Wabi-Sabi and its relevance to Bonsai

I hope to open your minds about what we practice, and how some fundamental philosophies of the east, in a very subtle way, dictate how we go about our chosen craft. 




What is Wabi-Sabi? Wabi-Sabi are two juxtaposing ideals which, in the Japanese culture, are never said alone, always Wabi-Sabi.


Wabi literally translates to Poverty, but not in the western sense. Although this translation does not begin to convey the richness of its true meaning. Instead think of wabi as an independence from the material, an inward richness, with higher values than the ornate, or material wealth. Therefore; poverty that surpasses immense riches, In practical terms, we see this exemplified in the contentment of a family living in spartan conditions, with simple food and few possessions, but surrounded by, and intone with the events of every day life. In the abstract, or artistic terms, we see the artists who does not indulge in complexity of concept, the over ornate expression, or the pomposity of self-esteem. He or she is quietly content with the simple things, and so make them the sources of their inspiration.


Sabi on the contrary denotes loneliness, solitude. Aesthetically this meaning is much broader, there is antique element implied, combined with a primitive lack of sophistication. We could go into the utensils used in the Japanese tea ceremony for an exterior example. But for now think about the pots we use for Bonsai. The essence of Sabi, therefore is the coming together of grace and antiquity.


To summarise Wabi-Sabi as a whole: Wabi implies Poverty, simplicity and contentment; Sabi on the other hand, entails loneliness, solitude, some deliberate antique imperfection and the absence of over-sophistication.


Before I move onto Wabi-Sabi's role in Zen philosophy lets take a quick look at how Wabi-Sabi has already dictated some of your decisions in how you cultivate your bonsai in a practical sense.


Sabi - Solitude, Leaving group and clump bonsai aside for the moment (it takes more words to explain them in this setting) think about all your other bonsai. They are alone in their pot. We ask the audience to evoke thoughts of a tree in solitude, on a hill top, in a field, or on the cliff edge. Alone, with its simple existence, we are enjoying the beauty of its Sabi. This evocation stills the mind, calming in the freedom of attachment of our world (the way art takes us to another place), in-part making the view feel alone with the tree as they would if it was a full size tree in situ. These thoughts enviably fold in Wabi, as I said before they cannot be disconnected. These thoughts are part of the freedom of the physical, the material, the viewer has had their mind stilled and removed from the physical world, freedom from now common things like technology (phones, tablets, computers), freedom from the room or area in which they stand. The viewer now lives in the etherial world of the mind, free from the material world.


Wabi - Freedom or independence from the ornate, and the appreciation of the simple. Have you every wondered why the Bonsai community is so adamant about glazed pots for deciduous and unglazed for conifers and evergreens? Wabi is the reason. We all have this sense of Wabi running through our veins, because we are able to free ourselves of the indulgence of the ornate, we use clay pots (unglazed. While in Japan, the locals used the term, sand colour, or clay pot for unglazed pots. That in itself felt like Wabi-Sabi to me.) for our conifers. Using a glazed pot with year round foliage, is far too ornate for those in-tune with their inner Wabi. So why the glazed pots you ask? It is common to see deciduous trees in Japan, China, and Taiwan, in unglazed pots. However we have come to learn that for balance, we need colour in our trees all year round, which is what the function of the glaze is, and its precisely why we don't need it for conifers.


While these are only two very short, over summarised examples among many, it think you may beginning to see how Wabi-Sabi is already running through your veins.




When we start talking about Zen, we may think of Tea ceremonies, moss covered maple gardens and Yoga (and latex tights). But thats not what I want to explore today. For bonsai in particular, Zen covers what we call in the western society the principles and elements of art. Elements: Line, shape, form, colour, value, space and texture, while Principles are: Rhythm, balance, emphasis (contrast), gradation, harmony, variety and movement. Zen manages to package these concepts into a smaller, more abstract set of principles (I like to think of them as guidelines for success, as I do with the 'rules' of bonsai).


There are 7 concepts of Zen and 2 of the fit into Wabi, 2 in Sabi, and 3 which grey the lines.

Wabi: Freedom from Attachment, Subtle profundity

Sabi: Austere sublimity, Asymmetry.

The Grey: Simplicity, Tranquility and Naturalness.


Asymmetry; The majority of bonsai design hold this quality, aside from the formal upright, very few need to be perfectly symmetrical. Harmony is achieved by careful placement of visual mass with negative area, in balanced proportions. A perfect example of this is how we place the tree off centre, but first find the 'balance' of the tree, of find the best place to plant the tree, or the avoidance of barbell branches, and tier our foliage pads. Stasis and over-perfection should be avoided.

Although some say Asymmetry is more prevalent in Ikebana, id like to say its equally important in all Eastern art, including Bonsai.


Simplicity: Weather in art, science, nature or philosophy, the most profound things are often expressed in the simplest terms. This is equally true in Bonsai too; where over ornate decoration of tree, or pot (and especially the fishermen figurines at the bonsai shop) detract from the design of the tree.Disciple of simplicity, therefore, is a vital aspect of bonsai design.


Austere Sublimity: All surplus parts are discarded, leaving only the essentials. There is no better example for he than Bunjin style bonsai. (Bunjin, and Literati are interchangeable, where Bunjin (文人) 文 Learned 人Man, Lit. Literati (literate).) In English we use the term Literati far more because its the term we use for Sumi-e the simple style black ink water art (水墨画) of which the Bunjin style bonsai is trying to imitate. As with the simplicity of the artworks, the tree is formed with simple brush stroke like movements, symbolising an old, scholar; wise, frail, kind and beautiful, in a weathered kind of way. The scholar, like the essence of Austere Sublimity does not care for frills, nor the ornate. So too, the Bunjin style, is stripped back to what is only essential.


Naturalness: Where would bonsai be without naturalness. But what do we mean when talking about naturalness in bonsai, isn't it all natural? well, not really, because what we are talking about is the evidence of the artist. Like the Ninja, we as bonsai artists, should leave no trace of our work. We observe nature, and try our best to copy, but no where in nature do you see a perfectly cut evidence of a said branch, the meticulous carving of a Dremel, or the scars of past wire. We strive for the most natural looking tree as possible. It is the lack of evidence that you worked on the tree, is the essence of Naturalness.


Subtle Profundity: Perhaps the most difficult to convey of the concepts, Subtle profundity is the intimations of inexhaustibility and endless reverberations. There is a suggestion, an inkling of deep space, a hidden quality, attribute or ability. As you become more discriminating in bonsai, you will begin to sense this feeling in certain designs. You may find yourself feeling lost in the design, or a deep sense of respect and reverence for a tree. It could be the age, or the sheer beauty, the craftsmanship of the artist, who left no trace or the trees regal bearing. A fine tree can communicate its subtle profundity in its own special way.


Freedom From Attachment: Is possibly the International Bonsai community's favourite concept right now. because what Freedom from Attachment is, its the parting from the orthodox, the new, the different, intriguing, eccentric, fresh new designs, that are yet to be given names. These are designs that attract attention because they don't fit the mould, they are free from attachment.


Tranquility: For the uninitiated, the first thing that bonsai evokes is tranquility, though, those who are also grandmaster, still try to hold onto. Another of the characteristics which is associated with Japanese and Chinese art, is the feeling of deep calm, even in action, is conveyed in the subtle shades of an ink wash parting. Needless to say certain bonsai also are able to convey this attribute, some, many famous trees, are so noble in bearing that simply looking at them evoke a deep sense of restfulness and tranquility. And it could possibly the root of why bonsai is pursued so avidly in the west.



These concepts and principles may seem rather abstract at first, however if you ponder them while critiquing your own bonsai, you may come to some type of understanding, a base of which you can expand both your knowledge, and your mind. I think, for me, this is what Zen is much about. It's not about getting it all at once, its about understanding over a lifetime. I don't believe I have the answers, this is what I have accumulated thus far, and still continue to learn, gather, forage for more inspiration.


With the rather strict definitions out of the way it’s time to delve into the abstract. Wabi-sabi by definition is rather difficult to define and is rather thought out as some abstract concepts.


When studying wabi-sabi I came across a great resource in a few books; the first was Wabi-Sabi for Artists, designers, poets & philosophers by Leonard Koren (https://www.amazon.com.au/Wabi-Sabi-Artists-Designers-Poets-Philosophers/dp/0981484603/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=Leonard+Koren&qid=1584422167&sr=8-2)


This book was great at giving another perspective on wabi sabi, by framing it in the way of the passing of time, which is one of the most prevelent ways we tend to see wabi sabi manifest in the way in which the Japanese tend to discuss it within bonsai. However it’s not only about the passing of time, it is rather prevalent in their language. In this book it is discussed the notion of coming into being and going out of existence, and that which lies between is known as wabi sabi, which is suitable to bonsai, as in bonsai, a rather young bonsai does not exhibit wabi sabi traits, and neither does a dead bonsai. A similarly the ‘grey’ between black and white is also known as wabi sabi. That combined with a sense of restraint when designing bonsai and for that matter, pottery too is what gives rise to wabi sabi in bonsai. 


Another western idealism that springs to mind, that may help in the understanding, or at least partial understanding of wabi sabi, is that of minimalism. A concept brought to me through the book: Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life by Beth Kempton (https://www.amazon.com.au/Wabi-Sabi-Japanese-Perfectly-Imperfect-ebook/dp/B07BDG5Z8Y/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=Beth+Kempton&qid=1584422132&sr=8-2). A notion of what can be done without, or bringing everything back to the bare essentials. Which is a hard and fast definition that leaves us more confused than before, but is rather evident when thinking about that characteristics in bonsai which lend themselves to wabi sabi, think bunion and simple pots, careful use of coloured glazes and the way in which we use glazed pots. 



In a long car ride with Reihou through the streets of Tokoname we discussed how a pot can transition from new to old and then wabi sabi, which is to be said, is difficult to define the exact moment by virtue of wabi sabi, however was summed up by the passing of time and events, gradually a pot would be embellished with a sense of wabi sabi. Similarly, when discussing the finer points of a particular tree I was working on with my Oyakata, a particularly strange style of tree, we discussed some wabi sabi characteristics. In my mind it was the sense of struggle that the tree seemed to have endured that made me bring up the topic, and my Oyakata seemed to agree with me. Most of the trees I asked my Oyakata about I terms of wabi sabi were of a Bunjin or literati style of tree or something similar. These trees are some of the first styles of bonsai and seem to follow that theme of age as far as their susceptibility to wabi sabi. 





I hope this blog will inspire you to go out and delve deeper into the philosophy of wabi sabi and the greater philosophy of bonsai too. In a world developing technology that speeds up nearly every aspect of life, I notice people growing more and pore impatient, our chosen hobby/art/craft is there to help us slow down and be mindful. Its our job to help those we love escape the rush and take time to appreciate the subtle beauty of the nature about us.








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