Like Feng Shui, wabi sabi is an Eastern idea gaining popularity in the West. Unlike Feng Shui, wabi sabi is not a technique for increasing wealth, or tapping into some unseen mystical power. It is quite the opposite. It is an intuitive way of living that involves noticing the moments that make life rich and paying attention to the simple pleasures that can be over-shadowed by the bustle and excess of our consumer society.
It started with tea. In Japan, in the Middle Ages, nobles and military leaders strengthened political alliances by throwing elaborate tea parties in which expensive teapots and tea-making utensils were displayed and given as gifts. These ostentatious events focused on expensive Chinese art and tea objects and were the exclusive territory of the rich. Zen monks, who had brought tea to Japan in the first place, continued to develop a tea ceremony called wabi tea, which emphasized a different kind of wealth. Their ceremony used rustic Japanese pottery and focused on the natural elements used in making tea. It allowed participants to connect with the pleasure of drinking tea and provided a tranquil space in which to appreciate natural beauty.
The tea masters who preformed these ceremonies situated their tea huts in the middle of gardens and crafted their ceremonies to be rich in symbolic meaning. They practiced making tea until they could do it without thinking about it. Then, when they served tea to others, they were free to focus their attention entirely on their guests without being distracted by the preparation process. The most famous tea master was Sen no Rikyu who took wabi tea to a new level of subtlety thanks to the patronage of the Shogun Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga used both forms of tea ceremony to unify Japan. Three of Rikyu’s principle students were devout Christians: Furuta Oribe, Takayama Ukon, and Gamou Ujisato. They discovered that the way of tea enriched their own faith because it provided a concrete example of selfless attention to others. By learning to serve so well that you no longer need to think about what you are doing, you are free to focus on your guests.
Sabi is a word that originated in Japanese poetry. It expresses the feeling you get in the autumn when the geese are flying south and the leaves are falling. It is a sort of somber longing that is felt in the muted colors and earthy aroma of a forest preparing for winter. This melancholy ache is a sort of hopeful sadness that recognizes that nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, and nothing is finished, but that even so, life is full of meaning. The complete term ‘wabi sabi’ describes a way of life practiced by those who notice and appreciate the significant moments of each day, live fully in each change of season, and connect with nature and those around them in meaningful and gentle ways.
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