SABI IN HAIKU Winter Scene by H.F. Noyes The Japanese word sabi expresses a uniquely vital element in the haiku tradition. Though the concept, like much in Japanese art, is so elusively subtle as to afford no easy accessibility to Western minds, let us at the very least be willing to confront the mystery and paradox of the term. We are told by R.H. Blyth that "what can be said is not sabi."1 That imposes no obstacle to a haijin who understands Zen "wordlessness" as an eloquent form of communion. Take, for instance, "Autumn dusk -- / without a cry/a jackdaw passes" (Kishu 2 ). The deepest truths are imageless; they emanate from the unexpressed, the wordless aspect of haiku however essential each word may be: how silently the wave-tossed log is beached and snow-flaked Geraldine C. Little 3 The mystery of sabi intensifies when I quote from Basho: "Where there is no sabi, there will be sadness."4 Then sabi cannot encompass what we usually mean by sadness. Rather, it goes beyond happiness-sadness to the lonely quality which each thing has in its singular existence, when observed from a state of detachment. Sabi loneliness, according to Alan Watts, is in seeing things "as happening 'by themselves' in miraculous spontaneity."5 He gives as example Buson's "Evening breeze /water lapping against/the heron's legs." The great surprise is that when we immerse ourselves in nature, an isolated particularity becomes to us, for the moment, all things. Sabi loneliness is a state in which, having nothing, we have all. (Not the proximity in our language of aloneness to all-oneness. It is a state of which Blyth says we "do not pick and choose what we are to rejoice and weep with."6 It chooses us: "winter hill /alone together/with wind and stars" (H.F.Noyes 7 ). In his haiku handbook, William Higginson describes sabi as "beauty with a sense of loneliness in time."8 A fine example is "Who can be awake/the lamp still burning /cold rain at midnight" (Ryota 9 ) Despite undertones of melancholy in sabi, the more desolate aspects of our human condition are, traditionally, sublimated. The sadness of transience is transcended when we go unresisting with the flow of constant change. The loneliness that afflicts us all is not thus received, but at least for the moment, dissolved in interfusion with all around us. Tombo's unspoken sadness over the loss of her son is, in the following, overwhelmed by her sense of the delicate beauty of one transient phenomenon:10 A hot summer wind shadows of the windmill blades flow over the grass In the depth and breadth of a true haijin spirit such as Basho's, life's suffering and its sublime moments of beauty and serenity are perfectly reconciled: "A rough sea! /Stretched out over Sado/The Milky Way." 11 But sabi arises, above all, with the observation of the garden variety of "insignificant" detail that makes up our ordinary lives, where sabi is not in the beauty, but rather the beauty is in the sabi. Indeed sabi is often best expressed through the "lonesome" bareness of a "poverty- stricken" style: Visiting the graves: The old dog Leads the way. Issa 12 However much a consensus on the meaning of sabi may elude us, a humble viewpoint of selfless detachment seems to lead us into its realm of truth: Resting . . . the sagging fence goes on up the hill Foster Jewell 13 SOURCES: 1- R.H. Blyth, "Eastern Culture," HAIKU Vol. I, pg. 289 2- R.H. Blyth, HAIKU Vol. III, pg. 903 (edited version) 3- FROGPOND, November 1987 4- H.R. Blyth, "Eastern Culture," HAIKU Vol. I, pg. 288 5- Alan Watts, THE WAY OF ZEN, pg. 186 6- R.H. Blyth, "Eastern Culture," pg. 186 7- AMBER, Spring 1989 8- William J. Higginson with Penny Harter, THE HAIKU HANDBOOK, Glossary, Pg. 293 9- R.H. Blyth, HAIKU Vol. IV, pg. 1185 (edited version) 8- DRAGONFLY, July 1973 11- translated by Dana B. Young 12- H.R. Blyth, HAIKU Vol. IV, pg. 1028 13- VIRTUAL IMAGE, Summer-Fall, 1982 BACK TO CONTENTS PAGE