Sabi is a key concept in Japanese aesthetics, and it is a very important lesson in the truly crucial parts of karatedo, both in and out of the dojo.
Sabi is pronounced “sah-bee.”
Literally, 寂 means “mature”, although there are similarly-pronounced characters that take the core meaning of “aged” at the heart of sabi, and translate 寂 as “tarnished” or “corroded”.
Sabi is one half of the core of classic Japanese beauty (the other half is simplicity, or wabi 侘) – something which is mature is also “beautiful” and highly valued. In karatedo, sabi most directly applies to one’s rank belt (the “obi”) – have you ever looked at a really old black belt and seen the frayed threads, the tears, the drooping ends? Perhaps by itself, such a belt is ugly, old, corroded, and tarnished. But think of all the hard work, all the hours of dedication, all the sparring, the push-ups, the focus on kata. Think of all the wisdom and experiences accumulated, all the insights gained, all the enlightenment earned, all while wearing that old black belt.
With that understanding in mind….Now that old, ragged, black belt is beautiful, isn’t it?
Sabi can be applied to everything around us, but most especially people. Look at the older men and women in your life, in your workplace, in your school, in the dojo. Yes, perhaps they are wrinkled, have scars, show signs of aging. Yes, perhaps they can’t run as fast, kick as high, or lift heavy loads like they once did.
But they are beautiful, nonetheless, aren’t they? Their experience, the wisdom they have gained, and the skills they have attained… all of those are beautiful things. Don’t see wrinkles: instead see enlightenment. Don’t see scars: instead see brilliant minds honed with skills we ourselves don’t have yet, and which can be shared with us.
And of course this can apply to objects as well, such as buildings, sculpture, clothes, and much more. Sabi is all around us, because beauty is all around us. We just have to be able to see below the surface, and appreciate it.