There is an elderly man with a shaven head, and simple clothing carrying only the necessities. This is no layman, but he cannot be described as a monk either. He is strolling along a path in the woods so fresh it is barely visible. As he pauses to take a drink of water, he stares out on scene with a slowly running brook, a few large rocks, and a cluster of trees sagging from the harsh winds of the past. Here, in this moment of time, Matsuo Basho experiences the atmosphere that is being projected from this scene. This sense of sabi is all around, most prominently and more beautifully in nature. Sabi can be found in every part of nature, and with a special mind one is able to experience what that projected aura really is.
When one takes to reading and analyzing Matsuo Basho's work, one finds he has many reoccurring themes, messages, ideas, and relationships. Commonly found in his poetry and travel journals is the Japanese idea of sabi. The origin of the actual word sabi is derived from the Japanese word sabishi. If one were to put sabishi into English terms, it would be defined as meaning solitary or lonely, referring to a man's state of mind when he is in want of company. Being the creative genius he is, Basho alters this root word into another word, sabi, which he gives new meaning to. For within Basho's compositions sabi is more of an impersonal atmosphere given off from a scene during a moment in time (Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters, 141).
There is a poem by Basho that helps shed some light on these first ideas of sabishi:
Standing amid the blossoms,
A cypress tree.
(Ueda, Literary and Art Theories in Japan, 149)
This is a spring poem with a scene when cherry blossoms are in full bloom. But it is the green cypress tree in the middle of them that does not harmonize with the loveliness and gaiety of the scene. This cypress situated among the scene of blossoms is what brings about the atmosphere of loneliness. With this poem loneliness is not referring to a man's personal emotion anymore; it is instead describing an impersonal aura.
This ambience, this atmosphere of sabi, consists of a feeling of loneliness. This is not the sense of loneliness that Americans and other Westerners feel. This type of loneliness is something enjoyable to have sensed; it gives solace to the more sorrowful life. There is one poem left today that Basho himself said had sabi, which will help demonstrate this quality of loneliness that is created by a contrast found in a scene:
Under the blossoms
Two aged watchmen,
With their heads together-. (Ueda, LATJ 149)
This poem is also an example of the interrelatedness of things. The poem is not solely a nature poem--there are two men placed in the heart of a landscape. But at the same time, these two aged men are not the focal point of the poem. Basho writes so they are part of the natural scene. His style treats them as if they were just another pair of trees in the distance of a nature scene. Basho makes no attempt to form a distinction between man and nature; instead he brings them together as one. The haiku above tells nothing of the men's inner feelings. It only places them in a natural landscape, and with this idea Basho is joining all parts of the scene to bring forth the atmosphere of sabi.
Basho believed in the idea that things of the vegetable and mineral worlds cope with loneliness by communicating with each other. He takes this concept and applies it to humans. Ueda states Basho thought that, "In order to overcome loneliness, then, man should follow the ways of nature; he should try to communicate with the vegetable and mineral worlds . . . for within himself lies something that is common to all things" (Ueda, Matsuo Basho, 56-57). This theory goes well with the idea of connectedness and the interrelationships between all things, including man and nature. But it does seem to contradict the idea of sabi, wherein loneliness is a desired state, and not one that we should be attempt to overcome. Where is the line drawn so that both of these theories can be accurate? Or is it possible that one is the correct interpretation, and the other misleading? It is my interpretation that loneliness felt from the human world is what is to be overcome. One should not sulk over being away from others. The state of loneliness that is desired is one that deals with sabi, and the atmosphere of a moment in time, not the loneliness a person may feel when distant from others.
When one begins to think about the way sabi works, he comes to find that all things that are in a scene depicted by a poem are connected. There is no one part that is the focal point, and the rest background. Along with this interrelatedness there is usually a contrast, which is how this overall atmosphere of loneliness is created. Ueda describes how this relationship works for Basho's cypress poem and the aged watchmen poem: "The Haiku says nothing about the men's inner feelings. They are part of the natural scene, just as a cypress tree was in the previous poem. And again like the cypress tree, the image of the aged watchmen provides a sharp contrast to the colorful cherry blossoms, thereby creating an atmosphere of loneliness" (Ueda, LATJ, 150).
It seems sabi is a general and fundamental characteristic of reality as a whole. All scenes in life have this aura of sabi. The reason there could be a disagreement with this idea is because not everyone can effortlessly sense sabi right away. It is not something that is obvious to every passerby. Sabi is something one must have a heightened sense of awareness to grasp. This does not mean that one must be a monk or enlightened to experience sabi, but the layperson would not be able to sense such an atmosphere projected by a moment in time. Yet even so, sabi and enlightenment are similar in that they both require a deeper sense of the meaning of loneliness.
Looking at sabi as a fundamental characteristic of reality one must bring in the other aspects as well. The Japanese term aware is also a general part of reality and of life. Aware is described by Barnhill when he states, "Perhaps the simplest definition of aware is 'melancholy at the transience of beauty'" (Barnhill, Aware 30). Aware and sadness are essential; to experience reality, one must accept it. It is sorrow due to connectedness to reality. Sabi and aware are both ideas that one must pursue to develop a full understanding of them. The layperson is not able to go on a journey and sense these aspects of reality. Though they are both part of the reality everyone lives in, not everyone is able to sense them. Perhaps this is because these ideas of sabi and aware seem far fetched to many. Most people thinking of loneliness and sadness can find no positive aspects in these terms. The layperson would not typically desire the ability to sense sabi and aware.
The concept of sabi can be intertwined with many aspects of the Japanese, e.g., Buddhism and poetry. There is a principle of lightness that can be found within these aspects. Lightness can be described as the beauty of things plain and ordinary against the bright and glorified beauty. It is seeing the beauty in the simplicity of things, rather than the elaborate. Ueda describes the principle of lightness as, "a dialectic transcendence of sabi" (Ueda, Matsuo Basho, 34), then goes on to relate lightness to sabi by saying, "Sabi urges man to detach himself from worldly involvements; "lightness" makes it possible for him, after attaining that detachment, to return to the mundane world" (Ueda, Matsuo Basho, 34). He makes a great point in showing how the two ideas work off of each other. It is sabi that one is trying to sense, what one is clearing one's mind for. It takes mental concentration to detach oneself from the everyday reality of the layperson. Once that detachment is achieved, there must be a point when it is allowed to dissipate so that one can return to the ordinary world. And it is this principle of lightness that brings the person back, by having him focus on the plain, simple, and ordinary for all of its beauty.
There is a major idea surrounding Buddhism and poetry of this nature, and that is impermanence. The notion of impermanence is found in many of Basho's poems. He has found ways to link the principle of impermanence with the sense of sabi. All things in the world are impermanent, nothing lasts forever. In his compositions Basho was able to place impermanence within a moment in time that he felt depicted sabi. He combines the two into very strong poems that leave much to the reader to interpret. Perhaps his most famous haiku represents both the feeling of impermanence and the atmosphere of sabi.
the old pond—
a frog jumps in,
(Ueda, Basho and His Interpreters, 140)
This poem illustrates the idea of impermanence with the disappearing ripples in the water from the frog's splash. At the same time it creates the atmosphere of sabi without actually using the words lonely or loneliness. These words might overly restrict the reader's imagination. The word lonely seems to have a fixed definition, and people have their own fixed definition for it. By not directly using the word lonely, the poem becomes much more vast for the reader. With this poem and many others like it there arises an ambiguity between finite and infinite. When trying to describe this complex relationship, Ueda suggests, "Different people will give different answers, though they will all experience the same sort of loneliness when they try to give explanations" (Ueda, Matsuo Basho, 53).
It is this idea that makes one ponder about what Basho was trying to get across to the reader when creating his poems and other literature. With Basho it is seldom the case that he will try to make a clear-cut, straightforward point. He enjoys playing with words and Buddhist concepts to make a poem that is clear, but open. In the case of sabi, it seems that Basho was more concerned with the loneliness coming across through his poems than with interpretations his readers might have. Why was he one of the first poets to explore this concept? With his pen Basho could create poems where the strength, immensity, or infinity of the universe prevails in only a few short words about a place at a moment in time. It is intriguing that he so often chose to include the atmosphere of sabi he sensed in a scene to absorb and overpower his reader's imagination. Why? This single concept of sabi is interrelated with all things in the world, and is illuminated on numerous times in the famous works of Basho.
"Aware." Barnhill, David, ed. Study Aids for Japanese Nature Writing: Part One. Oshkosh: University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Press, 2005: 30.
Ueda, Makoto. Basho and His Interpreters. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.
Ueda, Makoto. Literary and Art Theories in Japan. Cleveland, OH: Press of Western Reserve University, 1967.
Ueda, Makoto. Matsuo Basho. New York, NY: Kodansha International Ltd, 1982.
Riley B. Irwin was born in Verona, Wisconsin in the winter of 1985. He currently resides in downtown Oshkosh along with his furry companion, Emmy, while attending the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh as an Environmental Studies major and Biology minor. Though it is not his main academic focus, he hopes to continue writing and to produce a book someday.