Tea Ceremony

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The Wabi Aesthetic and Meaning in Chaynoyu (Tea Ceremony)

Chanoyu (tea ceremony) seeks to embody a particular kind of beauty: wabi. Together with the concept of yūgen (mystery and depth) as an ideal of the nō drama and the notion of sabi (lonely beauty) in haiku poetry, wabi is one of the most characteristic expressions of Japanese aesthetic principles.

Because wabi as an aesthetic brings together many diverse elements, it is difficult to encompass it in a simple definition. It can, however, be linked to a three sided pyramid. First, wabi, as a noun, is derived form the verb wabiru, which, in turn, can have several meanings. The meaning of wabi in its aesthetic sense is best defined by the author of Zen-cha Roku, who wrote: “Wabi means lacking things, having things run entirely contrary to our desires, being frustrated in our wishes.” This is an extension of the meaning of wabiru as being disappointed by failings in some enterprise of living a miserable and poverty stricken life. The original sense of wabi embraces disappointment, frustration and poverty. Yet, “wabi involves not regarding incapacities as incapacitating, not feeling that lacking something is deprivation, not thinking that what is not provided is deficiency.” Thus, wabi means to transform material insufficiency so that one discovers in it a world of spiritual freedom unbounded by material things. It means not being trapped by worldly values but finding a transcendental serenity apart from the world. Consequently, although the beauty of wabi is not simply a beauty of mere poverty, unpretentiousness or simplicity, there are times when, at least superficially, it may seem to be such.

Another side of the pyramid of wabi beauty – one that is closely related to the unpretentious aspect – is that of imperfection or irregularity. In Zenpō Zatsudan, Komparu Zenpō quotes Murata Shukō as saying: “The moon is not pleasing unless partly obscured by a cloud.” This example gives an insight...
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