Wabi-Sabi and Eternity

Wabi-sabi (侘寂) is an aesthetic that, according to Wikipedia,

represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centred on the acceptance of transience. The phrase comes from the two words wabi and sabi. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. […] Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and suggest a natural process.

It is often associated with Zen and Mahayana Buddhist philosophy:

Wabi and sabi both suggest sentiments of desolation and solitude. In the Mahayana Buddhist view of the universe, these may be viewed as positive characteristics, representing liberation from a material world and transcendence to a simpler life. Mahayana philosophy itself, however, warns that genuine understanding cannot be achieved through words or language, so accepting wabi-sabi on nonverbal terms may be the most appropriate approach.

If Christianity had come into contact first with Eastern cultures rather than the classical Mediterranean world, would this aesthetic still have developed in such a climate? After all, it is most strongly in Homer and other pagan epics that the ideal of lasting glory is a means of achieving permanence; in contrast, the Bible says (Is. 40.6–8),

A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.

There is in Christian thought, then, the tension between the notions of the eternal God and the transient man. Unless we expect the human race to forever preserve memory of long-gone races, of mythic deeds, this too will pass, vanishing into thin air of minds that no longer speak. And there is no eternal afterlife in Buddhism, only a detachment from the identity of the self and incorporation (or is it disincorporation?) into the vast nameless. But in the Christian world view, there is the God both immanent and transcendent, who lives from eternity to eternity, whose name and praise will never end: the harmonies of His praise change in expression, but they speak ceaselessly of a constant God.

Zen Buddhism may support a wabi-sabi aesthetic because it posits neither eternal existence nor immutable Platonic forms, but the Christian faith is caught between the immortality of God and the mortal mutability of what we do on this earth. Wooden houses are ephemeral. Even a stone castle – you must have seen a picture of a ruined castle before, windswept, battered by the elements – could be called ephemeral. Yet such medieval Christian manuscripts as the Book of Kells, which contains the four Gospels, are elaborately made to last, to transmit a message and incarnate it in visual beauty.

Then what is the meaning of contemporary veneers of plastic, quickly discarded and replaced rather than renewed? Is it an idolatry of youth, or is it a rootless nihilism, or what?


One response to “Wabi-Sabi and Eternity

  1. Pingback: Daughter of the Ring of Fire » Blog Archive » Mortification of the Word

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