Wabi Sabi, the Japanese Art of Impermanence by Andrew Juniper

There is much to be said of “Western culture,” and its explosive growth of technology and its mastery over the material world, constructing some of the greatest material objects in history from large ships to bridges to skyscrapers to freeways.  While there is great diversity within what I broadly call “Western culture” I am actually referring to dominant Western culture, and while there are many flavors of Eastern culture, in referring to it, I am referring to Tao and Buddhist culture.  Fact is, there are many overlaps.  One of the greatest inventions from the West was the concepts of democracy and liberty and classical liberalism, but unfortunately, they have taken a back seat to statism which is now the dominant Western culture.  Likewise, while Taoism and Buddhism are more naturalist, many Asian cultures ascribe to Confucian ideas about social order which in fact has been adopted by the West.  In fact, saying West versus East may actually be both misleading and confusing, so perhaps I should use a different dichotomy. 


One I like is the dichotomy of Apollonian and Dionysian which is somewhat similar to the idea of the left versus right brain.  The Apollonian seeks the analytical, logical, conscious, and finds comfort with knowns and linear, clean, straight, direct forms.  Of course, I would argue, Apollonians may seek the analytical, logical, and conscious, but in such a pursuit, they may ultimately wind up extremely illogical, unreasonable, and quick to lose consciously and succumb to an unconscious tirade of emotional disturbance.  The Apollonian likes order, especially social order, and material objects which are often finite, predictable, less inclined to change or control its own fate, basically more easily controlled.  It is perhaps no wonder that they also like people who are predictable, simple, easily labeled and easily controlled.  You can probably guess where my bias is.  The Dionysian seeks emotional truths and follows instincts and tries to understand and work with the chaotic mess that is nature and living organisms.  Unlike human-made material objects, animals and living organisms are much harder to control and predict.  In fact, we call all animals that we cannot domesticate, wild.  Dionysians embrace the wild, the chaotic, the unknown, the mysterious, the impermanent, the spiritual, the unseen world.  While Apollonians avoid the unknown and concepts of death and spirituality, the Dionysians embrace it.  Of course, just as Apollonians can be trapped in seeking to be logical and analytical, the Dionysian can be trapped in seeking the instinctive and emotional, as these can also be misleading.  Perhaps, we should seek some balance between the two, because you cannot lead a completely unconscious life never using any analytical tools to cope with nature, and you cannot also lead a completely conscious life either.  However, I would argue that modern Western culture embraces the Apollonian too much and the Dionysian too little, while the Zen and Taoist embrace the Dionysian too much and the Apollonian too little.  Wabi Sabi is firmly rooted in the Dionysian. 


When I was in high school, I wasn’t my favorite with English teachers, because I always wanted to write essays about different things than what was assigned.  While I would read the assigned book and discuss it, I liked to think around them too and often look up the author and take into consideration the place and time he lived.  Context is underrated.  Most teachers in America are firmly Apollonian, and ironically, even in literature, they’re all about conformity and narrow, acceptable interpretations of the art of words which is rather odd.  Even if you could prove that you read the book and understood what it was saying, if you wrote about other things the book stimulated in your mind, you would never get an A.  I believe we should do away with grades and tests, and while many people would go berserk thinking nobody would be motivated to learn, I believe the contrary, that kids would finally enjoy learning.  Imagine if you asked a kid to draw a horse.  Instead of giving him the tools to draw a better horse, instead, you just mark up his drawing in red ink showing all his flawed technique and mistakes.  Do you honestly think that kid will enjoy drawing?  Put that shit on the refrigerator door and just watch how humiliated the kid becomes.  Why do we need to humiliate children to teach them? 


I picked this book up at a Japanese theme store in Seattle.  The American west obviously has been much more impacted by Asia than the American east.  In fact, a map of the second most popular religions in each American state shows that Buddhism dominates the west.  The American west has definitely embraced the Dionysian more, but perhaps the embrace of Buddhism is more about the religion conforming to preexisting western American values of freedom, independence, and nature.  I then started reading this book on my flight back home.  Then immediately, I took a long trip to Korea.  In my opinion, Korea has adopted Western values and culture more than any other Asian nation.  It has become a more Apollonian culture blending Confucianist social order with the modern Western style of government-corporate collusion.  Korean culture and economic life is dominated by a handful of corporate chaebols, Korean for conglomerate oligopolies.  Most everyone knows of or owns a Samsung phone.  Few people know that Samsung makes more than phones.  They make everything from ships to televisions to apartment complexes.  Few people know that Samsung is a chaebol that receives huge government support and subsidies.  Okay, Americans may call this unfair, but let’s get real.  Most large, major US corporations don’t pay taxes and most large, US banks received bailouts during the financial collapse. 


However, there are a few notable distinctions between government-corporate collusion in Korea and America.  In America, the government protects and subsidizes industries not targeted oligopolies.  In Korea, they work directly with the oligopolies.  In America, the corporations buy politicians to get favors from them.  In Korea, the politicians simply do favors for the oligopolies, because they believe the oligopolies interests are in sync with the nation’s interests.  In America, most corporations are all about short term profits and cost cutting, so they make every effort to either cut staffing or use cheaper or part-time staffing.  In Korea, the oligopolies are more paternalistic and their leaders are more nationalistic.  In other words, their leaders believe they are not just leading a for-profit corporation, they believe they are leading their nation to greatness.  As a result, they are more conservative with their finances and also tend to over-staff by western standards.  I was constantly stunned by just how much staffing Korea had everywhere from hotels to department stores to police to subway attendants.  Lotte is a chaebol, and I swear, on one floor of a department store, there was a sales clerk for every 200 to 300 square feet of retail.  That is unheard of in American department stores.  Now you may say, wow, this is great, job security, but there are also a ton of bad things about the Korean model.  With chaebols dominating so much, there is little room for medium-sized companies or great innovation.  Korea was all about giant corporations or mom-and-pop stores selling low profit stuff like socks, underwear, shampoo, toothbrushes, stationery, toys, etc.  The chaebols also dominate pop culture and marketing, so they were all about conformity and brand-worshipping.  In fact, few people realize that the Korean government subsidizing K-pop and K-dramas and most of the Korean pop culture industry.  The reason is to both use K-pop as a gateway to Korean corporate brand products, but also to assert its “national greatness” to the world.  The backlash is that the insanely narrow beauty standards promoted by K-pop stars and K-drama actresses compel Koreans to be the most surgically enhanced people on the planet. 


Okay, so what does this all have to do with wabi sabi?  Korean K-pop is antithetical to wabi sabi and instead, not only an embrace of Apollonian modern western culture but a one-upmanship of it to the illogical conclusion.  Korean K-pop sells material perfection by completely eliminating the organic and human in human life form.  K-pop stars are not allowed to be human.  Whenever one attempts any type of independent or unique or unpredictable behavior, they are shamed or attacked by their fans, by anonymous Koreans on the Internet, or by the media.  The idea is that the ultimate expression of human is not human, but rather merely a shell that encompasses the contrived human ideals of perfection and beauty and coolness.  And not only are Koreans going mad about it, but many people across the globe including Americans.  Of course, I would argue that Americans K-pop fans are different than Korean ones.  For Koreans, the K-pop star is the ultimate perfect expression of who they could be.  For Americans, K-pop star is actually a counter-cultural assertion of their independent mind rejecting America’s limited corporate music culture choice of country, rap, heavy metal, and rock.  I would give credit to Americans that their adoration of Korean culture is a rebellious statement against American corporate culture that is being jammed down their throats.  Since Korea has purposefully avoided promoting K-pop in America, you can say that American K-pop fans are not being influenced by corporate marketing and promotion as much.


The Korean flag, however, very much represents more wabi sabi ideals of nature and the balance of nature, and even the use of white space.  The circle represents yin and yang, the balance of the universe with blue being the negative cosmic forces and red the positive ones.  The four symbols around the circle represent heaven, fire, water, and earth.  In my life, I’ve also increasingly sought some kind of balance between my infatuation with searching for truth, trying to find out what our life is all about, what our universe is comprised of, whether there is life after death or a God, etc. and just living and enjoying life and finding love and relationships and seeking happiness and social stimulation.  In the beginning, when there is some sort of trauma or obstacle to relationships and trust, I tended to seek out the truth more, to find solace in unraveling the mysteries of the universe and human psychology, but as we overcome our traumas or obstacles, I have become more open to relationships.  I was actually in Korea as a result of my father’s death in what has to be one of the most insane, grotesquely entertaining, sad, warped, typically Korean family reunions with one member overly obsessed over the inheritance than my father’s death causing all sorts of unnecessary and self-defeating drama.  She is firmly an Apollonian who derives all her meaning and value from money and status who collects fashion brand items while her husband is obsessed with collecting antiques, both suffering early trust issues and finding solace in material objects over relationships. 


But as much as I criticize Apollonianism and its ultimate expression of being a nonhuman material object shell, the ultimate expression of the Dionysian is summed up by two of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.  “1. Life is suffering.  2. All suffering is caused by ignorance of the nature of reality and the resultant craving, attachment, and grasping that stem from such ignorance.”  A quick analysis of that statement leaves you with the conclusion that to eliminate ignorance and achieve total enlightenment is to also achieve a state devoid of suffering which is also a state devoid of life.  So between being this nonhuman material object shell and enlightened death, we have life on Earth, imperfect, a balancing act of both the yin and yang of Apollonian and Dionysian axes. 


One of the important areas where the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy is well reflected is learning.  I recently learned roller derby which has a high learning curve since it is so counterintuitive and complex.  E.g., to stop, you turn around and stop on your toes instead of lowering your center of gravity and stopping on your heels.  However, I quickly noted that the more I thought about things, the more clumsy I was and the slower it took me to learn.  I also noted that when I thought to much about the idea of doing derby, I was less inclined to do it, but then when I was able to tell my mind to shut up and just go to practice, it became easier to do.  Much of our learning, especially for physical activity, is unconscious but also to a much higher degree for intellectual activities.  In fact, studies show how we retain information better if we sleep right after acquiring it as opposed to being awake.  This proves that while we are unconscious, our unconscious processes are still working trying assimilate new information and experiences (which we sometimes get a peek at when we remember our dreams).  Apollonians tend to over-think and over-analyze everything which deprives their unconscious processes of assimilating new information resulting in an overreliance on existing prejudices and concepts.  If they cannot immediately fit new information into existing constructs consciously, they reject them immediately instead of allowing their unconscious processes to fit the new information in.  Therefore, they are drawn in all aspects of life to the known, the safe, the typecast, labels, popular brands, and simplistic notions of “good guy versus bad guy,” “us versus them,” “you’re with me or against me,” etc.  In fact, interesting to note, when I asked my sibling who is overly attached to money and status what she thought of Trump, she liked him.  I tend to be drawn to the different, strange, new, novel, weird, eccentric, and shocking.  It may not make sense to me at the moment, but that in and of itself is its appeal, but it feeds my unconscious processes.  It gives it something to chew on.  The more mind-blowing the better.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve come to the conclusion that neither Apollonian or Dionysian approaches are better but rather a balance.  We should engage our conscious, analytical, frontal lobes, but we better yet, we should know when it is appropriate to do so.  Modern schools teach us to remain highly conscious and analytical of everything, but they never teach us to turn off or dim down that state.  Instead, many of us have to rely on mindless distractions, overly stimulating experiences, or intoxicants.  Buddhism is one tool to use to calm or turn off the conscious, overly analytical mind through meditation.  A koan is another method, an intractable mental riddle that simply fatigues your analytical mind which blows a fuse and turns it off.


It is funny to note that in America, the iconic rebel is not someone who becomes political active and organizes against corruption and spends Friday and Saturday nights distributing pamphlets and sharing their ideas on social media.  The iconic rebel is actually a narcissist who does drugs, gets wasted drunk, gets STDs by sleeping around in a blacked out state, doesn’t care about anybody but himself, and ultimately destroys his life in a downward spiral of addiction or imprisonment.  Fact is, I grew up wanting to be that rebel and becoming that rebel and now trying to be the real rebel. 


* * *


Wabi sabi evokes participation and involvement.  One of the many mistakes humans tend to make is trying to create too much order in everything and imposing it upon everyone.  Much like sugar and vegetables, we crave what is historically lacking in our environment and take for granted what is abundant.  Throughout most of our evolution, we lived close to nature which was chaotic, so we had an overwhelming desire for order and structure and symmetry.  But much like giving into our sugar craving can give us diabetes, giving into our desire for order can give us a stifling, oppressive government, architecture, urban planning, art, etc.  What many people fail to understand is the concept of spontaneous order and wabi sabi.  We shouldn’t give in to our desires fully, and so we should allow imperfections, disorder, entropy, and chaos to exist which allows us to be more involved in our habitat, our communities, our society, our politics, etc.  Just like giving gives us little shots of biochemical highs, making small order of a chaotic concept or entity also gives us little shots of biochemical highs.  This is why we love to spend hours putting puzzles together or Lego’s.  Wabi sabi is not Legoland where someone else has put together impressive sculptures and buildings.  Wabi sabi is a box of Legos where your mind puts the pieces together.  When people look at a piece of art that doesn’t seem to be art, that doesn’t look great or symmetric or idyllic, they impulsively reject it and move on.  But they miss the point.  Not all art is finished.  Wabi sabi is unfinished art like quantum superposition, it exists in all states until you look at it, and then it collapses into a single thing in your mind.  But it requires the observer’s participation.  This is not to say that finished art is not great sometimes, but just like yin and yang, art should be a balance of finished products and unfinished ones.  Finished products don’t need you to be there.  They exist whether you are there or not.  Wabi sabi, in a sense, does not exist without the observer.  In a sense, reality, nature, is wabi sabi, it does not exist without an observer, but it also does and does not exist, both finished products and unfinished ones, chaos and order, which is the beauty of reality and nature, the coexistence of contradictory forces, existence and nonexistence, time and timelessness, and darkness and light.  Reality is a magic trick where time, space, material objects, freewill are all illusions.  Wabi sabi gives us a clue as to how the trick is performed.  A finished product is timeless.  It exists continuously in its final state regardless of an observer.  Wabi sabi, in embracing the display of decay and deterioration, of death and dying as well as life, creates the illusion of time.  It makes you think about the passage of time, movement, entropy.  So you can look at a photo of something in decay, and you sense its movement from order to disorder. 


The one thing I really like about a book is how much it makes you think, and sometimes, it takes forever to get through the book, because your minds keeps running off on tangents and you keep typing in the review instead of finishing the book.  As you can probably tell from this review, the book has stimulated a lot of ideas.  Tangential or not, another common mistake humans make is the conceit and deceit of rationalism.  Calling someone irrational is an insult.  We are conceited to believe that we are mostly rational beings, that most of our decisions are rational, that our lives are mostly rational, that we spend most of our time thinking and behaving rationally, and ironically, this deceit makes us even more irrational.  This is like our vision.  We assume that we see everything like a TV screen with everything in focus regardless of center.  However, if you were to put our vision on a TV screen, I think most people would be shocked.  Not only is everything outside of center blurred, but there are also big gaps and holes that our minds fill in.  The notion that our vision is clear everywhere is an illusion.  Likewise, the notion that our thoughts and behavior are mostly rational is also an illusion.  The vast majority of our thoughts and behaviors exist without our knowing.  Our rational thoughts and behavior are only the tip of the iceberg that is visible above water.  When the problem with this conceit is that it makes us think we have to rationally analyze everything in life equally, that so long as it’s in front of our noses, it must be rationally analyzed.  This causes mental overload on our frontal lobes, and as a result, they get shut down quicker.  I know so many people who make this mistake.  They’re constantly jumping over dollar bills to pick up pennies so to speak.  They put equal mental effort into petty, inconsequential things as vital, critical things like politics and relationships.  As a result, their political ideas are absurd or nonexistent and their relationships suffer because all their mental efforts are wasted on the small, trivial things in life.  And because they are so busy overanalyzing inconsequential things, they often over-rely on mental shortcuts for everything else.  Mental shortcuts include over-generalizing, stereotyping, and being vulnerable to manipulation, threats or temptations.  Which brings us to politicians like Trump and people who support Trump.  Opponents like to say, Trump followers are idiots and irrational, but this is half the picture.  Perhaps most of the day, a Trump supporter is highly analytical and rational, but it’s all wasted on trivial, unimportant things.  You can tell when you argue with someone like this.  They get caught up on semantics or a tiny contradiction or logical flaw instead of seeing the entire picture, politician, or relationship.  The problem is they are too over-analytical on trivial matters, which makes them vulnerable to manipulation on larger matters.  It makes the fear-mongering of empty promises of Trump resonate more to their overly burdened frontal lobes.  It’s easy to follow Trump.  He tells you what to think, fear, and desire.  You just put your mind in cruise control.  Trump paints the perfect picture which requires little observer interaction.  On the hand, more independent politicians paint complicated pictures which requires observer interaction.  They don’t give you all the answers.  They require you, as a citizen, to become involved.  You can say, it’s wabi sabi politics. 


And now let’s talk about religion.  Speaking of timeless and perfect, humans love to think of a god that embodies perfection.  You might even say, it’s a fantasy like our craving for sugar.  We see so much chaos, imperfection, suffering, and destruction in nature, that we have a heightened craving for a god that embodies total order, good, perfection, and the lack of suffering and scarcity.  You can say this craving is in our DNA.  But much like excess sugar leads to diabetes, the excessive worship of this perfect state and being deprives us of observer participation.  If we truly believe that god is all good and will take care of us, while it may give us temporary pain relief, in the long run, we exercise less and less responsibility and discretion.  Am I actually saying that we should believe in a less than perfect god?  Imagine heaven.  Imagine that state of perfect good and abundance.  Like finished art, it requires no observer participation.  What would you do?  Anything you do would be good and perfect.  It would be effortless.  What’s the point?  An imperfect god is nature, the interplay of chaos and order, good and evil.  Why does evil exist?  To get us out of bed.  To get us to participate, to fight against something, to move against something, the resistance that builds up our conscience muscles.  Of course, I’ve always had a problem with this concept.  This is implying that innocent children and animals suffer at the hands of evil humans for my benefit so I can be a better person.  I don’t buy that.  But, I’m not providing all the answers here, and life is also the interplay between the known and unknown, familiar and foreign.  I may well never know why evil exists and what reality is, and that is fine, because it promises more life and learning, and that’s the point of life, the movement, the interplay, not the finished product of heaven which in my opinion is an overlay of hell.  Life is like a refrigerator.  When you’re young, it’s bare, and your mind is filled with wonder at all the places you could possibly visit.  As the years go by, your refrigerator gets filled with magnets from all around the world.  When you are young, you envisioned this, a refrigerator filled with magnets from all around the world, but by the time you fill up your refrigerator, whenever you look at it, instead of feeling proud and accomplished, I feel nostalgic and old.  Life is not a refrigerator door filled up with magnets from all over the world.  Life is going out there and getting those magnets.  I also bought this Hard Rock Café shirt a few years ago and started filling it up with patches from every Hard Rock Café in every city I visited.  I thought it would be cool to go around showing it off once the back of the shirt was filled up, but in reality, I never wear it, and it just feels stupid to wear it.  With that said, I’m going to finish this review before I even finish the book, because I’ll never get around to finishing the book if I keep writing about it.  How’s that for a wabi sabi review?


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