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:

wabi tea bowl

vs the following teacup:

fancy tea cup

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:

new barn

Now consider the following barn, that has certainly seen years of use:

wabi barn

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:

sabi barn

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.

black belt wabi

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.