Embracing Life as It Is: Lessons from Wabi-Sabi, Haiku, and Zen

Alan Gettis

Alan Gettis is a psychologist and former vice president of the Haiku Society of America; his haiku have been published in journals throughout the world, including the United States, Australia, Canada, and Japan.

Sensei Carl Genjo Bachmann is a psychotherapist and a Zen teacher in the white plum lineage. He received dharma transmission from Robert Kennedy Roshi; he is also the teacher and one of the founders of the Clear Mountain Zen Center in Montclair, New Jersey.

Our premise is that wabi-sabi, haiku, and Zen all provide important lessons in many things, including selflessness, acceptance, non-discrimination, compassion, self-compassion, and impermanence.

This book introduces the concepts of wabi-sabi, haiku, and Zen. In this review let’s see how the authors relate these concepts to embracing life as it is. As the author states: “The haiku mind, the wabi-sabi mind, and the Zen mind all accept what is before us, without sentimentality and without adding anything extra.”

Wabi-sabi 

Wabi-sabi is the appreciation of things impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete. In wabi-sabi, we find value, beauty, and interest in unlikely places, and an acceptance and appreciation of life as it is rather than life as we wish it would be. We discover the beauty of objects that are decomposing, and we realize we are no less valuable, loveable, or beautiful as a result of our own decomposition. Wabi-sabi is the stone with moss. It’s the faded, dog-eared book. It is about objects, people, you and me, all worn through use and the passage of time.

In an interview with Rie Takeda, one of the things we talked about was the concept of wabi-sabi. She shares that it is something that inspires her with her calligraphy and refers to it as the nucleus of Japanese aesthetics. For her, it helps people understand a deeper natural cycle of life. To better explain it, Rie tries to express wabi-sabi in calligraphy by combining it with sakura cherry blossoms. She states that when the sakura is in full bloom, then the wind will toss them all out, suddenly there is an absence of sakura petals. Rie compares it with life, that people should appreciate every moment while it’s there. It represents the circle of life: flowers may fall, but they will come in full bloom again. This is similar to how the authors refer to wabi-sabi as life as it is: “It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet - that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in and accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It's simple, slow, and uncluttered - and it reveres authenticity above all.”

Haiku

Many believe that a haiku is any poem of three lines that contains seventeen syllables. That is not usually the case. Haiku may well be “literature’s most subtle art form,” sophisticated, parsimonious, and conveying a moment of experiential truth.

Alan compares Western poems with haiku emphasising that haiku appears to be simpler and just describing the moment as it is, whereas the Western poem is more analytical. I think it just shows how the Japanese see things differently from that of the Westerners. In the West, people tend to think or act grandiosely, while in Japan, they are very simple and don’t romanticize things; they try to accept things as they are and make the most out of them.  

As Alan states, it’s not what you would like to see, but of the truth of that moment. No proselytizing, no telling you how to feel, no judgment, no embellishment, nothing extra. A good haiku is lean, never containing anything extra or unnecessary.

Zen

Zen has a significant influence on Japanese culture. Spiritually and aesthetically, Zen permeated the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, calligraphy, haiku, wabi-sabi, and many other aspects of Japan's Culture.

The heart of Zen is paying attention. Paying attention to this moment right now. This moment is the only moment. The past is gone and the future has not yet arrived. There is only now!

Zen indeed has a significant influence on Japanese culture; I’ve interviewed experts like Saneteru “Steven” Radzikowski, head sword instructor of Shinkan-ryu Kenpo; Randy Channell Soei, Canadian Tea master; and Rie Takeda, a professional calligrapher -- all of which mentioned the importance of mindfulness in their crafts; and they all brought up the term mushin (transparent, clear mind), which is essential in their respective practices. Mushin is a zen word consisting of two kanji chacters: mu (emptiness) and shin (mind); the body and mind become one and the individual becomes aware of their energy; it’s a state of flow in what one dedicates himself or herself to.

Equanimity

Equanimity is a state of stability or composure arising from a deep awareness and acceptance of the present moment. 

Equanimity is one of the most sublime emotions of Buddhist practice. It is the ground for wisdom and freedom and the protector of compassion and love.

The most common Pali word translated as equanimity is upekkha, meaning “to look over.” It refers to the equanimity that arises from the power of observation - the ability to see without being caught by what we see.

This reminds me of Naikan: a method of self-reflection. According to Gregg Krech, the author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection, Naikan is a process of spending 16 hours a day facing a wall and just reflecting quietly on how one’s own life and the meaningful relationships that one has with one’s life, through the years. 

I do think that through this process of Naikan, people can experience equanimity -- reflecting on things that really matter in their lives.

Acceptance 

It is not the circumstances we find ourselves in that causes suffering, but rather what we tell ourselves about those circumstances.

Cultivating acceptance means we gradually learn to let go. We let go of our need to control, We let go of our wish that life be different than it is. When we cling to the idea that life should be more the way we want it to be, we are evidencing thoughts and feelings of entitlement.

When we let go of the past and our regrets, resentments, guilt, and shame, and when we let go of our expectations that life should treat us better, and when we let go of our need to control, and when we let go of our fears of the future, and when we let go of blaming, judging, and comparing, we give ourselves permission to be happier. Happiness is less related to what we acquire and more related to what we let go of. By choosing to let go, we choose freedom to move on. Control is an illusion.

This is similar to the concept of Scott Haas’ book Why be happy? The Japanese Way of Acceptance. In his book, Scott introduces the Japanese principle of acceptance, and how the Japanese seek resolution through understanding and harmony. In my interview with Scott, he shares that people can accept stressful situations, but don’t always have to respond or react to them. Not taking things personally, for Scott, applies on a very practical level to many situations.

This concept of acceptance also reminds me of one of Ken Mogi’s 5 pillars of ikigai: releasing yourself. Sharing a quote from Ken’s book: "Accepting yourself is one of the most important and difficult tasks we face in our lives. Indeed, accepting oneself is one of the easiest, simplest, and most rewarding things you can do for yourself. A low budget maintenance-free formula for being happy." Acceptance is letting go of expectations and acknowledging our individuality.


Gratitude

Gratitude is a gift. We should let it inspire us to act on it. We should let it inspire us in our daily lives to reach out to others with an open heart. Living a life of gratitude changes your life. When we are grateful, what we have is enough.


I agree that when we are grateful, what we have is enough; when we practice gratitude, we attain contentment in our lives. We learn to appreciate the things that we have, rather than focusing on what we don’t possess.


Conclusion

Wabi-sabi, haiku, and Zen teach us “Just this.” We come to appreciate what is, and intimately know that what is before us is the truth of that moment. When we stop lamenting the transient and give up our attachments to how we think life should be, we can begin to fully accept, appreciate, and embrace life, just as it is. 

A haiku can be an expression of paying intimate attention to the present moment. It calls for a direct experience, which is very different than an intellectual understanding. When a haiku is written with a quiet mind, everyday activities are brought to life, and we have “just this.”

Wabi-sabi is also an expression of paying intimate attention to the present moment. As emphasized earlier, wabi-sabi encourages the appreciation of things that are impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete. The beauty of these conditions can only be truly appreciated by paying intimate attention. 

Paying intimate attention allows us to fully experience and appreciate haiku, wabi-sabi, and life.

This book is a great introduction to the concepts of wabi-sabi, haiku, and Zen. True to its title Embracing Life as It is, with the help of these concepts, we can learn to live and accept life as it is. 

In wabi-sabi, we learn the beauty of the imperfection -- our lives are not perfect, but we learn from all those imperfections; we learn from trials and our failures. 

In haiku, we learn to live each moment as it is; being in the moment and just learning to accept what we have. 

And in Zen, we learn the importance of mindfulness, as Alan states: “To understand the influence of Zen, you must become familiar with essence. This arises from the direct experience of reality through meditation rather than from Zen philosophy. What follows are key concepts to help you discover the essence of haiku and wabi-sabi and the heart of Zen.” 

“In Zen, we say the reason we sit is to “just sit.” Anything else is extra and interferes with sitting. We don’t sit to experience a particular outcome. We don’t sit to attain or achieve something. We just sit! Just sitting is the heart of Zen practice.”

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