Living a Beautiful Ordinary Life

by Shoken Winekoff
Abbot, Ryumongi Zen Monastery, Decorah, IA

“Wabi Sabi” touches something at the core of human living. It is an interesting Japanese phrase that is a bit hard to explain, but you can feel it when you see it. There’s a children’s book called Wabi Sabi, written by Mark Reibstein. I’ve used it a couple of times in Dharma talks. I’ll tell you the story and maybe add to it as well.

Wabi Sabi is the name of a cat that lives in Japan. She is an ordinary little cat that sets out to find the meaning of her name. She asks her master, who simply tells her that her name is hard to explain.

So Wabi Sabi asks her friend, a big white fluffy cat, who tells her “Wabi Sabi” is a kind of beauty like an old straw mat, rough on cat’s paws. It pricks and tickles … hurts and feels good, too. Old tatami mats can have their own special kind of beauty. This made Wabi Sabi feel pretty good. So she purred and purred … as she laid on the old tatami mat.

Wanting to find out more, Wabi Sabi asked her dog who also lived in the house with her if he knew the meaning of her name. He was a kind of snippy little dog and just said, “Oh, Wabi Sabi, you are just so ordinary. Like a brown leaf, so ordinary!” This sort of hurt Wabi Sabi. She didn’t like feeling so ordinary.

Wabi Sabi was having a hard time understanding. How could her name mean beautiful and ordinary at the same time? Then a little bird told Wabi Sabi that there was a wise old monkey who lived in the forest who could tell her the meaning of her name. So, Wabi Sabi went to the forest and met the wise old monkey.

The wise old monkey served her a bowl of tea. The bowl of tea was warm in her paws and very comforting. It was an old clay bowl and the steam was gently rising in the morning sun. It was something Wabi Sabi could feel without the wise old monkey saying anything. Still Wabi Sabi asked the wise old monkey if he could explain her name.

The monkey simply served her the tea and told her an old haiku poem, “The pale moon resting on foggy water. Hear that splash? A frog’s jumped in.” Hmm! Wabi Sabi scratched her head, but couldn’t understand.

Finally she met an old monk named Shoken who also lived deep in the mountain. Wabi Sabi asked the old monk Shoken if he could explain the haiku poem. Shoken just asked Wabi Sabi, “What is the pale moon?” Wabi Sabi said, “A pale moon is really the sun reflecting the light of the entire universe.” Wabi Sabi was a very smart cat.

Then Shoken asked Wabi Sabi, “What is the foggy water that the entire universe is resting on?” Wabi Sabi thought for a moment and said, “The foggy water is
our day-to-day living.” Then the old monk Shoken asked Wabi Sabi, “What is a frog jumped in?” Wabi Sabi simply said, “Nothing to be said, the frog just jumped in!”

We’re always looking for explanations. Alive and dying too is like this, like the damp autumn leaves curled beneath your feet… just coming, just going. It just is! The truth to live is just to live.

I asked my granddaughter if she understood. She said, “I understand, Papa Shoken!” And fell asleep against my arm. Papa Shoken also went to sleep that night thinking how Wabi Sabi human life is. Just ordinary and yet so beautiful, if you can just live it!

This article is reprinted from the Ryumonj Zen Monastery “Dragon Gate,” Fall 2009 Newsletter, which can be accessed by clicking here.