Write About Simplicity and Aloneness



Wabi / Sabi
By Bill Scheffel

Czelaw Milosz called an epiphany an "unveiling of reality." I once listened to a radio lecture by Alan Watts, recorded in Japan in 1967. Watts explained that Japanese aesthetics, particularly those inspired by Zen, sought the expression of four desirable qualities - sabi, wabi, awari, and furiu. I realized that each of these "aesthetic moments" was a potential epiphany - as well as a universal quality, not merely Japanese or Buddhist.

Sabi is the mood of loneliness. It is meant to evoke not only an existential aloneness, but the necessity and even pleasure of solitude. It is meant to resonate with our own experience, how a walk in the woods or desert or up the mountain brings strength, calm or conviction. It is meant to point out that solitude is not only a part of sanity, but also the individuation that comes from connection with nature (cosmos). Watts:

Sabi is kind of mood - a "zen taste." The basic mood of sabi is loneliness. A great painting that ilustrates this is The Lonely Crow on a Tree Branch. The feeling of the hermit. The sensationg of being way off in a moutain landscape (in a crowded country). This feeling of solitariness, being able to wander off by yourself, any sane person has to have this. Privacy. Space in which to be alone, so as not to become a rubber stamp. It's often thought Eastern philosophy is against individuality - this is not true. The unity of man and universe is not a merging of man with something impersonal, it's more that when one knows oneself as an expression of the whole cosmos one becomes more individual - but one becomes individual in a non-strident way.

Watt's offers this famous poem as expressive of sabi:

Asking for the Master

I ask the boy beneath the pines.
He says the master's gone alone
herb gathering, somewhere on the mountain,
cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown.


This reminded me of a poem I first read when I was probably nineteen, a poem that swept me into its mood and truth and made me want to follow it. By Tu Fu, arguably China's greatest poet, it is the first poem in Kenneth Rexroth's marvelous translation One Hundred Poems from the Chinese.


Written on the Wall at
Chang's Hermitage

It is Spring in the mountains.
I come alone seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
Between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
In the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
You can see the aura of gold
And silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
As the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I become like you,
An empty boat, floating, adrift.


Wabi can be described as the spirit of poverty, an appreciation of the commonplace, and is perhaps most fully achieved in the tea ceremony, which, from the simple utensils used in the preparation of the tea to the very structure of the tea hut, honors the humble. Wabi is virtually the definition of epiphany. It is the turning point between depression, self-absorption, worry, "ordinary preoccupations" and the recognition of cosmic order and the eternal patterns of nature. This is how Watts describes it:

Lets imagine that you are feeling very bad about something. You're depressed, the world is too much with you, you're sick of life. And then, quite surprisingly you notice a small weed growing underneath a hedge, and this weed it not just to be dismissed as a weed, but has some lovely design that is in the nature of the plant. Or supposing you are bothered by financial uproar, wars, politics and so on, and you are sitting on a beach and you become aware of the water endlessly crossing pebbles - you get a sense that this goes on forever and forever, it is long before you were thought of, long before human history, empires, schemes and so on, and will endure long after. It is something strikes you as very simple and ordinary, but suggests a kind of eternal reliability of nature - that this everlasting sanity persists… That strange flip from the mood of depression to a kind of consolation, is wabi.

A brushwood gate
And for a lock
This snail

This is all there is
The path comes to an end
Among the parsley


I think of this poem is an exacting analog of wabi:


It's devilishly hot.
I turn on the fan
and the blades start to revolve slowly.
At once a soft wind springs up
and the curtains begin to dance.

The center of the fan
is a convex mirror,
a fish-eye,
a golden dome.
The reflections vibrate there
with the purring of the machine,
but do not move from their place.

I turn up the speed and the blades spin
almost turning invisible
- only a whitish gauze -
but the reflections in the center
continue the same.

So it must be with everything - I tell myself -
the surfaces move at high speed
but not the reflected forms.

The individuals of a species pass
but the species continues the same.

The men and women of a nation pass
but the nation goes on.

All the poets pass,
but the poetry remains.

Our thoughts pass,
but something, or someone
is observing.

Keeps on observing.

- Alberto Blanco

trans. by John Oliver Simon

fr. City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology



Or maybe Allen Ginsberg's Sunflower Sutra documents wabi in the most complete way possible?



I walked an the banks of the tincan banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry.

Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery.

The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums on the riverbank, tired and wily.

Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust—

—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—my visions—Harlem

and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past—

and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset,crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye—

corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sun-rays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb,

leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,

Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower 0 my soul, I loved you then!

The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives,

all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuberance of artificial worse-than-dirt—industrial modern—all that civilization spotting your crazy golden crown—

and those blear thoughts of death and dusty lovelesseyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out ofchairs & sphincters of dynamos—all these

entangled in your mummied roots—and you there standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form!

A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze!

How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your grime, while you cursed the heavens of the railroad and your flower soul?

Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?

You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!

And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!

So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,

and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen,

—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we’re blessed by our own seed & golden hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.



Berkeley, 1955


Back to the top.