Ah, those perspicacious Japanese! They always have a word for it; in this case, wabibito – someone who personifies the characteristics of wabi-sabi.
Wabi originally meant the loneliness of being solitary in nature, a kind of sadness, melancholy.
Sabi, which can be translated simply ‘rust’, originally meant thin, cold, withered, weathered.
Over time their meanings developed new connotations, wabi coming to describe something with qualities of freshness, quietness and restraint, mortality, something natural and simple, unaffected, with a plain and understated elegance. Sabi came to describe the beauty of ageing – the patina of tools much used, the silvering of old wood, the serenity of old age, objects carefully repaired where they are broken, things flawed, asymetrical, unconventional or anomalous.
Wabi-sabi evolved from the Japanese form of Buddhism – Zen – and therefore inherently assumes (philosophically) impermanence, transience, nothingness, seeing beauty in that.
Zen, though it is a form of Buddhism, also has roots in (Chinese) Taoism, and the resonance is very clear.
The wabibito is an ordinary person, but embodies characteristics Lao Tsu identifies as the qualities of the Sage, in the Tao. Indeed, the Tao is like an exposition of wabi-sabi – or maybe wabi-sabi is the lifestyle expression of the Tao.
A concept of the Tao is wu-wei, sometimes called ‘the art of non-doing’. The Tao speaks of the way of heaven as a state without artifice, entirely natural. Wu-wei is that kind of effectiveness achieved by being so aligned with the flow of life and grace, so unobtrusive, that things seem to come about, come together, of themselves, apparently effortlessly. And this is not laissez-faire indifference; it is mastery.
Tao Ch 37 The Tao does nothing yet leaves nothing undone.
Tao Ch 48 – Do nothing and there is nothing left undone.
Tao Ch 17 (Derek Lin’s translation) –
Task accomplished, matter settled
The people all say, "We did it naturally"
This is about ultimate effectiveness, what Jesus was talking about when he said, “I do nothing but what I see the Father do” (John 5:19).
So a wabibito embodies all these characteristics. To say the wabibito ‘puts them into practice’ whould miss the point, because that implies a system, an artifice, something structured and deliberate. But the way of the wabibito is so aligned upon life and grace that s/he just can’t help being and doing the way of life. It arises organically and naturally from the core of the person’s being. It is who they are.
Thus the wabibito merges with the I AM THAT I AM in whose image they live. And this is what is meant by the water Jesus gives us (Holy Spirit) as a well at the centre of our being, springing up to eternal life (John 4:14) Unsurprisingly, when in the 7th century, some Chinese Taoists embraced the Christian faith, they really liked John’s gospel!
- Savouring the sweetness of this moment which is passing and will never come again.
- Willing to relinquish, to lay down, to step back.
- Content with being unnoticed and passed over; of no significance.
- Refraining from intellectual complexity, games and entanglement.
- Living with economy
Here are some expressions of the way of the wabibito:
Do not wish to be shiny like jade
Be dull like rocks (Tao 39, tr.Derek Lin)
The superb description of sages in Chapter 15 of the Tao.
The instruction of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (here NIVUK)
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you.
Then, there’s the really interesting chapters 18 and 19 of the Tao (translation below by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English), that describe what we would normally consider socially desirable as in fact disastrous – signs that society have lost the way:
When the great Tao is forgotten,
Kindness and morality arise.
When wisdom and intelligence are born,
The great pretense begins.
When there is no peace within the family,
Filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos,
Loyal ministers appear.
Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.
Give up kindness, renounce morality,
And men will rediscover filial piety and love.
Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,
And bandits and thieves will disappear.
These three are outward forms alone;
they are not sufficient in themselves.
It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize one's true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire.
I see the way of the wabibito, too, in some of William Penn’s writing:
Avoid Company where it is not profitable or necessary; and in those Occasions speak little, and last.
(Fruits of Solitude 128)
Have but little to do, and do it thy self: And do to others as thou wouldest have them do to thee: So, thou canst not fail of Temporal Felicity.
(Fruits of Solitude 241)
Neither make nor go to Feasts, but let the laborious Poor bless thee at Home in their Solitary Cottages.
(Fruits of Solitude 244)
Remember the Proverb, Bene qui latuit, bene vixit. They are happy that live Retiredly.
(Fruits of Solitude 325)