Article: Wabi

by Dr. Robert Kienitz, D.Ac., DTCM

In this article I would like to explore the Japanese concept of wabi. The concept was once described to me as the crack in the teacup that I held during a tea ceremony in Los Angeles. I asked my mentor why imperfect china was used on such a profound and sacred occasion. He told me that everything that was present in the tea ceremony was present in the crack in the cup, and that without that flaw, the tea ceremony might not exist. It was that which I perceived as a flaw that was the distillation of the entire Zen/tea experience.

I was reminded then of the Hopi Indians of our desert Southwest. The Hopi people craft some of the most beautiful rugs in the world using exquisite patterns and colors, their rugs are more suited to hanging on a wall as art then lying on the dirt floor of an adobe hut. These rugs all have one thing in common, an intended flaw in the weaving, always in a very obvious place that keeps the rug from ever being perfectly symmetric. The Hopi say that the flaw is the “spirits door” and that it allows the spirit of the rug to come and go as it pleases, thus keeping the spirit (and the rug), happy.

Kata, pre arranged fighting sequences in the martial arts, also exemplify the concept of wabi. Martial arts forms are the embodiment of the techniques in their art, and the practitioners know that there are techniques hidden within the techniques within the Kata. Martial arts masters love to peel back those hidden layers of meaning over time to slowly reveal the true intent and nature of their art.

My Traditional Chinese Medical schooling had this same nesting of meaning. We started out reading the “Yellow Emperor” (Huang Di Nei Jing, the foundation of all Chinese medical literature), and through the years we were led to deeper insights with that book. Later, in post-doctoral work, we dissected one line of the Yellow Emperor and used it as the springboard for an entire thesis.

Wabi is the distillation of a lifetime of experience into a single moment, and teacups, rugs, kata and rare books are used by masters to teach us that what is complex is actually simple, and the seemingly simple can be quite complex.

Since my initiation to the tea ceremony at the L.A. Zendo, I have read of other peoples encounters with the Zen tea ceremony and I suspect that those cracked cups are mass produced, for it seems that every novice to the ceremony encounters the crack and is primed to ask the same questions that I did. I suspect the same of Indian rug merchants, karate masters and Chinese doctors.