The time period when Japanese started to fully embrace Zero in literature coincides with the time period when Zen was brought to Japan. Teika Fujiwara, who wrote the Tanka poem, introduced in Part 1 of this article, was born in 1162. Zen monk Eizai, who founded Rinzai Zen school in Japan after studying in China, was born in 1141, and Dogen, who did the same for Soto Zen school, was born in 1200.
Zen contributed to the expansion of Zero aesthetics to non-literature arts. It is because Zen denies text and attempts to experience enlightenment through hard practice and training. Prominent Zen monks who achieved a high level of spiritual elevation used paintings, calligraphy, flower arrangements, zen garden design, and other forms of non-text dependent arts, to describe the beauty of their experiences.
Further strengthened by Zen, Zero philosophy saw another leap forward, by the 14-15 century. わび・さび(侘び・寂び (wabi-sabi) emerged as yet another major Zero concept. Wabi comes from a verb “wabu,” which means lacking or missing something, declining, failing or distressed. Sabi comes from the verb “sabu,” which means deteriorate as time goes by. For example, iron gets rusted when it’s weathered. That is “sabu.”
Wabi-sabi could be considered utterly negative, if you put value only on things like growth, expansion, prosperity, power, strength and/or productivity. But as the Buddhism core creed tells us, our lives will become full of pain if we try to define our lives as only based on such “positive” values, because none of them will stay with us forever. They will eventually leave us, and we will feel enormous pain when this happens.
So it’s important to stop obsessing ourselves with only those positive values, and start accepting “negativities.” That way, we can blend with the laws of nature and acquire peace of mind – or mindfulness. Once we submerge with nature, we will find profound beauty in it. Instead of feeling distressed, we will find abundance. Wabi-sabi is about putting ourselves in the negative/sad side of the natural cycle, to find beauty and abundance that emerge through emptiness and uncertainties.
That said, it’s important to remember that Wabi-sabi is still implicitly coupled with the “positive” side of a natural cycle – flourish, growth and vigor. Since everything constantly changes its status in nature, we also know its best days: flowers in full bloom, plants to harvest, and humans in their best shape. The more you focus on “wabi-sabi,” the clearer and more precious the best days – now gone – become in your imagination, amplified by their absence. This profound contrast is an impetus for Zero arts. That’s the power to let abundance emerge from nothingness.
Indeed, wabi-sabi culture often emerged as a counter to a luxurious, fancy and materialistic social trend, when the economy boomed. For example, wabi is often associated with tea ceremony. Juko Murata (1422-1502), a Zen monk in Kyoto, is believed to have founded “wabi-cha,” a style of tea ceremony that uses a plain and small tea hut (chashitu) and focuses on a philosophical/aesthetic pursuit to submerge in the world of Zero.
Wabi-cha was a counter to luxurious tea parties, hot among social elites back then. Helped by a booming economy (boosted by international trade with China), people with power and money rushed to buy expensive arts and potteries imported from China. They hosted tea parties to show them off.
Even clearer is the contrast of Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion), temples built by then- Shoguns Yoshimitsu and Yoshimasa, respectively. Kinkaku-ji is about luxury because it used gold abundantly (which was pretty precious in Japan) for the finishing touch. Ginkaku-ji, built by the grandson of the patron of Kinkaku-ji, is wabi-sabi. Yoshimasa loved arts and supported various artists. Many Zero arts, such as kare-sansui, ikebana, noh, and tea ceremony established their solid foundation in his days.
If luxury was the “positive” side of society, there would always be people aesthetically trained to appreciate the “negative” or “zero” side of the world, such as Zen monks. They would elevate Zero to powerful arts and eventually pass them on to us. Since these arts are so deep in harmony with the laws of nature, they never became stale, and continue to impress us today.
Wabi-sabi reminds us that light creates shadow, and both light and shadow are part of nature. They are both precious and beautiful, and most importantly, they will always be in flux – light can turn into shadow, and shadow can become light.