Sabi is a shortened form of the word Sabishi (alternately sabishii). Donald Richie in A Tractate On Japanese Aesthetics states that the etymological roots of Sabishi are derived from the verb sabu (to wane) and the noun susabi (desolation) and generally refer to objects that are lean, lonely, or withered. Someone living alone in a hovel without heat or sanitation would be sabishi. Sensitive people might find that such situations “give them a chill” and this emotional aspect of sabishi is central to it’s meaning.
Sabi, on the other hand, is not a waning desolation, but a much more desirable quality. 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.” People would go on long trips to remote places to enjoy a feeling of sabi. Poets would seek settings they considered to be sabi in order to develop their poetic vision.
The renowned Japanese poet Basho was among the first to use this shortened form, and he did it to distinguish his style of poetry from others. He said that sabi was the colour of a poem, and I think he meant that it was the most dominant element to be captured by a poem. A poem, we might say, must always contain some shade of sabi. If this is the case, and I’m cognizant not to push an analogy too hard, there is something very important to explore here.
Sabi makes us receptive. This is, in a sense, it’s great value. We go off to a remote place, or stare out over the ocean as the night is coming on, and feel a deep longing and sadness. Then we smile and look up at the stars coming out and feel a powerful resonance with nature, the universe, and all things large and small. In that moment we open and relax and settle. We reach a certain kind of peace and become very receptive. Sabi is not the receptivity, but it is, in a very real sense, the cause of that receptivity.
In Basho’s day 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.
The Japanese word “aware” has to do with an openness to poetic qualities in an object or place, especially when we are unhurried or alone. The emphasis is, like with sabi, 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 Redefined Sabi
When Basho taught his students that sabi was the color of a poem he gave examples of people who showed pluck or stamina. For him sabi was not only the atmosphere of loneliness in a poetic setting, nor was it only the beauty of things well aged. Basho used the word to identify the quality he was so often interested in conveying. I value the quality myself, and see it as being different from aware because when I see the lone evergreen standing among cherry trees, or when I see the contrast of youth with old age, or when I experience a particular natural setting with stones and reeds and frogs, the “thisness” leaps out and I’m propelled beyond ego into a different experience of self.
It is a realization of beauty that has at it’s very core a deliberate acceptance of what is, a realization of transience, an appreciation of the “shine beneath the grime.”
Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows explains the preference for sabi. “We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity. . . . We love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them.” (pgs. 11–12).
Hiking to Sabi
When I was 17 my father and I hiked to Krao Lake. There was a fairly steep climb up through a bolder scree and then at the top of the scree the ground abruptly leveled out, just before the lake. In the small area between the scree and the lake there was a series of small pools in the creek surrounded by forest and craggy mountain cliffs. The pools were deep and had large rough granite boulders randomly anchoring the scene as if someone had artfully placed them in perfect places. It was an intensely beautiful place, filled with mountain air and light, and I stood staring at it with wonder and delight.
The place radiated sabi.
I would venture to say it was a sacred place. But not the sacredness of a cathedral, although the similarities are interesting. The place moved me deeply, and it moved my father too. We would stand looking around just taking it all in. Those moments contain anchors for all that follows in life. And the more of those experiences you have, the more you want them.
I intensely wanted that place to continue being exactly as it was but knew it would not. I knew about the fragility of alpine and sub-alpine areas. I knew that the winter snows could dramatically change a place like this from one year to the next. But I also knew that such areas can retain the quality for a long time. In fact when I returned a number of years later, the place was different. That particular arrangement of bushes, trees, rocks, water, reeds, and sky had morphed and changed and more or less lost their power. It was still a pretty place, but not evocative. I had been fortunate to see it and appreciate it in that moment.
Reactivity to Receptivity
For sensitive souls, poets, song writers, artists, and romantics, sabi is a deep abiding quality that moves us in a direction we want to move. Places like the pools of Krao lake, or Basho’s pond seems to connect past with future and age with beauty. Sabi “rescues” us, in a way, from sadness, sorrow, and grief.
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 might be wracked with the pathos of the scene. Her sister, watching the scene from a different perspective, sees the same elements and thinks the same thoughts but moves the pathos towards an aha moment. An aha moment that is made possible, I believe, by acceptance.
I believe this is the genius of Basho, that he felt the difference and named it. He was able to recognize that in that moment when we feel lonely, withered, and sad, we have the opportunity to open and embrace the moment as an opportunity for enlightenment. I doubt he would have said it that way, but my life has confirmed this reality.
When we fail to see the beauty in things as they are, either because we are too conscious of our own loss, or too wrapped up in our desires, we continue to exist in the normal every day state of flux that sees us moving from suffering to distraction to hope and then to suffering again. This state of unsatisfactoriness is one of the “three marks of existence,” and I believe that developing a sense of sabi is one way to break the cycle of suffering and move beyond reactivity to receptivity.
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