Lesson 4  Traditional ReligionFundamental thoughts in the Japanese mindwabi and sabi




An aesthetic and moral principle advocating the enjoyment of a quiet, leisurely life free from worldly concerns. Originating in the medieval eremitic tradition, it emphasizes a simple, austere type of beauty and a serene, transcendental frame of mind. It is a central concept in the aesthetics of the tea ceremony and is also manifest in some works of waka[和歌], renga[連歌], and haiku[俳句]. Its implications partly coincide with those of sabi[] and furyu[風流].

The word wabi was derived from the verb wabu(to languish) and the adjective wabishi (lonely, comfortless), which initially denote the pain of a person who fell into adverse circumstances. But ascetic literati of the Kamakura (1185-1333) and Muromachi (1333-1568) periods developed it into a more positive concept by making poverty and loneliness synonymous with liberation from material and emotional worries and by turning the absence of apparent beauty into a new and higher beauty.

These new connotations of wabi were cultivated especially by masters of the tea ceremony, such as Sen no Rikikyu[千利休] (1522-91), who sought to elevate their art by associating it with the spirit of Zen and stressed the importance of seeking richness in poverty and beauty in simplicity.




Poetic ideal fostered by Basho [芭蕉](1644-1694) and his followers in haikai[俳偕], though the germ of the concept and the term existed long before them. Sabi points toward a medieval aesthetics combining elements of old age, loneliness, resignation, and tranquility, yet the colorful and plebeian qualities of Edo-period (1600-1868) culture are also present. At times sabi is used synonymously or in conjunction with wabi, an aes- thetictic ideal of the tea ceremony.

Fujiwara no Toshinari [藤原俊成](1114-1204), the first major poet to employ a sabi-related word (the verb sabu) in literary criticism, stressed its connotations of loneliness and desolation, pointing to such images as frost-withered reeds on the seashore. With later medieval artists such as Zeami[世阿弥] (1363-1443), Zenchiku [金春禅竹:能作者](1405-68), and Shinkei[心敬:連歌師] (1406-75), the implications of sabi focused so heavily on desolation that the emerging beauty seemed almost cold. Underlying this aesthetics was the cosmic view typical of medieval Buddhists, who recognized the existential loneliness of all men and tried to resign themselves to, or even find beauty in, that loneliness.




This term refers to the refined taste of a cultivated, sophisticated person and to works of art and other things associated with such persons. The word was derived from the Chinese term fengliu, which literally meant “good deportment and manner”. After reaching Japan around the 8th century, it was employed in a more aesthetic sense, referring to the refined manners of an urbane person and later to all things regarded as elegant, tasteful, or artistic. The term fuga[風雅] is sometimes employed in the same sense as furyu, but, in general, furyu is a more inclusive term, referring not just to poetry but to all the arts.

In the 12th century furyu began to follow two separate lines of semantic evolution. In one, furyu was applied to the more earthy, showy beauty manifest in popular arts. In the other, men attempted to discover furyu in the beauty of landscape gardens, flower arrangement, architecture, and Chinese nature poetry. This latter trend gave birth to the tea ceremony in the Muromachi period (1333-1568).

In the modern era Koda Rohan[幸田露伴] endeavored to achieve a union of love, art, and religion in the name of furyu in the short story Furyubutsu[風流仏] (1889). In Kusamakura[草枕] (1906; translation The Three-Cornered World, 1965) the novelist Natsume Soseki[夏目漱石] attempted to revitalize the concept by injecting it with compassion and humanism.




Originally a Buddhist term expressing the doctrine that everything that is born must die and that nothing remains unchanged. The phrase ‘all the various realms of being are transient’ [諸行無常] is the first of the Three Laws of Buddhism[三法印:他二つは諸法無我(any existence cannot be an eternal being)、寂滅為楽(paramount comfort without being harassed by earthly desires)]. Japanese have traditionally been keenly aware of the impermanence of things, and the sense of mujo has been a major theme in literature.


Mono no aware[もののあはれ]とは何か


A literary and aesthetic ideal cultivated during the Heian period (794-1185). At its core is a deep, empathetic appreciation of the ephemeral beauty manifest in nature and human life, and it is therefore usually tinged with a hint of sadness; under certain circumstances it can be accompanied by admiration, awe, or even joy. The word was revived as a part of the vocabulary of Japanese literary criticism through the writings of Motoori Norinaga [本居宣長](1730-1801).

Norinaga's view, mono no aware is a purified and exalted feeling, close to the innermost heart of man and nature. Theoretically the meaning of mono no aware is as comprehensive as the whole range of human emotions and can be viewed as a humanistic value, but in its actual usage it tends to focus on the beauty of impermanence and on the sensitive heart capable of appreciating that beauty.


Iki and sui[]とは何か


Aesthetic and moral ideals of urban commoners in the Edo period (1600-1868). The concept of sui was cultivated initially in the Osaka area during the late 17th century, while iki prevailed mostly in Edo (now Tokyo) during the early 19th century. Aesthetically both pointed toward an urbane, chic, bourgeois type of beauty with under- tones of sensuality. Morally they envisioned the tasteful life of a person who was wealthy but not attached to money, who enjoyed sensual pleasure but was never carried away by carnal desires, and who knew all the intricacies of earthly life but was capable of disengaging himself from them. In their insistence on sympathetic understanding of human feelings, sui and iki resembled the Heian courtiers’ ideal of awareness, yet they differed from it in their inclusion of the more plebeian aspects of life.

In modern Japanese sui is usually written with a Chinese character meaning pure essence but other characters like “sour”, to infer, “water”, and “leader” were also used for transcribing the word. Sui comprised all these meanings: it described the language and deportment of a person who fully knew the sour taste of this life and was able to infer other people's suffering, adapt himself to various human situations with the shapelessness of water, and become a leader in taste and fashion for his contemporaries.

Iki originally denoted “spirit” or “heart” Later it came to mean “high spirit” or “high heart” and referred also to the way in which a high-spirited person talked, behaved, or dressed. As it became expressive of the Edo commoners’ ideal, its connotations were affected by the Osaka Concept of sui and moved closer to the latter. Indeed, iki was sometimes used as an equivalent of sui. Yet usually it carried a slightly different shade of meaning. As an aesthetic concept iki leaned toward a beauty somewhat less colorful than sui. Also, iki seems to have had a slightly more sensual connotation than sui. It was often applied to the description of a woman, especially a professional entertainer who knew exactly how much display of eroticism was desirable by the highest standard of taste.


Next Lesson Fundamental thoughts in the Japanese mindBushido: The Soul of Japan