In trying to understand the complex mindset and aesthetics of Japanese culture, there are few concepts more critical than Wabi and Sabi. The nature of these terms has driven Japanese artistry and society for centuries, and has caused much confusion and consternation for Westerners.
If you study an eastern martial art, especially one that is derived from Japan or Okinawa, it might benefit you to learn more about Wabi and Sabi. To that end I will try my best to capture their intent and how they relate to traditional martial artists.
The Modern Wabi-Sabi
Before I dive into the history and meaning of the two words, I need to address a modern occurrence. The current trend in discussing Wabi (wah-bee) and Sabi (sah-bee) is to link them together, and pronounce them as if they were two syllables of the same word: Wabi-Sabi. The reason for this is because the definitions for the two have become a bit convoluted over time, and many people are unsure about the subtle differences in each.
So similar are they and so in tune with each other, that many people simply use them interchangeably or as a single unit. Wabi-Sabi is frequently used to describe design elements and material possessions that are old, natural, and austere. Things that contain Wabi-Sabi are said to have a lot of character, and are not generally mass produced.
I don’t consider this modern mindset wrong, but I also don’t think it’s complete. I’ll explain why.
What is Wabi?
Depending on where you look, you’ll encounter different definitions for both Wabi and Sabi. When I’m in doubt, I tend to go to Dave Lowry, and he has this to say:
“Wabi originally meant ‘poverty’, and its connotation was as negative as the English translation implies. Sen no Rikyu [a famous tea master] imbued the term with a wholly different flavor, though. He used wabi to mean a poverty of materialism, of superficial appearances. Wabi he defined as a minimizing of things, the better to gain a spiritual insight into oneself and the world around…That which is factory produced is sterile and anonymous, without wabi. Wabi is the quality of the natural and handmade, it reflects the personality and character of the maker.”
The man in Lowry’s story, Sen no Rikyu, was one of the most famous Chado masters in Japanese history. Chado is the art of tea ceremony, and before Rikyu came along the art was a garish thing. Daimyo and other high ranking officials used the tea ceremony to show off their wealth, and acquired the most elaborate tea sets they could find. The entire event was glossy, polished, and fashionable.
Rikyu changed that. He eliminated the pomp and circumstance and grinded the ceremony down to its very essence. He eliminated all of the fancy clothing and finery that distracted from the act itself, instead choosing materials that exuded Wabi.
Consider this teacup:
vs the following teacup:
The first teacup is certainly inferior when it comes to theatric detail, but Rikyu would argue it is an item of far greater value. The first cup is unique to it’s maker, and subtly tells the tale of years of use. The second teacup possesses superficial beauty that is replicated again and again; one only need glance at it to understand everything that it is.
Wabi is not just a concept for centuries old tea ceremony; it can related to our western lives as well. First observe this new barn that looks very sharp and well made:
Now consider the following barn, that has certainly seen years of use:
Can you see how the old barn speaks through Wabi?
Something that makes it even more beautiful is it’s fleeting and serene quality of Sabi, which we will discuss next.
What is Sabi?
To establish a base definition of what Sabi is, we again go to Dave Lowry and his years of exploration into the Japanese culture:
“The earliest references in japanese to sabi…were pejorative. Even today, when someone speaks in Japanese of sabishii, he is almost always indicating a kind of forlorn loneliness. [As Rikyu developed his version of Chado, he redefined sabi as he did wabi.] Sabi is not just ‘aloneness’. It is an acceptance of solitude, a resignation to it, even a calm and tranquil happiness in being by oneself. Sabi, in its most authentic form, carries with it a notion of a comfortable proximity to nature…To appreciate sabi is to discover contentment in solitude. To integrate sabi into daily life is to recognize that all of our relationships with others, even those we cherish and love most deeply, are limited.”
As Sen no Rikyu made changes to the material tools of Chado, so did he change the very spirit of it. It went from a banquet hall diversion to a poignant savoring of moments amongst a few individuals (or by oneself). It eventually evolved into the graceful and contemplative process we see today:
The tea ceremony became the perfect vessel to demonstrate Sabi because of the economy of motion and the culmination of the entire event into one sip of tea. There is no way to preserve Chado beyond the few moments it takes to complete, and no two ceremonies can ever be the same, despite the systematic ritual.
Sabi is the essence of bitter sweetness. It is a chilled breeze as you watch the sunset over an empty field of reeds. It is dropping a single pebble into a pond and then never returning. It is the singular and personal acceptance of ichi-go, ichi-e: one encounter, one chance.
Look again at our old barn and see if you can sense its mortality and harmony in solitude:
It is important to note that not all old things possess Wabi, and not all solitary things possess Sabi. For something to possess both is rare indeed and is worthy of our time and attention.
Wabi and Sabi in the Realm of Martial Arts
Wabi and Sabi hold special significant to classical martial artists. As many people have come to know, the Samurai were not just warriors but artists and scholars as well. Part of their growth as complete bugeisha was the study of Chado, Ikebana (flower arrangement), Calligraphy, and other artistic endeavors. In these pastimes they found ways to hone their character and skill for the day when battle would come.
Wabi is found in much of a traditional artist’s repertoire. One only need look at the uniform’s worn. A plain white gi is often accompanied by a single insignia or patch, and around that gi is tied a belt. Once a martial artist has accrued enough experience, they are given a black belt, and as the years pass, the black belt begins to fade and tear. Soon, it becomes worn in a completely unique way. The same is true for the tsuka, or hilt of an experienced swordsman.
These items express the character and effort of their creators, the martial artist’s using them. This is also why you sometimes hear of people purposely trying to put wear and tear on black belts by scrubbing them with brushes or cutting the exterior black threads. These people want desperately the Wabi that comes with experience and hard work, but don’t want to put in the real effort to get it. Consequently, this is also why some companies sell belts that “mature” at a quicker rate.
Sabi is often found in the way traditional martial artists train, especially in the realms of kata and hojo undo. Hojo undo is the austere physical conditioning regiment that some practitioners put themselves through using ancient tools like the Chi’ Ishi, Nagiri Game and Makiwara. Often during those exercises a person is being pushed only by themselves, and the tools they are using are made of natural elements like rock, bamboo, and clay.
Kata is the purest expression of both Sabi and Wabi in the martial arts. A kata’s movements are handed down over generations, pounded again and again as each practitioner adds a bit of his/her own character to the template. The techniques in traditional kata are stark, effective, and without garishness. There is nothing extraneous and every motion is built with economy in mind.
When a kata is performed to its fullest potential, it is a singular experience that can never be repeated. The meaning and execution of the techniques exist to fulfill the requirements of the moment, but then immediately vanish after the kata is over. The event is a bitter sweet one as the practitioner knows he was the victor and thus saved the lives of himself and his loved ones, but at the expense of those of his opponents.
This is the same sensation a swordsman experiences as he stands poised in front of his opponent, prepared to make a single cut, and live or die.
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A few months ago I introduced readers to Spear and Katana, a wicked online flash game that put you in the role of a dueling samurai. I was impressed by the game because it took real strategy to win, and you had to play smart and use good martial arts tactics like distancing and timing.
The creator of the game recently reached out to me and informed me that there is now a Spear and Katana 2!! You can imagine my great joy at hearing this. And, having played, let me tell you – it’s quite good.
The game has been expanded quite a bit from the original. Now you have the option of creating your own character with attributes and weapons of your choice. You can choose different kinds of levels to engage in, and different methods for upgrading your character. All in all, this sequel is even more engaging and time-sucking than the original.
Be warned though – if you die too many times, your journey will be over. Think you can handle it!?
Many thanks to Jiri for making and sharing his games. For more, visit him at ThunderBird Animations.
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Have you ever been brought to a standstill during your training by worry and doubt? Have you ever thought to yourself “ohh no, I’ve found a serious flaw in my system! I think I’d better just keep my mouth shut.” Or perhaps, “I just don’t think this stuff is going to work for me.” If you have, don’t worry – you’re not alone. If you haven’t, just keep thinking and investigating – my guess is that it’ll happen sooner or later.
When this kind of guilty concern happens in traditional styles, there are two kinds of coping mechanisms that I invite you to avoid. The first is acceptance. Some people will simply accept the fact that they aren’t very effective and will continue plugging away at what they do to maintain the status quo. The other is denial. Some practitioners develop an overcompensated, knee jerk reaction every time someone mentions the possibility of traditional training being imperfect.
The problem with both of these coping methods is that they do not result in deeper learning or understanding of the art. I’d like to explain how to bring concerns to your training and work through them to become a better practitioner.
Identifying Your Concerns
The funny thing about martial arts training is that there is a strange dichotomy of appropriate behavior. On one hand, we are taught to trust and listen to our seniors, and perform as they do. On the other hand, we know through life experience that the best way to improve is to question, prode, and only accept that which makes sense. What’s a traditional artist to do?
The first step is to label exactly what is bothering you. Having an unsettled feeling in your gut during a kata or during sparring won’t result in anything productive; it will just produce stress and a feeling of dissatisfaction. You have to figure out what the problem is.
Instead of thinking “I’m not very good at sparring”, break it down:
* “I can’t seem to hit people fast enough”
* “My kicks never land”
* “I find myself backpeddling all the time”
* “I can’t muster any aggression and enthusiasm”
Instead of thinking “my kata stinks”, think:
* “My hands feel awkward”
* “I’m out of breath all the time”
* “I can’t remember the moves when I really get going”
* “This kind of practice doesn’t seem to connect or help me with my self defense”
The farther you can break yourself down, the better the chances of identifying your issues. Furthermore, you can help your teacher help you by being able to describe your problems. Remember, only you really know what you are feeling – teachers can only do their best to identify what you need.
Some students feel foolish or rude asking questions. This is problematic because teachers have to worry about a whole class, and if you don’t express yourself, it is possible your worries will never be addressed. Of course, asking questions must be done in the proper way. It is important to follow the rules of etiquette that your dojo lays out, and to never be presumptuous. Remember – just because a part of a kata or self defense technique is not working for you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
One characteristic that many good teachers share is a willingness and even enthusiasm in answering questions. The reason why is because they’ve put the same kind of thought and worry into their arts that you have. They are pleased to be able to help you get over a hurdle that they have encountered themselves.
When Concerns Become Deeper
There comes a time during long-term training when some students stop wondering about their own performance of a technique, and start wondering about the technique itself. I’ll give an example.
Most students learn a version of the Age Uke – rising block.
At first this move is all well and good because it protects your face. As most people are told, an attack is coming in either straight toward the head or in an arcing motion downward and the rising block clears away the zone.
As time goes on though, some students notice that they never find a good time to use the Age Uke during sparring. They can force it of course, but more subtle slipping techniques tend to be better designed to cope with the speed of combat. And, when they do try to use Age Uke, they find that their ribs and midsection are very vulnerable, and that their rising arm sometimes obstructs their view of the opponent. Even the oft-utilized block-high/punch combo seems better served with a brisk knife hand block in order to keep the elbow down and protecting the body.
Why is Age Uke so harped on when it has such limited value?
Students who come to impasses like this have to make a choice. They can accept the technique as flawed and move on; they can tolerate it as part of tradition and never use it; or they can begin an investigation of why it is there and what it can do.
Of course, my opinion is that the arduous investigation is the best option (I’m a bit of a downer sometimes).
One might begin by approaching the technique from a practical perspective. Instead of a rising block, what happens when it becomes an attack? The practitioner could evade an oncoming strike with a parry, and then use his rising forearm to strike up underneath the chin and push the opponent back at the throat and crush the adam’s apple. Or perhaps the forearm isn’t the focal point of the strike, but is instead a rising hammerfist strike to the nose.
One might also look at it from a historical perspective. The old teachers and practitioners of karate were known to have adapted the arts to best suit their body types. Consequently, many of the old masters were quite short (think Chotoku Kyan and Gichin Funakoshi). Perhaps to these men many punches were coming in too high to use techniques other than Age Uke.
One might also mix in Kyusho when considering the efficacy of the technique. Even short individuals like Funakoshi Sensei left their midsections exposed during Age Uke. But what if that rising motion was the only way to expose certain vital points on the opponent’s body? It is feasible that the rising technique activated a certain meridian, which could then be compounded by striking points underneath the arm, into the floating ribs, or even into the upper ribs. Perhaps a simultaneous counterstrike while making the block made the inherent risk and exposure to oneself worthwhile.
These questions could lead to further questions, such as, where is it best to make contact on the opponent’s arm? How far do I need to rise until I can access valuable kyusho points? Does the block (or attack) have any pushing/pulling elements that I am not taking advantage of? If I make this move smaller and more condensed, can I use it to better effect during kumite? etc etc.
Your Answer Might Be There After All
As you continue your study, you may come to realize that there are answers you never expected to find. You may also begin to adapt your martial arts to better suit your body type and abilities (why should a 6′ 5″ person do an Age Uke? Is the reason different than a 5’1″ person?). You may even be able to chip away at things that are not effective or valuable to you.
It’s important to remember as you go through this process to not drastically alter your style or how you teach it. The kata and methods have been preserved through generations because they are repositories of knowledge, scaffolding upon which many practitioners can climb. If you change things perminently because they work better for you, you may destroy the qualities of the technique that work for other kinds of people. It is up to you to explore while preserving the essence of what is being taught. Remember: just because you’ve become effective, doesn’t mean it’s time to start your own style.
I have found that the areas in which I have been most worried are the ones that have elicited the most intriguing avenues of study. It’s important not to hide from things that you are subpar at, or make excuses for those shortcomings. Accept and understand your deep concerns and use them to fuel you. Always respect and preserve what your teachers give you, but don’t feel like you can never think a different way, or move a different way.
Finally, don’t be too quick to toss aside things you don’t like or don’t understand. You may be discarding more than you think.
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