.

This is a poem I wrote, years ago:

the bonsai tree is lopsided
the potter's glaze on the chado bowls is spiderweb-cracked
the forge line of the katana waves and weaves back and forth like the
      footsteps of a drunkard
the black belt of the budo master is time-worn and frayed

zen says no perfect thing is beautiful
the things that are true are irregular, worn
broken symmetry
like the favorite coat I keep stiching up

my heart, too, is irregular and worn
broken and mended many times

zen says
from outside of time everything
is already broken
and everything is just this moment new

the treasure you would hoard is already stolen and dispersed
but can never be lost

the loved one, the beloved self, is already dead
and yet was never born

and my heart
is already broken
already renewed
already reborn
my wabi-sabi heart
glorious in its flaws and scars
is perfect just as it is

and I have already arrived
on the other shore

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