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american zen

Like all great nations through history, America borrows freely, adopting and adapting. Her Pilgrim Fathers included parlous few, say, Jews or Italians or Africans, yet look at how they later added to American culture and her living traditions. When America borrows some aspect of another culture she often gains a perspective of something that either she lacked, or that she long possessed but can now appreciate all the better.

American cultural conservatives (self-identified or not) can do worse than to take a cursory look at Japanese aesthetics, particularly the portions derived from Zen Buddhism and specifically at what is called wabi-sabi. Peer into that supposedly exotic cultural mirror and you will see America’s heartland; expect a geisha’s song and you will hear Dolly Parton.

But first, a little background.

Zen, as religions go, is an odd duck and may be neither intrinsically Buddhist nor even a religion as such. Using silent meditation, spiritual quizzes called koans and a bare modicum of teaching it seeks to remove obstructions first to self-discipline, then to clarity and ultimately to a transcendent spirituality.

The American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (1915-1968), worried that Christianity had forsaken its mystical roots in favour of Cartesian scientism; what he called “the reification of concepts, idolization of the reflexive consciousness, flight from being into verbalism, mathematics, and rationalization;” obstacles avoided successfully, he said, by the early Church’s Desert Fathers.

Zen has roots in the same conflict within Buddhism and wages war against over-verbalisation, clearing away the man-made, mind-made cobwebs that block us from Buddhist enlightenment, or from a Christian monastic perspective, God’s grace. As a partial remedy to over-intellectualisation, Zen prizes simplicity and honest toil in conjunction with silence and reflection; notions that occurred to Saint Benedict at roughly the same time.

This propelled Merton into dialogues with Buddhist figures ranging from the Dalai Lama to D.T. Suzuki, who brought Zen to America in the early twentieth century (published initially by Open Court, which three generations later printed Russell Kirk’s “The Roots of American Order”). Merton, in his “Zen and the Birds of Appetite,” never fully reconciles the two faiths of course, and he agrees with all other Zen writers that words fail within a fundamentally wordless medium, but he certainly finds shared approaches while retaining his devout Christianity.

After Zen arrived from China, in Japan’s Kamakura Period (1185-1333 AD), it never left. Because it is, so to speak, a “cleaning agent” and not a philosophy or faith as such; because it opens humans to enlightenment (or grace) from without yet provides few prescriptive values beyond, Zen and its vigorous monastic traditions were prone to capture by samurai feudalism and then by modern fascism. It can create a vacuum into which ideology may creep.

But its artistic influence was and is immense and sublime. Today Zen is by no means the only tradition within Japanese aesthetics, but it still occupies the commanding heights of their culture. 

american zenImportant artistic manifestations of Zen include wabi and sabi, or conventionally, wabi-sabi. These, each or together, are unlikely hallmarks of beauty. Learning to appreciate them supposedly makes better people in the way in which “great art” does more conventionally. But this kind of beauty and truth can be found in your attic more frequently than in a Western museum; it can occur naturally, although it can also be generated by artifice and intent.

A Christian might say that wabi-sabi is a kind of art made by man but given age and character by man and God together; generally using man-made materials affected by human use and natural processes, in order to teach us something about our ancestors, traditions, time and the Permanent Things.

Wabi stems from concepts of sadness or loneliness, the poetically simple, humble and non- or even anti-materialistic. In can mean poverty, but in the way in which Christ blesses those who are “poor in spirit.” Wabi requires natural materials such as wool or cotton, wood or metal, ceramic or stone; it is not on speaking terms with polyester.

Sabi is redolent of passing time and decay. It revels in signs of use and wear, cracks and fissures, rust and repairs that are cherished as testimony to an item’s age and utility.

Together they are said to evoke the equivalent of an astringent taste, the bitter-sweet flavour of a ripe persimmon. If wabi-sabi has a season, it is autumn.

american zen

To the Japanese aesthete, wabi-sabi means that a common earthenware teacup, old and hand-thrown on a potter’s wheel, trumps something shiny and new and factory-made. Better if it is imperfect and not completely round. Better still if it suffered a few chips and exhibits some old repairs. In order to display the cultural value of an old and once-cheap ceramic cup, its broken shards are often re-adhered with a visible border of pure gold.

A stone pot for drinking-water, at the door of a simple Japanese country tea-house, draws close to wabi-sabi; if it has moss growing on it, all the better; accompanied by a worn-out bamboo dipper it nears perfection. Japanese people pause to admire such things and comment on their emotive qualities, as we might analyse a painting or a sculpture.

If you brought something with “bling,” new and shiny, made by some trendy designer and duly expensive, then bow to the teacher Japanese-style, apologise to your fellow students and skulk in abject humiliation to the back of the classroom (the Japanese must surely have a phrase for a crass Yuppie for they have those people too).

Wabi-sabi is neither merely something natural and simple nor something old and worn. The two goals must be present together in an aesthetic whole that defies full description. But an old teapot, or a cracked cup that we might consign to the church rummage sale, can fetch vast sums from wealthy Japanese aesthetes, particularly if it was made by a renowned Zen potter who long ago created the misshapen ceramic’s flaws intentionally, and afterwards its damages were repaired with care. In such circumstances, the item displays wabi-sabi, an owner’s refined taste and the depths of his wallet. But to a deeper and purer aesthete, the anonymous unsigned item may thus be the more holy.

There is also a vigorous trade in modern wabi-sabi; handmade natural artisanal things that embody its values; chiefly ceramics that contain natural flaws from the kiln or intentional imperfections. Poetry or music can qualify too, if they convey the right feeling.

Translating wabi-sabi from Japanese into American aesthetics is a lot easier than, say, developing a U.S. market for squid-flavoured chewing-gum.

For Americans, wabi is Thoreau’s shack on Walden Pond or Honest Abe’s log cabin hand-hewn from native wood. Sabi is a rusting pick-up truck abandoned on an old farm, or an elderly gramophone rescued from the attic.

Wabi-sabi, in American fine art, is anything ever painted by Andrew Wyeth. It haunts the vast majority of songs on any good country-western jukebox in any rundown bar or diner on any deserted interstate highway. It is anything embroidered by your grandma and tucked into a drawer for safekeeping. It is an old recipe scribbled in faded ink; or a dog-eared photo album kept even after you have forgotten some of the sepia faces inside.

American wabi-sabi is why your old family bible is so much better than a new one; why you keep that chipped old platter that matches nothing, just because an ancestor brought it from Ireland; it is why even white people listen to the blues. It is old tools wrought of wood and iron, worn by generations of hands and admired for their signs of age and service. It is a split-rail fence. It is an enamelled tin cup, somewhat rusted but still usable for a while longer. It is a moth-eaten and threadbare flag much loved, Old Glory without all fifty stars.

Its Japanese poet is the 17th Century master of haiku, Basho; its American poet is Robert Frost. Wabi-sabi haunts much of American art photography, now and dating back to the early twentieth century.

Although largely unidentified, American wabi-sabi was probably born neither in her Colonial Period nor alongside the infant Republic. It may have arisen as Americans began to sense historical or cultural loss, a feeling both analytical and romantic. Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” was too early and something of a jest; Wallace Nutting’s late-nineteenth century survey of early colonial furniture was historical but not emotive. His popular hand-tinted Pilgrim scenes come closer, as do the slightly earlier romanticised prints of Currier & Ives, but wabi-sabi is more than mere nostalgia.

One is tempted to place the true birth of popular American wabi-sabi after the Second World War, with the GI Bill and newfound prosperity. Hence came an educated and much-expanded middle-class with money, but not enough to buy the fine period furniture collected by the Duponts and other great families. In search of an affordable piece of the past, ordinary American couples prowled rural junk shops, antique shops and even barns and farmyards, trooping home with common items of uncommon beauty. Examples of hand-worn loneliness which had captivated earlier art photographers, and sometimes Georgia O’Keefe, grew into an American aesthetic cult still not wholly identified and named.

It sometimes led to amusement. My childhood neighbours proudly displayed a well-worn plank retrieved from a Michigan farm, which they had turned into a picture-frame on their parlour wall; its original purpose remained mysterious, they said. The sepia photos of their great-grandparents, who would have been scandalised, peered through a “two-holer” outhouse seat, well-worn indeed but not by human hands. Yet it met the wabi-sabi criteria. 

american zen

Today, American wabi-sabi may be her foremost popular aesthetic tradition. An evocative art-photo of a rusting pickup truck or an iron windmill beside an abandoned Dust Bowl farmhouse, or a Wyeth print, is more likely to be found on people’s walls than anything modernist that delights the elites. This is not to say that a love of American history or heritage or Willie Nelson is fully affected by wabi-sabi, but its presence is often lurking not far away. Its appreciation may even reveal the sort of American who fully loves his or her country, warts and all, whether that person is a self-identified conservative or hasn’t figured it out yet.

All cultures may have their versions of wabi-sabi; certainly European and Far Eastern ones do. If not, they may be immune to heartache; if so, the reasons are perhaps everywhere the same.

On one level, wabi-sabi signifies the vanity of human wishes and our recognition that all material things pass away. Yet on another plane it binds us to our own beloved ghosts and their belongings; to our ancestors and their values and traditions that live on by making us what we are, still shaping the lives of our children and grandchildren. In observing destruction it preserves.

american zenThe Japanese teacup ages, cracks and one day breaks irreparably and disappears, while tea-drinking continues; the lonely Midwestern clapboard farmhouse reminds of us of what existed before, binding us to a past almost gone, while shewing us links to our own day and maybe to the more prudent of the various paths ahead. Gray in his churchyard Elegy, or Eliot in his Four Quartets, knew well the continuum within the paradox.

The Japanese venerate this paradox in other ways too. They have thousand-year-old wooden temples in which all parts are replaced every generation or so: it is thus an almost-ancient shrine renewed by craftsmen still living, retaining the virtues of both age and modern devotion to age. Western rationalists would see it as a joke or a puzzle from philosophy class; asking how it can still be George Washington’s hatchet when the blade was replaced once and the handle twice. Yet to the Japanese, yesterday and today, the past and the future merge completely within a single building. No doubt this ritualised amalgam of thing and replacement gives them personal solace and cultural strength.

Yes, wabi-sabi may be partly born of parsimony to inculcate a kind of cultural economy: penny-wise and pound-wise too, my Dutch friends preserve old things and repair them beyond material logic. Yet mostly this seems driven by an underlying love and the kind of respect begotten by love. It softly celebrates Burke’s allegiance to people and places. It is a traditionalist lens through which to observe change. It is a sacred amulet passed down through generations; a lodestone by which to navigate unfamiliar waters foreboding and dark. The cult of wabi-sabi, in both its Japanese and Western variants, is to some degree the physical culture of Eliot’s Permanent Things.

Do we need our own word for wabi-sabi? I do not know. Certainly the feeling has long been with us throughout the West, but introducing the cultural concept helps us to identify and to better appreciate a kind of truth and beauty that defies being put into words, and yet is very much still at home in America.

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

The first painting in this piece is Wind from the Sea by Andrew Wyeth.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Well, two weeks without comment. I suspect that this essay might have to age a little, and show signs of wear on the google edges. We should send it to Dolly Parton. She would understand it.

  2. Stephen, I've been waiting for someone to write this article for years. Read and loved Merton, all of D.T. Suzuki's books, incl. Zen and Japanese Culture and its magnificent chapters on wabi-sabi and aesthetics, and, growing up in Washington, DC, stood mesmerized in front of that very Wyeth painting since childhood, absolutely in love with it, the curtains brushing against my cheek. You wrote a very good article here and I'm sending links to friends for Christmas. I hope you might explore and expand the section on Christianity and Zen, the idea of Zen as a vulnerable ideological vaccuum, and of the Desert Fathers, who they were and their spiritual achievements. It's never been more important even from the viewpoint of mere aesthetics (forgive me;I love pairing those two words) to pay homage once more to the physical world as God's art … when standing at a bus stop in the rain in the 21st century, I find I am the only one rejoicing in the beauty of little humble things, the dance of rain-kissed leaves, a very wabi unbrella that won't open, a wince of pain in an ancient face dismounting the bus … No one is where they are anymore; they've all got their snouts in their phones and they're missing everything. Maybe you can save the century with an important book (made into a film, eventually) on Desert Christianity and Zen, wabi-sabi, and the search for beauty in a world that has strangely averted its eyes from God's art. Kudos on a great article and expect more hits soon; I'm evangelizing this one. Best regards, YQ

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