“In the Perfected Mahayana – everything, every speck of dust even, can be seen as conditioned arising. Thus even in a hair there are innumerable golden lions.”- Tractate of the Golden Lion — Fazang

My friend Tomohiro once asked me why I was living in Japan, “You not married, don’t have girlfriend, not getting paid shit-ton cash like finance assholes, have no real prospects, kind of smell bad…so why you come to Japan…for the sushi?”

“Tomo, I’m seeking satori…duh.”

“You drink too much beer for satori. Even you run bar you drink all the profit, so why you wanna be Buddhist?”

Actually I get this question a lot. Japanese people are curious about an outsider’s views on what makes Japan attractive. Occasionally whomever it is I’m talking to continues the conversation with another whopper of a mystical/metaphysical/meaning-of-life type of question like, “Can you use chopsticks?” or “Wow, you sure are good at using chopsticks!”

I nod imbecilically and smile, saying, “Chinese food everywhere in America!” while adding, “Oscar Wilde said that when given a choice between going to heaven and attending a lecture on heaven, an American would attend the lecture. Because quoting Oscar Wilde to people, especially in Japanese, gets awkward quickly, the subject changes rather quickly as well.

being in a different country can always be described in terms of psychotropic drug adjectives: Eye-opening, Mind-altering, Consciousness-expanding, Confusing, Ecstatic, Terrifying, Blissful and so on. Click To Tweet

The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

A sweeping look at Lake Suwa in Matsumoto from a far-off mountaintop, but get a little closer and you see why no one swims there…

Living in Japan for me is akin to the American attending the lecture. In some ways modern Japanese society is nothing if not stultifyingly dense and uniformly micro-managed, with what is said and unsaid, done and not done, suggested and implied plastered like thousands of impenetrable pieces of papier-mâché one atop another over that raw heart of natural truth. This in turn is deceptively mysterious to many western eyes, which perceive one thing yet rarely grasp the subtlety with which the underlying meaning is insinuated, and was more or less over my head when I moved to the hilly countryside of Nagano in 2001. Ooh, ooh, I thought, living like a hermit on a hilltop, going from misty mountain shrine to temple, embracing the local Zen monk’s practices while embalming myself in study of the more ancient pagan rituals of Shintō, the glue that binds the two together, making Japan one of the only countries where almost the entire population is embracing not one, but two religions, while denying that they are at all religious. Hilarious! That and, yes Tomo was right, the sushi. I couldn’t wait.

The first few days and weeks of being in a different country can always be described in terms of psychotropic drug adjectives: Eye-opening, Mind-altering, Consciousness-expanding, Confusing, Ecstatic, Terrifying, Blissful and so on. Upon arriving to my town via well-heeled train from Nagoya, a large industrial center boasting Toyota HQ, a disappointing port, massive humidity and a thriving S&M scene, but not much else on th esurface, I experienced the largest conception-breaking sense of blah thus far, like a massive fur ball you just can’t hack out. The town, situated on a lake nestled in a crevice of a mountain range hugging the Matsumoto plateau, was less than spectacular. Nagoya, full of grays and browns, too had been less than stellar, but you figure well, it’s an urban Toyota production center, the water should be polluted and the skyline full of smoke, trash everywhere and the people rude, call it Cleveland, and move on. Get me to the countryside with green pastures and pristine lakes abutting picturesque mountain ranges off in the not too far distance. Say it to yourself: Japanese countryside. What images come to mind? It’s tough to know what to expect when bred on the ethnocentric western view that samurai and geisha, among other long dead notions of the chivalrous and bloody bygone eras, still hold sway here. Of course these things, ideas, images, are still celebrated as symbols of a great culture in local festivals, holidays, television and movies, much as any country tends to glorify the good of the past while relegating the racism, civil war, genocide, and sheer malevolent human tendencies toward bloodshed, to their proper, poorly-lit corner of history. That is all well and good, but what I, California City Boy, wanted was the pastoral simplicity of centuries ago mixed with a kind of revelatory mystical experience high on an Asian hilltop with crusty old sages and their singly clapping hands, or at least that’s what I thought I wanted, or what I thought I envisioned being so. Not the polluted Suwa Lake ringed by ugly industrial buildings spewing smoke into the greasy sky peppered with a few man-made “photo opportunities” complete with patches of dead and dying grass for depressing roadside picnicking and watching the ubiquitous mobile phone towers replace swaths of trees on the nearby foothills approaching the Japan Alps. I’d rather sit on my electronically heated toilet and listen to the simulacra rushing river sounds meant to cover the embarrassment visitors (probably the Brazilian Mormons again…) would inevitably face by noises caused by my bowel movements. Can you blame me?

The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

Man’s Clandestine Nature Policy – The Salton Sea from Joshua Tree

Growing up in crowded southern California my family and I would take occasional trips to the desert — to Indio, Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, Lake Havasu — to camp and fish, get on a houseboat and laze in the lakes created by damming the west’s river arteries or occasionally just sit by the hotel pool in the dry empty 110 degree expanse. Despite not always coming home with a huge catch of fresh trout for dinner or getting massively dehydrated and sunburnt, the key to any kind of enjoyment of the desert was water. It’s a primordial instinct out of which we are born: a stream of life in the vast expanse of death. Without even the notion of water in some form — stream, river, lake, pool, slip and slide, etc. — on the horizon even as a child I knew not to expect much. This was before beer and sex had been introduced in my life, so swimming and fishing in lakes and rivers was almost all I had. Riding in the backseat of my grandparent’s gas-guzzling Ford Granada as we rolled east down Interstate 10 and the cacti started to appear, the landscape shifting from the stacked traffic and houses of the Imperial Valley to a gradually sparser and ten shades browner back country of flat mile after mile desert and mountains in the distance, I never thought about the fact that cities and lakes and everything else were made by man for a reason, nor did I imagine what those reasons might have been. Alternately dumb and curious as most children are, I always had a vision of the desert as the gateway to China and that if only I could dune dig deep enough, I would end up meeting my Chinese doppelgänger halfway and we could, I don’t know, trade shitty plastic toys. Despite the fact that digging through the earth from Death Valley would most likely land you in Great White feeding grounds off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean this notion got stuck somewhere in the ever-growing collection of unexpunged synapses clogging up my head throughout adolescence on into early manhood and, as tends to happen in life under the hallucination-inducing desert sun, got warped. Backward and wrong as it was, my vision of China — and by extension all of Asia — was that of an inverse function of my Mojave desert: raw, verdant green power, growing up and out, full of lakes and unclogged rivers, unstoppable and dangerous, untouched by man’s egotistical manifest destiny sense of entitlement due to nature’s unsurpassed tenacity and perseverance. To me, ignorant of Mao’s Great Leap Forward / Cultural Revolution, the rape of Nanjing, & the 38th Parallel, China / Japan / Korea represented the untouchable preserve, a vast swath of natural resources that as long as it remained intact would always symbolize a cushion to fall back on should we lose sight of whatever it was that drove us onward in our unquenchable search for fuel, that and to provide strength against the harsh realities of life on earth, ha ha, that one again. Yeah, at 8 years-old, I was a strange kid. All-American, but still a bit off in the head.

The fact is today, there just aren’t that many untouched territories out there anymore, even in desertifying China and as well in mountainous Japan. What we, programmed by Reagan’s 80’s network nightly news team, tended to think of as the onetime imperialist’s third world exotic Asian getaway, or rather hoped would be, our “natural” backyard of free and easy resources, has become an experiment in pork barrel construction based upon ease of stripping away vital sources of energy to power our karaoke, latte and ATM machines. Nowhere is this more sadly visible than in the middlingly developed consumer centers of Japan, from Nagano to the north, and Osaka to the south. With the cities, like smelly, sweaty and humid Nagoya, we get the armpit we expect, peopled to the brim, overheated and far too gone to do anything about (or so we think), but with Nagano we get to see an area of onetime vast wilderness in mid-metamorphosis. The strip-mining, dynamiting, clear-cutting, river-damming, concreting, tetrapodding, hillside gridding, mountain-topping is going on right now and continues to justify the existence of the overfed construction industry, itself a propped up jobs program for mafioso swindlers. As an outsider it’s an interesting thing to watch occur all around you as your elderly neighbors in their sardine-packed apartments regularly boast of Japan as a country of natural beauty. I don’t disagree, I just wonder what they mean by “natural”.

The term wabi-sabi is often dropped by people when describing Japan or something Japanese. Despite it being a Japanese phrase, many Japanese people I’ve talked to have little or no understanding of the concept at all and sum it up like my friend Tomo, “In order to understand Japanese wabi-sabi, you need foreigners to explain to you.”

“Why Tomo, why?”

“This shit old Buddha concept man, modern Jap work 12 hours, wear suit, eat hamburger, drink Starbucks, buy fucking Gucci and Louis Vuitton, you know Asian-American? It’s you white people, Richard Gere-san, love this old Buddhist shit.”

The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

The Observation Platform at Okochi Sanso was used to contemplate ephemeral beauty in Arashiyama, Kyoto

If it weren’t negated by speaking of it, as in any basic Buddhist tenet, simply put, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the understated asymmetric beauty of the ephemeral. Wabi and Sabi are actually separate words, rooted in both Shintō and Zen aesthetics. Wabi (侘), coming from Wa (meaning harmony), refers to a poetic kind of simplicity or distilledness, while Sabi (寂) refers to a declining elegance. The word for rust, also Sabi (though using the character 錆) has a similar nuance: the slow and inevitable erosion of time. In a word: impermanence. I have come to understand it from pestering my friends (who never know) and any older people I meet at the neighborhood sake bar (which always elicits a friendly laugh) as being a kind of interplay between “nature” and “society”, the ubiquitous plant vines spreading across the facades of old buildings, the muted flaws of handmade ceramic ware, a karesansui rock garden. Whereas I have always seen wabi-sabi as space and time, respectively, and exemplified in nature itself as the growth of moss on a tree, the intricate and imperfect patterning of wild mushrooms, the way waves crest and trough in the sea. Whichever is correct, the fact remains that man’s perceived dominance over nature is at the root of the discussion and the Japanese are at the center of any debate of how the culture which gave rise to the wabi-sabi aesthetic (though not necessarily directly) has gone on to irrevocably waste precious resources and help alter the world’s natural landscape. The earth, despite being the giver of life, is an admittedly tough place to eke out an existence and this archipelago of roughly 2000 islands, while blessed with some of the most beautiful forests and mountain ranges in the world — Nagano’s Japan Alps being one of them — is especially wild and unforgiving. From the ubiquitous Japanese gardener in Hollywood films to the national obsession with bonsai trees and the relentless manipulation of all aspects of nature in general, a proper look into wabi-sabi required me to start looking at a cursory examination of the ascendancy of Buddhism in Japan in relation to nature and society. So I started asking questions. Then it got weird.


The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

Sekibutsu or Buddhist image made of stone from the 7th to 13th centuries

Libraries in rural Japan may have an English language section, filled with Tom Clancy and Curious George and, much like a liquor stores selection of bourbons you have never heard of, offer dubious harlequin pulp full of pulsating members and heaving breasts. This begs the question, “Is this crap published with a large red stamp “Export Only”…?” Fun for a laugh, but just as useless as thumbing through any text on Buddhism, should you even be able to find one, if your kanji literacy rate wallows below 400 characters: an effort in futility. Coupled with the recent internet bubble just having burst worse than Japanese venture capital conglomerates attempts at buying Pebble Beach and 30 Rock in the 80s, online education portals were pretty sparse in the early 2000s and desperately in need of Web 2.0 design aesthetics, what with their scrolling Comic Sans typeface outlined in day-glo edging across flashing headers, images of a pixelated Buddha spinning in GIF ecstasy, mile-long URLs with nonsensical alphanumeric combinations, as if encoded to hide the divine knowledge they offered, but only to a select few…

So with a bottle of the affordable yet tasty Black Nikka Whisky as my partner in crime I stayed home and took advantage of Buddhism via airmail and early Amazon Japan discounts on shipping, and sought out a two-pronged attack of Alan Watts Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion and Joseph Campbell’s Sake & Satori. Hitting just the right balance with Watts’ beery enlightenment and Campbell’s erudite scholasticism made for entertaining education, especially on something so intimate as personal theological development, and by way of books written by outsiders, no less. It has always seemed to me that when I am most in tune with the divine nature of the world I have been outdoors: hiking in the Sierra Nevada or swimming in the Gulf of Siam. It has always felt antithetical to me the discovery of reading of the wonders of the world rather than racing around and finding one’s own. That said, I have read my fair share on the marvels of nature, and it has led me to blossom out of my Californian desert cocoon.

In a nutshell, Buddhism can in some sense be seen as exported Hinduism. Whereas Hinduism was more than just a religion — largely a culture featuring more than just religious practices but also social castes and institutions — Buddhism came about as a way to the teachings of the Buddha for the non-Hindu world. The first type we see is Theravada (Doctrine of the Saints), a mostly monastic form closely related to Jainism, stressing the teaching of analysis, where Nirvana is achieved by experience, investigation and insight. Another form of this is Hīnayāna (Lesser Vessel) whereby Nirvana is achieved by abandoning society and embracing ascetic hardships. At this point in history (around 500 BCE) all Buddhist art is not of the Buddha himself but of the idea of the Buddha, his symbology (i.e. the Lotus) and bigfoot-esque Buddha footprints, etc. This is because of the heavy reliance on the early depiction of the Buddha as disengaged from his body, disengaged from time. He was Nonentity, Buddha Consciousness, God not in the world.

The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

The Daibutsu of Todaiji in Nara – his other hand is touching the earth…

The Buddha’s hand touching the earth is called Akshobya — to not be moved — imperturbable. This is the original form of Buddhism, disengaged from the field of time, a difficult path largely undertaken by the Hīnayānic monks of India, but not meant for regular joes. The next form would be merely to realize that it is possible to be engaged in the field of time while not being moved. Understanding that life amidst the seeming infinite number of opposites which are actually poles of one another and coexist in a necessary harmony is the Mahayāna, one could arguably say the most popular form of Buddhism in north-east Asia (China, Korea, Japan). As opposed to the attempts by the few to throw off life, to discard the impure body, to free the mind, eventually around 100 CE many people came to realize that this was not necessary, that one could, and does, exist in both realms. This is Buddhism for the masses.

Circa 1st century CE, the Buddha in the form of Man began to be represented in art of all kinds. This art signaled the next phase in Buddhism called Mahāyāna (Greater Vessel). The ethos shifted toward a sense of the Buddha who, while being disengaged from Time, is also engaged in it, as God in the world – a kindly superhero Jesus. People are getting the idea of the oneness of everything, Yin and Yang, space and time, and key in this is the Buddha’s teaching of the “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world”. We — you, me, everything — can possess both Buddha consciousness and be present in the world, simultaneously disengaged and engaged from time. Once the Buddha achieves Nirvana, that is to say realizes the Om oneness of everything, he knows that he is not here, yet also realizes there is nowhere but here. There is no distinction. Nirvana, therefore, is everywhere. One need not submit to ascetic monasticism to achieve enlightenment, but rather delve into the world around, and inside, us. Phew, that was close.

In my search for the path toward understanding what the connection between enlightenment and nature, a friend tossed me a bone, in the form of On the Golden Lion, an obscure essay by the Central Asian Buddhist Fa-tsang which dates to around 700 CE. He was a practitioner of Flower Garland Buddhism, which states that the nature of the infinite can be seen in the infinitesimal. He illustrates this using a statuette of a golden lion. The carving of each aspect of the lion — the teeth, the mane, the tail, et al — represents the various phenomena of the universe — stars, planets, black holes, et al — all different in appearance. Yet their unifying characteristic is that they are made of the same material: gold. “Conditioned arising” refers to the seemingly separate nature of everything in the universe: contrived, opposite, unattached: sushi is sushi and planets are planets, but both are made of stardust. Yet in reality, since the universe is composed of in this case gold — gold ears, gold teeth, gold scrotum — all is one, be it gold or sushi. The Avatamsaka (Flower Garland) Sutra says that the differences are all superficial, and that I should accept that the polluted lake is as sacred as the sushi I so love. Thinking is the problem. But like Tomo always said, “Stop thinking so much man, just enjoy the view!”

The Nature of Wabi-Sabi I

Nigiri-zushi is perhaps the pinnacle of world cuisine & Zen Buddhism


– Campbell, Joseph & Kudler, David (2002). Sake & Satori. New World Library
– Carter, Robert Edgar (2007). The Japanese arts and self-cultivation. Suny Press
– Fa-tsang (700CE), On the Golden Lion
– Johnson, Norris Brock (1991). Zuisen Temple and Garden, Kamakura, Japan: Design Form and Phylogenetic Meaning. Journal of Garden History
– Koren, Leonard (1994). Wabi Sabi for artists, designers, poets and philosophers. Berkley, CA: Stone Bridge Press
– McCormack, Gavan (1996). The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence. M.E. Sharpe
– Plutschow, Herbert (1999). An Anthropological Perspective on the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Anthropoetics 5, no. 1
– Sasaki, Genjun (1992) Linguistic Approach to Buddhist Thought. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers
– Tachibana, Toshitsunawe (Ca. 1000CE) Sakuteiki
– Watts, Alan (1999) Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion. Tuttle Publishing
– Young David & Michiko, (2005) The Art of the Japanese Garden. Tuttle Publishing
– Dig to China – http://map.talleye.com/bighole.php
– Jōdo shū – http://www.jodo.org/teachings/nembutsu.html
– Shogoin Temple, Kyoto, Japan – http://www.shugendo.fr/
– Taylor, Jiro The Waribashi Conundrum – http://www.japanvisitor.com/index.php?cID=361&pID=375
– TED Case Studies – http://www1.american.edu/TED/chopstik.htm
– Web Japan (Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs) – http://web-japan.org/