Wabi and sabi are familiar concepts of Japanese aesthetics in part because they are readily applied to objects of art, therefore tangible, observable, providing feedback to the artist and crafter making an object distinct from their mental construct. But this acquaintance and literal method of verification of the product of aesthetic principles tends to overlook deeper aspects of wabi and sabi and the concepts behind them.
In the first place, the concepts of wabi and sabi were not originally artistic or even aesthetic but religious and philosophical. Since ancient Shinto times in Japan, nature was identified as the source of spirit, including animism that posited the existence of spirits in natural objects such as mountains, rivers, trees, and rocks, but also the source of inspiration, strength, and guidance. The primitive view of nature deepened over the centuries with the influence of Buddhism, where nature already carried an epistemological component.
A fruitful philosophy of nature arose that evaluated existence and relationship of beings and constructed a way of perceiving reality and encompassing its sense of mystery or enigma. The concept of yugen emerged, the term literally meaning “dimness,” an apt sense of mythological origin and perceived governance of the universe that is elusive, difficult to grasp or define, less control. Human beings were at its mercy and enlightenment meant learning to cope with mystery, with yugen.
Yugen accommodates the sense of mystery that does not assume too much knowledge, too much surety, and dares not carry arrogance or presumption. Rather, a still and thoughtful observance and sense of wonder or awe is fostered by yugen, restoring human beings to their proper place in a large universe which occasionally reveals glimpses of itself and its inexorable ways, but mingled with beauty, provoking moments of awe and wonder.
Expression of yugen were religious as much as artistic, the latter reflecting the urge to depict and speak openly in order to hit upon insight, the religious view content to organize the sentiments of mystery into ritual and familiar expression. The Japanese waka and haiku poets came to excel in approaching yugen, just as literary drama from novels to No plays came to present situations and circumstances where human beings could approximate mystery or yugen as it engulfed their lives, circumstances, and feelings.
A second important principle of Japanese aesthetics gives animation to yugen through literature and art: mono no aware. The phrase literally means “the ah! of things” or “the poignancy of things,” referring to the evanescence or impermanence of things, understood not only as a religious concept of Buddhism but as an emotional construct, human feeling expressed in daily moments of insight, irony, and reflection. Like yugen, mono no aware can be traced to Chinese artistic expression, made unique, however, by Japanese culture.
In the arts mono no aware is expressed by an object or event or sequence, depicted in a painting, a drama, a sequence of events within disappointment and sadness in the lives of men and women, in a painting, a musical passage, a poem evoking the trembling beauty of an insightful moment felt, then lost, or by nature itself, as in the perpetual turn of the seasons, the glorious emergence of cherry blossoms only to see them inexorably fall to the ground, the cry of birds and insects in late autumn foreseeing their shortening days, the solitude of the moon casting its silent light during the long darkness of night.
Returning to yugen, to the sense of mystery that seems to govern and at times abandon the universe, does not obliterate the reading, learning, and thinking of the ages, but puts it all in perspective. The sources of mono no aware sentiment are all around us, yet only in pausing to note them do we note also the intrinsic nature of the sources, and the intrinsic nature of all beings, including ourselves.