The Repository - Chapter 14
 

Beyond the Surface

 

 

            Due in part to the New Years Eve party, I had begun an intensive study of various aspects of Japanese culture.  And yet it wasn't as if I was learning something completely new, just refreshing my memory.  My first six months in Japan had been an introduction to the surface, the exterior aspects of Japanese culture.  Now I was ready to partake of the substance.

 

            I discovered in the black and white sumie paintings a world of art in which only the barest essentials are suggested and the viewer adds his perceptions and becomes a part of the composition.  I immersed myself in Japanese literature, in translation of course, since I still hadn't reached the point of being able to enjoy it in the original, though with each passing day my knowledge of the written language was increasing.  Although daily verbal communication had never really presented a problem.  In the terse, 17 syllable, three lined Haiku poetry, I encountered once again a beauty of feeling which was a part of something deep within my inner self.  Once my friend Kinji, who was still studying English with me, was reciting and attempting to translate some of his favorite Haiku verses. 

 

            Kinji began, "Uki ware wo, sabishi garase yo...." and from some inexplicable source I was able to finish the verse with the final word, "kankodori". 

 

Ah Kankodori

            In my melancholy

                        Deepen thou my solitude. 

 

            The Kankodori [閑古鳥] is a bird that lives in the deep, deep forests of central Japan and though seldom seen is often heard with its plaintive song.  In that moment of recognition I also knew the sound of the Kankodori, though I was certain that I'd never heard it in this present lifetime.  Later I learned that in this evocative haiku lay another of the keys to Japanese culture.  Literally translated it becomes, ‘Kankodori, make lonely melancholy me’, and expresses the aim of getting into the deepest possible contact with nature.  ‘Sabishi’ [寂しい] is a means describing this contact, and the ‘kankodori’ is known to have the particular quality of voice, of timbre, pitch and volume to intensify our minds, increasing their depth and receptivity.

 

At every turn a new wave of identification presented itself and waited to be absorbed.  I loved Japanese music which was based on an oriental scale that many westerners found too different to be enjoyable.  The music of the string instruments of the Koto [] and Samisen [三味線] struck chords deep within me and each note sounded across the centuries as a reminder of something that once had been a part of my being and was being reawakened.  The somber, deep piercing notes of the bamboo flute, known as the Shakuhachi [尺八],  recalled memories I couldn't quite grasp, though I knew they existed. 

 

            One 'word/concept' which immediately struck home with me was that of 'sabi'  [] which in Japanese literally means patina or antique, but includes solitude or aloneness. That same word used in the Kankodori haiku.   In discussing this word with Kinji, I learned that one cannot understand the Japanese with having an adequate grasp of its significance since it lies at the very core of their entire culture.  I immediately realized that it could also refer to that "aloneness" which had always been an integral part of my nature and was also so evident within the traditional Japanese character.  Unfortunately neither my Japanese, nor Kinji's English, was sufficiently adequate for a complete, detailed explanation of 'sabi'. 

 

            Then suddenly it was green again.  Spring had arrived and it was time to begin more explorations.  I had been told of an especially beautiful, though somewhat remote, ryokan—a traditional inn, and this one was located on a mountain lake.  From Chitose, where we were located, it involved taking two different busses and then crossing a large lake by boat in order to get there.  I was assured that the beauty of the area and the inn was worth the effort expended.  Originally Fred, Len, Mark and I had planned on going, but at the last minute the plans seemed to fall apart.  Fred had the sniffles and didn't feel up to the trip; he decided to stay in the barracks and rest.  Since the trip was planned for four days and Mark wasn't able to get the extra time off, Len decided to stay with him on the weekend.  I realized that I was being presented with an opportunity to make the trip alone, something that was also occasionally necessary to my well being. 

 

            As I was getting off the first bus, in the a small remote village, the driver carefully and slowly explained that the bus for the mountain area, where the Ryokan was located, would stop here, but that there would be a two hour wait.  He then proceeded to write out the complicated kanji characters, which would be on the bus, on a small piece of paper and handed it to me.  I mentally contrasted this polite, and helpful, behavior with that of the typical brusque California bus driver. 

 

            Having some time to pass I decided to explore this remote, sparsely inhabited area.  I walked around the small town for a bit and then decided to continue on outside town.  As I rounded a bend in the road I saw a small temple nestled up against the hillside and curious, I followed the carefully groomed path to the building.  I was sort of peeking inside when a young monk, clad in a black kimono, and with a shaven head, motioned for me to enter by saying, "Dozo gozaimasu", 'please come in'.  Even before removing my shoes and entering I felt the tranquility and peace that seemed to pervade the entire area.  The only other person in evidence was another monk, seated on a cushion, enveloped in a fragrant cloud of incense, and reciting sutras—the ancient Buddhist texts.  I sat down on the tatami floor allowing the tranquility of the moment to envelop my being.  I knew little about the Buddhist services and just wanted to partake of the serenity and quiet harmony.  I closed my eyes and was absorbing the rhythm and soothing quality of the monk's voice—just drifting with the sound.  Suddenly to one side a voice spoke and said that I was a welcome guest. 

 

            As I opened my eyes I saw an elderly gentleman, dressed in a deep brown priest’s robe, bowing to me.  I turned slightly and bowed back from my seated position.  It was then I realized that the person had actually been speaking in English.  I later discovered that I'd been addressing the Abbot of the temple, Shimizu roshi.  Shimizu was his surname and roshi was the term for 'abbot'.  Though he preferred to be addressed as Shimizu-sensei, simply 'teacher Shimizu'.  He explained that it had been many years since he had uttered a word in English and hoped that I could understand him.  His accent was a combination of British English and Japanese, beautifully articulated.  

 

            Instead of going to the Ryokan, I was invited to stay in one of the rooms on the grounds of Sekisetsu-ji  [積雪寺], Temple of Falling Snow, as "their honored guest".  I spent the next three days in a number of discussions with one of the most learned men I had ever met.  Thus began a very special friendship and introduction into one of the most fascinating of all 'religious' philosophies, that of Zen Buddhism. 

 

            Shimizu-roshi had years before studied at Tokyo University, and Dr. D.T. Suzuki, one of Japan's foremost scholars and writers, had been a classmate and lifelong personal friend.  He had all of Dr. Suzuki's books, many of which were in English.  Shimizu-roshi explained that he used those in English to read and study so that he wouldn't forget the English courses he had taken many years ago.  As we were drinking tea in another part of the temple complex Shimizu-roshi smilingly offered the observation, "I often wondered why I continued to be cultivate my English, perhaps it was so that we could have this conversation today."  That one perhaps, and the many during the months that followed. 

 

            Recalling my conversation with Kinji a few weeks before, I asked Abbot Shimizu about the roots of haiku.  How did the Japanese formulate this exquisite type of poetry?  Shimizu-roshi began explaining the periods of Japanese history and mentioned that during the Tokugawa Era, which began in the early 1600's, there were recorded the very first haiku.  Before this time a type of 35 syllable poem known as ‘waka’ was the prevalent form.   It appeared that haiku, like many things in Japan, was an attempt to reduce a broad concept to its barest essential.  The conversation lasted well into the night and the Abbot even produced a book by an erudite scholar, R.H. Blythe, who had spent most of his life in Japan and had recently published several volumes on haiku poetry. 

 

            According to the abbot, haiku, nature, Zen and the entire Japanese culture were so intricately bound that it was difficult, if not impossible, to separate them.  In the coming months I was to hear, repeatedly, that nearly every aspect of Japanese culture had been influenced by Zen Buddhism, from the government and laws of the country to the most seemingly mundane everyday activity.  Obviously if I wanted to experience and know what constituted Japan I would have to have more than a superficial knowledge of this all important element.

 

            It was during the second night at the temple, lying on the cozy futon in the small room that I thought back to the  conversations Gregg and I had indulged in about Christian missionary zeal.  One of the many topics discussed when we were studying at the Language school in California.  In essence it seemed to boil down to "Be saved or be damned".  So far no one here at the temple seemed the least bit concerned about 'saving' this foreign heathen that was wandering around in their complex.  Everyone was friendly, some were shy and two of the acolytes were especially extroverted.  Shiro and Matsuo appeared to be two of the youngest, perhaps in their late teens, and had engaged me in several conversations about life in the United States, my impressions about Japan and told me bit about their lives before entering the monastery.  I realized that I'd been waiting for 'the big sell'; for someone to insist that I become a Zen Buddhist.  Wasn't that what religion was all about; attempting to convince everyone who was not a part of your special group that you, and your sect alone, had the 'truth'? Fortunately it was something that never happened at Sekisetsu-ji.

 

            On my fourth afternoon there, as I was bowing good-bye to Abbot Shimizu and several of the other monks at the temple, I was presented with a gift.  One of the most precious of my life.  The entire four volume set of Dr. Blythe's momentous work on haiku poetry.    I left knowing that this was but the first of many visits to this very special refuge and unique, tranquil site.  In fact I returned on my next five day break.

 

            So it was that I began to spend as much free time as possible at the Sekisetsu-ji temple talking to Shimizu-roshi.  Never once did I feel that he was attempting to gain a convert or convince me that Zen was the one and only path to salvation.  In fact his discussions were much like the history lessons my father had given me as a child.  They were filled with information and I was free to make my own connections and conclusions. 

 

            Zen had arrived on the shores of Japan in the sixth century and since its appearance had been a stimulating and formative agent in the cultural history of the country and its people.  Its philosophy consisted in seeing directly into the mystery of one's being, to gain an inner experience which takes place in the deepest recesses.  It was an appeal to an intuitive mode of understanding that consisted in experiencing what in Japanese is known as satori [悟り].  According to Shimizu-roshi, Zen and satori were synonymous, and the satori experience could not be verbalized since that would remove it from its intuitive structure.  Quite simply, it was beyond intellectualization and had to be experienced in order to be understood.

 

            The western mind, being logical and discursive, forever attempts to take things apart and examine them as if on an operating table.  Zen accepts the spiritual connection between inner experience as expressed in art, religion and metaphysics.  It reaches the core of creativity and, according to the information from Shimizu-roshi, moves its followers to the depths of their being wherein art becomes a divine work.  The greatest works of art, whether painting, music, sculpture, or poetry invariably have this quality—something approaching the work of the Supreme Being.  The artist, at the moment when his creativity is at its height, is transformed into an agent of the creator.  The supreme moment in the life of an artist, expressed in Zen terms, is the experience of satori.  To experience satori is to become conscious of the Unconscious.

 

            The satori  experience, therefore, could not be attained by the ordinary means of teaching or learning.  It has its own technique in pointing to the presence in each of us of a mystery that is beyond intellectual analysis.  Life is full of mysteries, and whenever there is a feeling of the mysterious, it was contended that there is Zen in one sense or another.  Zen had thus greatly helped the Japanese to come in touch with the presence of the mysteriously creative impulse inherent in all of nature. 

 

            Shimizu-roshi's discourse on Zen was spread over many visits and was combined and punctuated with a marvelous combination of history and literature.  I attempted to absorb as much as possible from this brilliant man, though his admonition remained:  you can never know Zen through the intellect no matter how many words are used in an attempt to describe it.

 

            Hence, when I discovered some weeks later that there was going to be a 'sesshin' at the temple, I asked, and was granted, permission to attend.  A 'sesshin' is a special, intensive period of meditation and individual instruction specifically for lay people.  In this case it was a period of five days and four nights.   When I arrived at the temple early on Wednesday morning I discovered that there were four Japanese who had previously arrived and were also to be a part of the sesshin program.

 

            Immediately after a short introduction by Shimizu roshi we entered the zendo, meditation hall, and began our first 'zazen' [座禅], or sitting meditation.  We had previously been informed that our time would be spent primarily in zazen, though we would also be doing some work around the complex such as sweeping, cleaning and other necessary chores.  For they were also an integral part of the process.  Everything we did within the period of the next five days was a part of the zen process.  Even our breathing and sleeping.

 

            Late on Sunday afternoon, when I boarded the bus for the return trip to Chitose I was aware of the fact that I had arrived there one person and now, five days later, I was a different person.  Though clearly there was much more to learn, the change in my awareness was the most profound that I had experienced in my life.  It was something I intuitively knew, yet if pressed for an explanation, would have found it difficult to verbalize.  It had been an experience, which went beyond words.

 

 

            After having spent a number of my free periods at the Sekisetsu-ji Temple I asked the assistance of the Abbot to help me choose some haiku to send to a friend.  Thus began a study, which has lasted the entirety of my life.  It also resulted, during the early spring months of that year, in the following introductory manuscript wherein I attempted to explain my limited understanding of haiku— along with a few of my favorites of the hundreds of well known haiku poems.

 


HAIKU

 

The love of Nature the Japanese people originally had was no doubt their innate aesthetic sense for things beautiful; but the appreciation of the beautiful is basically religious, for without being religious one cannot detect and enjoy what is genuinely beautiful.  And there is no denying that Zen gave an immense impetus to the native feeling for Nature, not only by sharpening it to the highest degree of sensitiveness but also by giving it a metaphysical and religious background. 

 

Anyone who has even the most superficial contact with Japanese culture will be aware of the intense appreciation of the objects of Nature as expressed by artists, writers and poets.  And the significant fact is that these objects are not necessarily confined to things commonly considered beautiful or those suggestive of an order beyond this evanescent and ever-changing world. 

 

Haiku poetry, which developed during the beginning of the Tokugawa period (1600 AD) is one of the most popular methods used by the Japanese people to express their philosophical intuitions and poetic appreciation of Nature.  In that feeling compressed within the smallest number of syllables, we detect the soul of Japan transparently reflected, showing how poetically or intuitively sensitive it is toward Nature and its objects, non-sentient as well as sentient.

 

The haiku poem is composed of seventeen syllables, no more, no less.  It is the shortest form of poem we can find in world literature.  It consists of seventeen syllables into which have been cast some of the highest feelings human beings are capable of.

 

To quote Dr. R. H. Blythe, an authority on the study of haiku:  "A haiku is the expression of satori, of a temporary enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things."  It is a product of the moment and in that momentary grasp of reality is reflected all of eternity.  A haiku poem may concern the evanescent beauty of the blossom of a morning glory, which opens at dawn and fades even before noon of the same day, or it may concern itself with the magnificence of an ancient, gnarled pine tree which has lived for hundreds of years. If we, as individuals, take the time to pause in our daily activities, we realize that each moment pulsates with the life of both, of all; the totality of creation.

 

The small bronze-green tree frog does not ordinarily seem a beautiful creature to most occidentals.  But to the Japanese, when it is found perching on a lotus or a basho leaf, still fresh with the morning dew, it stirs the haiku poet's imagination.

 

A quiet summer scene is depicted by means of a green-backed amphibious animal.  To some, an incident like this may seem too insignificant to call out any poetical comment, but to the Japanese, especially to the Buddhist Japanese, nothing that takes place in the world is insignificant.  The frog is just as important as the eagle or the tiger; every movement of it is directly connected with the primarily source of life, and in it and through it, one can read the deepest religious truth.  Hence a small haiku poem is just as weighty a matter as the Fall of Adam, for there is here, too, a truth revealing the secrets of creation.

 


           

The beauty of Hokkaido's relatively short, but incredible spring continued and soon became summer.  The vibrancy of the many tones of green was punctuated with splashes of color as the flowering plants raced to bloom and produce seeds as quickly as possible—before the long winter arrived once again. The bus that was taking Fred and I into the interior of this mountainous region continued to round curve after curve in its upward voyage.  Finally we stopped at a large, intensely blue lake surrounded by steep mountains covered with trees and dense vegetation.  Lake Shikotsu was actually located in an ancient volcanic caldera.  There was a small grouping of houses and several small stores.  Most important there was a small dock for the boat which ferried passengers to the mountain 'ryokan' on the far side of the lake.  There were only the two of us waiting for the boat, whose soft puttering motor could be heard in the distance as it approached.  The bus was still waiting, evidently for the arrival of the boat and perhaps more passengers to go back down the mountain.

 

            Though I had imagined that the inn would be in a beautiful area, I wasn't prepared for the magnificence, peace and absolute tranquility, which reigned, in this remote mountainous area.  Even as we were stepping off the boat Fred was thanking me for suggesting that we visit here.  We were greeted at the entrance to the inn and after the formalities were completed we were shown to our room.  We found two sets of kimonos awaiting us; one was the traditional light cotton kimono (yukata - 浴衣) and another was heavier.  It had been explained that the nights could occasionally be cool, even in the summer.  Before changing into our fresh yukatas we went down to the bath area which was fed by hot mineral springs.  After washing, we slowly slid into the hot water of the large communal bath.  It was the perfect way in which to begin yet another experience in knowing traditional Japan.

 

            Attired in our traditional white and blue yukatas we spent the afternoon exploring the area surrounding the inn.  The owner had suggested that we use the geta (下駄), wooden clogs, which were also reserved for guests.  The light clumping noise of this unique footwear added to enchantment of our exploration.  The paths surrounding the inn were roofed by towering trees, the ground was covered by ferns and mosses of every conceivable kind—each a different hue of green.  Occasional flowers shyly made their appearance as we rounded one bend after another.  As we were returning to the inn we were greeted an elderly gentleman on the path who bowed low and then introduced himself.  He explained that he too was staying at the inn and suggested that he would be honored if we would join him for a drink of sake.

 

            We were seated outside the inn on the broad engawa, or verandah, and Kokugawa-san, our new acquaintance and host, had ordered some sake for the three of us. I was expecting the usual small bottles of sake, with the even smaller cups.  Both Fred and I were surprised when the sake arrived in large water glasses and it was cold instead of hot.  There also arrived a large plate of what was obviously small chunks of squid.  We hesitantly tried it and discovered that it was pickled and quite delicious, a nice accompaniment to the cold sake.

 

            Except for his head of perfectly white hair Kokugawa-san looked much younger than his 72 years.  He explained that he had been born in 1883, a few scant years after the beginning of the Meiji period, when Japan had decided to embrace and become a part of the modern world.  He had originally lived on Honshu, near the city of Sendai and after graduating from the University had come to Sapporo, here on Hokkaido.  He had been a teacher of Japanese literature at the University in Sapporo for many years.  When his wife had died three years ago he had gone south to live with a married son and daughter-in-law in Sendai.  He was presently on vacation and had come north to Hokkaido to stay with friends and also especially to visit this small inn were he and his wife had spent many a joyous occasion.

 

            Besides offering information about himself he was also anxious to know about us—where we came from, about our families.  Most of all he was curious about how we, two American military had found this remote inn since, as he surmised, we were probably the first foreigners to ever have visited it.  Soon more rounds of sake were ordered and this time we insisted on treating him.  The sun was beginning to sink behind the towering mountains, though it wouldn't be dark for several hours.  It was a magical late afternoon, made even more so by the soft serenade of the birds in the surrounding forest and the soft lapping of the lake's water against the rocks. 

 

            I mentioned to Professor Kokugawa that I had recently begun reading The Tale of Prince Genji (Genji monogatari 源氏物語)  by Lady Murasaki.  I immediately knew by his beaming face that I had touched a very tender spot.  He began to explain that this novel, written in 1010 AD, was really the beginning of Japanese literature; in fact it was one of the first written in the Japanese language.  Before that time all 'literature' was written using solely Chinese characters.  Lady Murasaki had been so bold as to write using Japanese characters and the everyday Japanese vernacular.   He voiced the opinion that this novel, written by a noblewoman of the Kyoto court, had been written with a delicate sensitivity and with a depth of psychological insight that had rarely been approached in literature.  He hoped that my English translation was able to convey the beauty of the original and that some day in the future I would be able to read it in Japanese.  Our conversation that afternoon had been almost exclusively in Japanese with the professor occasionally using a few halting words in English.  I had been translating as best as I could for Fred, though with each glass of sake he seemed to understand more.  I was also aware of the fact that the professor had purposely been using a very basic vocabulary, and simple phrases in order that we could understand him.  His capacity as a teacher, to understand the ability of the student and work from that level, was evident and appreciated.

 

            The professor asked if I had encountered any books by Kawabata Yasunari or a relatively new writer by the name Mishima Yukio (in Japanese fashion he had put the surname first).  I told him that just the previous week I had purchased "Confessions Of A Mask" - Mishima's first novel translated into English and in fact had brought it along with me to read.  The professor commented that he had read three of Mishima's novels and was anxiously awaiting the publication of any new ones.  He commented that Mishima had much of the same psychological sensitivity in his writing as Lady Murasaki, who had written nearly a thousand years before.  He added that perhaps it was his homosexuality that made him more aware and sensitive to the emotional states of both sexes.  Until that time I hadn't been aware that Mishima, one of contemporary Japan's most prized new writers was homosexual, and noted that there was no hint of derision in the professor's voice or language when he spoke about this novelist.

 

            Professor Kokugawa also suggested that I try and find some of the works of Kawabata , a personal favorite,  and also Tanizaki Junichiro.  Though a contemporary novelist, he evidently often used themes or set his works in the times of Japan's ancient past.  The light was now disappearing and the first fireflies were beginning their nightly ballet when we said goodnight to the professor and retired to our room.  After a light supper, served in our room, we retired to our comfortable, soft futons.  Fred was the first to hear and bring to my attention, that far off in the distance someone was playing a shakuhachi, the plaintive bamboo flute.  It was a fitting end to a most beautiful day.

 

            Several weeks later I was once again visiting the Sekisetsu-ji Temple.  When I asked about the all pervading sense of tranquility that I had felt since I arrived in Japan, Shimizu-san began by outlining the concepts of 'sabi' and 'wabi'.  I made mental as well as copious written notes and was offered several of Dr. Suzuki's books to read. The result was the following note that I sent home to Bozhena and of course one to Gregg.  Perhaps a bit pretentious with the footnotes, but obviously wanted to impress my mother with her son’s ability to write a ‘scholarly’ paper.

 

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

 

             Sabi 寂  – Wabi 佗

 

      It has been proposed by my friend the Abbot Shimizu of the Seikisetsu-jiTemple that a comprehension of the Japanese character and traditions is absolutely impossible without an understanding of these two words and their significance within and upon Japanese culture.  The words underlie concepts that were introduced by the Soto Zen sect of Buddhism, and over the centuries become an integral part of Japanese culture.

 

   The most basic meaning for the calligraphic character of 'sabi' is tranquility.  Tranquility, peace, serenity.  It can also be used to mean lonesome, lonely, solitary or quiet.  'Wabi' in the most simplis­tic definition means 'primitive simplicity; close to the natural state of living'.  But those definitions barely touch upon the deeper and broader meaning of 'sabi' and 'wabi' within the entirety of the Japanese culture. 

 

   Dr. D.T. Suzuki1 has written that the spirit of 'Eternal Loneliness', an integral part of the Japanese personality and which is the essence or spirit of Zen, expresses itself under the name of 'Sabi' in the various departments of Japanese life such as sumie painting, landscape gardening, the tea-ceremony, flower arrangement, dressing, furniture, in the mode of living, theater, classical music, poetry, home construction, and in fact pervades all aspects of living  The spirit comprises such elements as simplicity, naturalness, unconventionality, refinement, freedom, familiarity singularly tinged with aloofness, and everyday commonness which is veiled exquisitely with the mist of tran­scendental inwardness.

 

   Many features of everyday life can be referred to as 'having a sense of sabi' or 'tasting of sabi'.  The transcendental inwardness which Dr. Suzuki refers to is obviously a part of the Japanese love of Nature and its basic simplicity.  At some time we all wish to go back to the bosom of Nature and feel her pulse directly.  Hence the desire of the city dweller to go camping, spend some time on the beach or go traveling in those areas away from the urban environment. 

 

   Zen, which for centuries has helped to mold the Japanese character, has guided the people in breaking through all forms of human ar­tificiality and take firm hold of what lies behind them.  It has been instrumental in helping the Japanese to not forget the soil but to be always friendly with Nature and appreciate her unaffected simplicity. 

 

   Zen has no taste for the complexities that lie on the surface of life.  Life itself is simple enough, but when it is surveyed by the analyzing intellect it presents unparalleled intricacies.  With all the apparatus of science we have not yet fathomed the mysteries of life.  But, once in its current and when we sense the 'ground of our being' we seem to be able to understand it, even with its apparently endless pluralities and entanglements.  Perhaps the most characteris­tic thing in the temperament of the Japanese people is the ability to grasp life from within and not be constantly examining it only from without which is so characteristic of the west. 

 

   Within Nature we are able to appreciate its simple beauty, its per­fection as well as its small imperfections.  Beauty obviously does not always mean perfection of form as evidenced when we happen upon a torn or slightly battered leaf.  Its basic beauty is still apparent as well as intrinsic.  One of the favorite tricks of Japanese artists has been to embody beauty while combining slight imperfections.  The pottery vessel which seems to embody perfection of form and with an exquisite glaze evidences an ever so slight indentation on its rim.  Even in a magnificent flower arrangement the Ikebana artist will include a dam­aged leaf as evidence of reality and to show the beauty inherent in imperfection.

 

   When this beauty of imperfection is accompanied by antiquity we have a glimpse of 'sabi', so prized by Japanese connoisseurs.  Sabi consists in rustic unpretentiousness or archaic imperfection, apparent simplicity or effortlessness in execution, and richness in historical associations.  It contains inexplicable elements that raise the object in question to the rank of an artistic production.  It may be an an­cient picture which is recognized as a National Treasure or a simple tea cup which is used daily.  The artistic element contained in both is the 'sabi' of tranquility and peace.  The artist embodied these qualities and was able to imbue his creation with them.  The patina of age (real or suggested to the point of appearing real) embodies the essence of sabi.

 

   The artistic element that goes into the constitution of sabi, which in its most literal sense means 'loneliness' or 'solitude', can also be found in much of Japanese poetry.

 

As I come out

To this fishing village,

Late in the autumn day,

No flower in bloom I see,

Nor any color tinged maple leaves. 2

 

   Aloneness appeals to contemplation and does not lend itself to spectacular demonstration.  It is not only to the fishing village on the autumnal eve that aloneness gives form but also to a patch of green in the early spring — which is in all likelihood even more ex­pressive of sabi.  For in the green patch, as evidenced in the follow­ing thirty-one-syllable 'tanka' verse, there is an indication of life impulse amid the wintry desolation.

 

To those who only pray for the cherries to bloom,

How I wish to show the spring

That gleams from a patch of green

In the midst of the snow-covered mountain village.3

 

   In this poem there is just a dim inception of life power as as­serted in the form of a little green patch, but in it he who has an eye can readily discern the spring shooting out from underneath the forbidding snow.  It may be said to be a mere suggestion that stirs in his mind, but just the same it is life itself and not a feeble indica­tion.  To the artist, life is a much here as when the whole field is overlaid with greenness and flowers.  It could be called the mystic sense of the artist. 

 

   It is this same mystic sense that recognizes and appreciates the underlying beauty and suchness of sabi within life  Sabi / Wabi — sim­plification, aloneness, and similar ideas make up the most conspicuous and characteristic features of Japanese art and culture.  All of these emanate from one central perception of the truth of Zen, which is "the One in the Many and the Many in the One." 

 

1-D.T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, Kyoto, 1938.

2-Fujiwara Sadaiye (1162-1241)

3-Fujiwara Iyetaka (1158-1237)

 

 

 

 

            Gregg had become fascinated by the haiku poems that I had sent him and asked for more.  In fact he mentioned that one of the first things he was going to buy when he arrived in Kyoto was a Japanese grammar and calligraphy book so that he could begin studying Japanese.  Though he admitted that it would have to be a solitary study and he probably wouldn't mention it to his Korean friends since there was still a lot of enmity toward the Japanese.  And the recent exploration of the concepts of sabi and wabi added to his desire to know more of Japanese culture.

 

            It was now late August.  Within a few short weeks Gregg and I would be meeting in Kyoto for three weeks of R & R.  The correspondence between Korea and Hokkaido had been voluminous during the last couple of months as we had begun to plan how we would spend the time together.  I had also written to Alex in Tokyo and Dwight in Kyushu making plans to visit with both of them. 

 

            I had been in Japan for a little over a year.  The time seemed to have passed especially fast and surprisingly I had never once been homesick for California.  Some of the guys talked of nothing but how many days they had left until they went back to the 'States'.  Many were homesick, others not able to relate to the unique culture of the Japanese.  I'd never given it a second thought since I seemed much too busy absorbing my surroundings and basking in the present.