Like many Westerners who find their way to SAORI weaving, I was attracted by the repeated references to Zen in descriptions of SAORI as well as the experimental, open-process approach to the weaving itself. I'd followed Japanese literature and film since my days at university, gorging on Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mishima, and Kurosawa. And I became proficient at a few Japanese textile techniques (sashiko embroidery, aizome (indigo) dyeing, along with patchwork quilting and boro). But when I read about SAORI online and saw some amazing weaving and garments while I was looking for handicapped-accessible weaving equipment (I was partially-disabled at the time), I jumped! I bought a light-weight shuttle and a copy of SAORI: Self-Discovery Through Free-Weaving from Jill Nickolene (SAORI Santa Cruz), and headed to my 4-harness Canadian Leclerc loom to give it a go.
Freestyle weaving quickly became a passion which I shared with homeless weavers in a community studio I coordinated in Philadelphia (Arts Street Textile Studio: handmade with the homeless). I bought an SX60 loom from Yukako Satone (Loop of the Loom), and shortly thereafter arranged for periods of advanced study with Mihoko Wakabayashi (SAORI Worcester). In 2013, I obtained permission to start an approved SAORI teaching studio and joined the SAORI Global studio network.
There is no manual for how to create or advertise a SAORI studio, or how to explain SAORI in terms of Zen traditions. My principal model was my own teacher and her SAORI studio. I pored over MIhoko's website, and compared it to other studio websites when I started out; nearly all studios repeat some version of the explanation of the origin of "SAORI". On my own website, it appears as:
"SAORI" is a compound word with a double meaning: SAORI means both 'Misao's weaving' and 'weaving with individual dignity, from the joining of the Japanese word for weaving (ori) and either Misao Jo's name (Mi-sao) or the Zen word for 'individual dignity' (sa)".
Beyond this linguistic reference to Zen, Mihoko made only oblique reference to SAORI's Zen's spiritual roots. Many SAORI studios, however, make explicit claims to Zen when advertising SAORI as "Zen weaving fro Japan", or offer Zen Weaving Days"; Loop of the Loom describes itself as as "weaving dojo". As a Westerner unschooled in Zen practice and new SAORI guide, I was reluctant to make strong claims about a relationship between SAORI and Zen. Until recently, when I had a few conversations with students that transformed my approach to SAORI philosophy.
I needed better answers to perceptive student questions about ideas like "weave without intention", and "look out through shining eyes". After consulting my copy of Self-Innovation I started at the next best place: my own teacher's thoughts. To my surprise, Mihoko's website blog included a post dedicated to "wabi-sabi" and Zen:
"I recall a SAORI kai (gathering) at loop of the loom studio in NYC that I attended several years ago. People had talked about Wabi-sabi as an element of SAORI weaving. I remembered that I was confused by how people understood Wabi-sabi because it didn’t sound the same as my understanding. Then I happened to watch this Japanese TV show called “Cool Japan” a week ago on Youtube. In this show several foreigners who were living in Japan discussed about different aspects of Japanese culture and this particular show focused on Wabi-sabi. It was very interesting. It made me think more deeply about Wabi-sabi, Japanese beauty. It’s true that it’s hard for a person to analyse its own culture because he/she feels that he/she gets it while he/she is living in it and he/she never has had time to define it with words. I felt exactly like that.
Even my Japanese teacher could only tentatively approach the subject of wabi-sabi! First she quoted Wikipedia: "Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence , specifically impermanence , the other two being suffering and emptiness or absence of self-nature. [...] Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes."
And behold! Mihoko declared:
"Naturally SAORI weaving fits in this category! Misao Jo is clearly influenced by Zen Buddhism principle[s]. My weaving has still my ego in it in many levels. That’s why I keep pursuing my practice to remove that and keep trying to weave with Mu-shin (absence of self-nature). Misao said SAORI is a weaving with Mushin."
And behold! I had my own teacher's anecdotal confirmation of the Zen connection to SAORI, transmitting Misao Jo's own formulation of the matter. I needed to understand Mushin. After a couple of quick online searches, it was clear that there was plenty to learn about Zen before tackling mushin in detail. So I returned to the source: Self-Innovation.