A Definition of Sabi

In Wabi Sabi for Writers I said that sabi “was refined over the years to emphasize a state of receptivity, fostered in remote natural settings.” The legendary Japanese poet Basho was among the first to use the word and he did so to distinguish his style of poetry from others. There existed a different but similar word, aware, which described the state of being open or sensitive to things. Aware is pronounced ‘ah wah ray’ but coincidentally has a similar meaning to the English word aware, as in awareness. The English word aware, comes from the German root, which is more about wariness, than artistic sensitivity, so we can’t quite equate the two.

Buttertubs Marsh

Both sabi and aware have to do with an openness to poetic qualities in an object or place, especially when we are unhurried or alone. The emphasis is on sensitivity and emotional receptivity. Aware was part of a popular phrase, “Mono no aware” which is translated as “an awareness of the poignancy of things.” The poignancy comes, usually, from a things impermanence or transience. Howard Rheingold in his book, They Have a Word for It, writes of aware: “Would cherry blossoms be as poignantly beautiful if they bloomed all year round, or if they were as tough as walnuts?” Seeing the cherry blossom with the awareness that they are only here for a few days each year, makes them more valuable.

Basho taught his students that sabi was the color of a poem and gave examples of people who showed pluck or stamina. What makes sabi different from aware is that it includes a deliberate acceptance of things as they are. This deliberate acceptance makes sabi more than awareness, more than sensitivity. For sensitive souls, poets, song writers, artists, etc. sabi is more “spiritual” for lack of a better word. A person might experience aware when she sits in misery contemplating a fallen soldier, too young to have savored the freedom for which he gave his life. She is wracked with the pathos of the scene. Her sister, adopting a sabi mind, sees the same scene and feels the same pathos but moves it towards an aha moment.

Aware is the “ah” or “oh” of sorrow, and sabi is the ‘ah” or “oh” of insight.

For an excellent discussion of sabi in the work of Basho, see: Sabi, Nature, and the Relationship by Riley B. Irwin

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