John G. Rudy in his book, “Wordsworth and the Zen Mind” says sabi is the bedrock of Zen enlightenment. Here is the full quote:
Chief among the moods of Zen – and the one that, for all practical purpose, forms the bedrock of Zen enlightenment – is sabi, the spirit of non-attachment or freedom. – John G. Rudy
This matter-of-fact assertion by a scholar deeply immersed in the poetic work of the English Romantics seems at first to be slightly provocative. Provocative for me because I’m not sure if I would say that sabi is the spirit of non-attachment.
Sabi is Paradoxical
As I explored here, I see sabi as a paradoxical state or mood; a combination of loneliness and satisfaction, or perhaps even sadness and contentment. These elements are popularly considered both negative and positive respectively – thus the paradox.
How is this possible to be contented and lonely at the same time? I think if we can answer that question we will glimpse the mechanism at the heart of sabi’s essential “spirit.”
Sabi is Internal
Before exploring this further, I must pause here to declare my default philosophical position. I adopt a form of practical materialism primarily as a function of Occam’s razor. Materialism is continually challenged as an adequate world view by fairly hard headed scientists and certainly by scholarly philosophers. Never-the-less, the temptation to look for mystical, spiritual, and otherwise fantastic explanations for complex or subtle “natural” phenomena raises all sorts of problems. I’ve run into trouble when I don’t stick to rigorous methods for preventing self-deception, and therefor have adopted a materialistic and skeptical predisposition as a default. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and all that.
When we speak of spirit, quality, mood, sabi, and enlightenment, we are, from a materialist’s perspective, describing internal states – probably in the brain or other neural tissue. These words refer to thoughts, feelings, and so on, and not anything that resides in objects out there in the landscape. To say that a misty bay has a melancholy mood to it, is simply another way of saying that the scene makes many people feel melancholy. While I more or less accept that this is true, I have walked along so many remote beaches and had my feelings turn melancholy, that I must hold open the possibility that such places have something that reliably affects me in a predictable way and may even affect any creatures that walks there. This is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say that I take seriously the philosophical shadows cast by this topic.
Safety in the Herd
Some scientists assert that the feeling of loneliness evolved in super-social species to drive vulnerable individuals back to the safety of the group, herd, or pack. We are attracted by the group and repelled by being alone. Our repulsion mechanism is old and primal and when it is engaged we perceive loneliness as something to be avoided, somewhere on the spectrum of things like cliff edges, icy water, snakes, and the smell of decomposing flesh.
Competing with this natural aversion is the attraction to solitude and all the opportunities it contains. When we are alone we are the master of our own destiny, free to do or not do as we please. Also, solitude contains freedom not just from the expectations and influence of the group, but from the responsibilities to the group. Thirdly, those of us who seek out solitude find a clarity of thought, an unhurried margin in which to savour, reflect, and rest.
“Habit rules the unreflecting herd.” – William Wordsworth
A little over 50% of humans find solitude necessary for a balanced life. All humans, even extroverts, find social engagement tiring, but extroverts are more motivated by the rewards that social groups provide, and therefor overlook how much energy is required to socialize. Jenn Granneman, while conducting research for The Secret Lives of Introverts discovered that introverts find stimulating social environments difficult to endure and see occasions like parties as “punishing.”
Introverts have lower biological needs for reward than extroverts so they abandon overwhelming social situations sooner and seek relief in solitude.
Extroverts appear to have a more active dopamine reward system than introverts. This means that extroverts’ brains become more active at the sight of a possible reward, and dopamine energizes them to pursue that reward. Introverts’ brains just don’t get as active as extroverts’ at the expectation of a reward. – Jenn Granneman
Waking up Alone
Anyone who spends extended time alone in nature is familiar with the recurring moments of clarity about just how vulnerable we are by ourselves. In this clarity we grasp the reality of ourselves as an individual against the great backdrop of nature, the universe, and everything, and at the same time our dependence and connection to everything and everyone.
I like being alone in nature because it fosters these realizations. And with such realizations I find I’m humbled and grateful to be able to return to the warmth of my human attachments, connections, relationships, and family ties.
The Sabi Sweet Spot
This dynamic balance point between welcoming isolation and then feeling drawn back to the company of others, is when sabi predictably arises.
Isolation for Oneness
In true isolation there is a flattening out of emotions as all the trees, bushes, frogs, dragon flies, stones and waters relax out of their conceptual categories to become simply parts of the undifferentiated whole of nature. When this happens most of us experience a relaxed and heightened curiosity, often accompanied with a sense of having shrugged off the burden of the self. I’ve had this happen a few times and it is a desirable experience. And that is part of the problem.
Right Hemisphere Ascension or Kenshō?
This state of oneness in which conceptual categories disappear and everything is perceived as one unified whole, is Kensho, literally “seeing nature” and also often referred to as “self realization” or seeing the self in it’s unified context.
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor in her 2008 TED talk, and subsequent book, talks about her experience of achieving a state similar to Kensho when her left hemisphere was taken off-line by a stroke.
I do not see the extinguishing of the left hemisphere as the goal or end game or outcome of meditation, or other similar spiritual practices. I don’t go into isolated natural settings to extinguish my logical, rational, self. Nor do I see a particular virtue in Right Hemisphere dominance. The evidence from neuroscience is fairly clear; the brain functions as a whole with some specialized areas, but not so specialized as to warrant elevating one over the other.
Instead I see Kensho as a developmental reality for anyone who spends time and attention fostering sabi and related moods. Specifically I think Sabi and the Kensho-like realizations that are associated with it are keys to a mature kind of awareness. The Awareness of suchness.
Suchness is “what is.” Kensho is seeing suchness, without questions, considerations, concepts, and thoughts. Frederick Franck describes this seeing of suchness as unsymbolization, and I have adopted his word.
“What is Zen? Zen is the unsymbolization of the world and all the things in it.” Frederick Franck – Zen and Zen Classics
Unsymbolization occurs when we allow sabi to arise in us and wash us with a sense of our impermanence and limits. Sabi’s main function is to confront us with beauty un-coupled from judgement, standing alone from concepts of good and bad. This rusty old useless piece of metal is beautiful. Period.
Unsymbolization is in fact a maturation of symbolization. Like ego development, it is necessary to symbolize the world before we can unsymbolize it. All these words I’m writing are symbols. Without them, I could not communicate. But I go to nature, find solitude, and move my mind towards sabi as part of the balance that mature minds seek.
I AM interested in letting go of the ego, and I am interested in letting go of symbolization, but only as a step towards a more balanced maturity, not as a retreat into the precognitive state of childhood or some mindless place where the troubles of life can not intrude.
I believe that solitude creates a space for sabi to arise which leads to unsymbolization which leads to the realization of suchness. Suchness is also the emptying that meditators experience, the state that can not be grasped – perhaps zen itself.
Solitude —> Sabi —> Unsymbolization —> Realization of Suchness —> Zen
Awareness of suchness brings us into harmony with what is, ceasing to want what “should be” and finding peace and contentment in every aspect of reality, not just the ones we desire.
So, to return finally to the questions I started this post with, I think it is fair to say that sabi IS the chief mood of Zen, in that it reliably facilitates the move to an awareness of suchness.
Roughness and Calmness
As mentioned above, the contemplation of nature, especially when it involves the experience of sabi, can produce a satisfying merging with nature, seeing oneself as a biological function within a larger system. At the same time it can produce an awareness of our own undeniably present ego.
Whether paddling a canoe, walking a mountain ridge, or sitting amid a stillness of trees, the inner voice seems louder. Desires seem stronger. Especially the social desires. When truly alone my thoughts turn to others, to my vulnerability without others, to my longing for community, for belonging, for attachment.
Sabi, according to Rudy, is the spirit of nonattachment, the mark of true freedom. Sabi from this perspective is not loneliness or deterioration or impermanence; it is instead a clear apprehension of some quality within everything that is no particular thing.
To put it less mystically, sabi is the mood of rested wakefulness that time spent in nature brings.
A.L. Sadler, writing about the Tea Ceremony says that the “admiration for the natural rhythm and quiet grace of things” was what the Zen devotee achieved through monastic life. He references Kaneyoshi’s book entitled The Susabi Brush, which Sadler translates as “Consolations of the brush” because the sabi element of roughness is integral to achieving the state of mind necessary to be “ok with” life as it is. My own translation might be “A Brush with Roughness.”
A very insightful essay written by a virtually anonymous student at Tokyo’s Sophia University states, “Sabi originally meant the gradual appearance of the inner essence of things.”
This is a succinct description of what happens for a person contemplating nature. It is a type of paradoxical insight that joins an awareness of thisness with an awareness of suchness.
The Sophia University Student, Aine, adds, “At the end of the Heian era, people started to seek truths of things in the atmosphere of roughness, susabi, and calmness, sabi. And the words started to appear in Japanese poems. During the Muromachi era, the Sabi idea became deeper in meaning. … This deepness meant aesthetic feeling that was full of silence and transient withering. Influenced by Cha, Sabi started to mean a calm and peaceful situation. People achieved the situation after they realized the contrast and the difference between luxury and Wabi. (Haibunngaku Daijiten)”
I like this idea of seeking the truth of things in the atmosphere of roughness and calmness that exists in nature. My years of camping and paddling in wilderness gave me a profound conviction that the insights available there are only possible when I am content. That is to say, well fed and clothed, safe, and relaxed.
Sabi, then, is a different avenue to suchness than the ascetic path of self-sacrifice. This lines up with many religions traditions of the “middle path,” but it goes a little further. To risk being overly cute, it raises “aesthetics” to the level that “ascetics” once had.
Beauty, according to this way of looking at things, can be an aid to enlightenment. For the person who finds a restful wakefulness in the contemplation of nature, beauty can be an expansive universal quality that triggers profound insight.
“Sabi is the mood of rested wakefulness that a well provisioned time in nature brings.” – Richard R Powell
But is Sabi Non-Attachment?
I hope that my discussion above clarifies that sabi is not the same as non-attachment. instead it is a mood that is essential for the state of mind that can produce non-attachment. From a rational perspective it helps us recognize the conceptual framework we use to filter the world through, and in recognizing that, we can begin to let go of the grid-work of categories that make up the framework. From a subjective perspective it is an opening sensation that satisfies at a deep level.
To summarize as succinctly as I can, Sabi often leads to an awareness of suchness, and so to freedom from the constraints of both conceptual categories AND all judgements, expectations, and hopes for what “should be,” “could be,” “ought to be” or “might be.”
Maturity and Depth
Kensho is a good word, because it describes a kind of enlightenment that is mostly fleeting. I could go out into the wilderness again and again in search of sabi moments, basking in the paradoxical feeling of union and individuation, but if that is all I ever did, I would not be enlightened.
For me, it has become a process of deeper and deeper insight into just how enmeshed adulthood is with a concepts of control, prediction, and agency. With sabi we can let go of these egoic props and begin to let go of adulthood.
Letting Go of Adulthood
We can rely on sabi to move us towards an acceptance of all aspects of nature, from predation to copulation, to migration, to stagnation. Sabi is not abstract, not conceptual, it is instead a reliable mood that we can find in isolated remote natural settings.
With sabi we can accept what is, with a non-grasping holding of things with great appreciation. If this mood, this wakeful mindlessness, can be sustained; if attention can be held on the beauty that arises moment by moment from everything, then enlightenment is possible in a real and lasting sense.
That enlightenment is a growing thing, a step by step collection of Kensho moments that involve letting go of more and more of the things that hold us back. Hopes, ideals, treasures, expectations, and most of all desires.
The thing past adulthood is still resolving, but I have a sense that it will be unexpectedly alive and poetic.
In weakness we create distinctions, then believe that all our puny boundaries are things which we perceive and not which we have made.
All beings that live with god, themselves are god, existing in the mighty whole, as indistinguishable as the cloudless East at noon is from the cloudless West, when all the hemisphere is one cerulean blue.
– William Wordsworth manuscript fragment (slightly paraphrased)
2 thoughts on “Sabi is the Bedrock of Zen”
“I’ve run into trouble when I don’t stick to rigorous methods for preventing self-deception, and therefor have adopted a materialistic and skeptical predisposition as a default.”
You’re a finite being in an infinite universe— I find it rather naive to think that a materialistic & skeptical predisposition is any less deceptive than any spiritual belief. It gives you the illusion of being in control and having a grasp of things and of being “practical” and “down to earth” and “realistic.” And it may in fact work within the very narrow confines of modern life. However, the truth is that it’s just another bedtime story we tell ourselves to make us feel better.
Hey Kent, thanks for the comment. How do we know it is an infinite universe? Could it be science? That is how I know. I can rely on science because of, well, the scientific method. For me that is not about control. I have no illusion that my small mind will grasp all that there is out there. It is about reaching an accurate perception within the human context. As accurate as possible anyway. I’m not sure how you see that as narrow. It sounds, rather, that you see science as a threat to your story. Or maybe I’m projecting. I found science a threat to my story for so many years. I didn’t want to lose the truth I knew from my spiritual tradition. But what I found is that science/rational thought are part of a paradoxical balance with intuition and direct bodily knowing.