Man, this is a well-written piece...
Wabi-Sabi and the Zen sense of humor
The old adage “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is something almost everyone can agree on. In terms of Japanese ascetics and what makes worthy subjects for poetry, they are governed by the concept of wabi-sabi. The two words can more or less be rendered in English as sadness and rust. But what does that mean?
Well, different people react differently to the same experience. For some, when they stroll along a wooded path and see a log being rotted by the rain, or encounter a lichen-spotted boulder, may think “decay” and no more. For others, the sights remind them of the cycle of life, of how trees live and die so others may replace them in the fullness of time, or regarding the boulder, may pause to think how earthlike it is and associate humans clinging to the surface of our planet.
But take the same experience and view it from an enlightened wabi-sabi perspective and you will notice how the moisture glistens off the pieces of fragmented wood; you think it’s beautiful and lonely. You will notice the boulder and think that even this seemingly immobile thing is temporary; it fell from someplace, and it is slowly – inextricably – moving on. All things/all life is just the same: temporary although appearing fixed.
These feelings are directly linked to a Chinese form of Buddhism which took root and thrived in Japan. In about the year 1200, Zen gained ground and popularity amongst the elite and spread quickly. It taught enlightenment in ways where the acolyte interacted with the world directly. It would be as if the Shakers set up compounds in Manhattan and went out each day to find their simplicity amongst the chaos. This very real struggle to zone in on what matters led to some remarkable art, both visual and literary.
Skewed humor is a trademark of the movement. But why? To me it seems a way to downplay the stress of everyday concerns and embrace the absurdness of life and death itself – to achieve freedom from them, in other words.
Examples of Zen paintings are pretty well-known. The Enso mark is a giant calligraphy “O”, which can stand for the concept of absolute infinity and absolute nihility existing simultaneously (yes, lol, it’s meant to blow your mind; meant to show you that thought itself is nothing but a pointless, vicious circle). Another popular image explored by Zen artists relates to the Buddha’s transfiguration. This moment, when the master died surrounded by his lovers and apostles, is a favorite subject of mainstream Buddhism. Since whiteness is associated with the master, a Zen painter imagined the scene anchored by a giant white daikon radish – the dying Buddha – attended by mournful mice. This of course was meant to be both humorous and sacrilegious. It is arguable what the exact message is supposed to be, but the humor suggests that people not take religious iconography too seriously; instead, perhaps the picture says, be inspired by the natural sights around us all the time.
This same humor can be found in the poetry of 14th century Zen abbot Ikkyu. He once got naked at a dinner being hosted in his honor, laying his vestments in front of his food tray. When asked why, he replied, “Because you serve my robes of office, not the me within them.”
In his verse, he delighted in his eccentric ways, referring to himself as “Crazy Cloud,” the wanderer.
Each day and every minute,
Priests pore over their secret texts in the dark.
Before they go blind, however,
I wish they’d read the epistles
sent daily by the wind and rain;
by the snow and the moonlight.
◇ ◇ ◇
I’d like to offer you
something to soothe you,
but in the Way of Zen,
we don’t have a goddamned thing.
◇ ◇ ◇
Joy and hate; relationships and loneliness;
clarity/shadows; heat/coolness; anger/happiness;
the self and the outsiders –
philosophy and every poetic road to Beauty
leads only to decay and perdition,
but look what we find along the Way!
A path strewn with blossoms of apricot and peach.
He was also famous/infamous for ignoring the precept of priestly celibacy. In fact, he celebrated sex in his writings as a means of connection between human beings and the larger world outside ourselves.
Lovemaking can transcend this life.
The stirrings of a single autumn night of sex
surpass the staid, hundred-year wait
of meditating alone, sitting still.
◇ ◇ ◇
Lust hurts the bearer when deepest,
causing a dearth of poetry and words,
yet now, my pleasure is the most natural,
like a breeze playing through my empty halls.
I hope learning about how to approach the world via wabi-sabi and a Zen sense of humor can add depth to your poetry, especially to your Tanka and Haiku.
 A literal translation would be “isolation” and “oxidation” (as the Japanese language makes no distinction between rust and patina). When Japanese wish to express a feeling of sadness, they rarely use the actual word for it (which is kanashii), but rather choose between sabashii or wabashii instead. Both express a sense of being devoid of human contact, and in using them as a substitute for “sadness”, speak volumes about the well-known Japanese collective thinking. The nuances in the terms are these: wabi also conveys a sense of the poor or rustic; thus a lonely rich man can only be sabashii in his isolation.
Happy Easter! Check out my little bunny tale
You may want to read droghtquake's opinions -- it would be interesting to see if two comments from people somewhat the same age living in the same city are similar. I am especially interested as, many years ago -- when the streetcars were still blue and yellow, I lived in the Sunset district and attended school downtown. A long ride back and forth.
Yes, @droughtquakeand I have discussed some points relating to life in the Bay Area BTW, Muni has a fleet of streetcars refurbished by volunteers and hailing from cities far and near. They run up and down Market Street and are known as the "F Line." They even have a yellow example from here like you mentioned.
And AC is one of the GA members who actually resides in The City. I worked on Castro Street for a few months, but have never lived in San Francisco. I live in the East Bay in a terminus of BART.
I don't claim to speak for my city, the Bay Area, or California. My opinions have clashed with others from the Bay Area or other parts of the state. Several others have expressed a desire to leave California, but I would have a difficult time ever leaving the state of my birth (unlike some who came here from somewhere else).
I'm also more than a decade older than AC even if I seem to be less mature…
Hey, a decade is nothing, take it from a guy who has seen eight of them slip by, During my sojourn in the San Francisco area, I never lived in the East Bay, I was in the Sunset area because at that time rentals were cheap there. I suppose that is no longer true as the type of house I lived in is now selling for over 100G. A ground floor entry and garage with two floors above was the typical plan. I remember the back yard was only about large enough for a clothes dryer and a dog run with high fences on three sides toward the neighbors. It was the first house in which my family had ever lived where I had my own room however, so I thought it was grand. I attended John Drew School and rode the streetcar through the Twin Peaks tunnel to and from school every day. It was a great time to get my homework done.
I will comment more, but to this point specifically, I really like (and respond well to) how Goethe weighted his poems at the end. It's something Shakespeare would do too, but Goethe is all the more free in his use, but just as effective. I think it's part of Goethe's art; he build towards a conclusion that cannot be seen until the reader lands on it. It's altogether remarkable for me, knowing how difficult it is to start a poem and have it increase in both intensity and simplicity, as if the verse were always moving straight to this conclusion.
Good Thursday, and this has to be among the most remarkable recordings of Haydn ever made. The symphonic version of The Seven Last Words of Christ, led by Antoni Ros-Marbà, conducting the Orchestre de Chambre de Catalogne in 1965. Rarely is spiritual presented in such a spiritual way; it's amazing.