What is Wabi-Sabi?
Life isn’t perfect. There is strife, famine, natural disasters, greed and selfishness. People are prejudice and have misconceptions that affect their relationships. We are often tempted and prone to addiction, have bad tendencies that corrupt decisions and make for unhealthy actions.
I’ll say it again, life isn’t perfect —which is a relief. It means we can stop pretending it is, we can stop wasting too much time forcing it to be; perfect hair, perfect house, perfect partner, perfect finances, perfect job, perfect cup of coffee. In fact, to embrace imperfections is to go with the flow, to be in accord with life. It allows us to accept that we spilled ketchup on our shirt at lunch, haven’t found a solution to our toe nail fungus problem, didn’t say the perfect thing to the grieving person, lied to the beggar about spare change, failed my diet with the indulgence of donuts, bacon, potato chips, and cola. It’s ok.
To accept imperfection is to come to terms with our weaknesses and stop pretending that we have everything under control, it allows us to live more authentic lives. We can be vulnerable with one another, which fosters a connectedness, which makes for better relationships, which makes for better community. I am imperfect, like you are imperfect. So let’s stop pretending. Instead, let’s be genuine. Let’s put aside pride and try humility, see what happens.
Life is ultimately imperfect because we all will die, and the fear of death can cause all sorts of bad behaviors. But to accept death, helps us to live.
What is perfection? Perfection is just an idea after all. A product of the mind. We feel it is out there, but it is not. Our intellect makes us believe in perfection, strive for it, become romanced by it. Our intellect understands the world objectively and uses the faculty of reason to solve problems. When we project reason and solutions onto everything in our lives, we setup expectation traps, little bombs ready to explode with disappointment. Manage your expectations and you soften your reactions. Making life a little easier.
Besides aspiring to perfection, we even desire the objects around us to keep an identity with it. And so an aesthetic follows; one that values beauty, symmetry, ideal proportion, completeness, precision, high-polish, high-function, high-style, etc. This is influenced by culture, by industry, by advertising and the market, which we accept into our lives, circulate and reinforce among us. In short we have been trained to be demanding consumers and purveyors of perfection.
Of course, different cultures have different ideas of perfection. Go east to Japan, and there is a different idea of perfection, one that has a deep history with the Japanese people —they call it wabi-sabi.
Wabi-sabi is a philosophy of beauty that embraces imperfection, as it is a genuine reflection of nature, and so wabi-sabi is in accord with this, not counter to it. Wabi-sabi fosters a less intellectual point of view, giving over to a more spiritual one instead. Not necessarily religious, it is more a state of mind, one that is based on a simplistic aesthetic appreciation.
Something can have a wabi-sabi quality when it is rustic, worn and imperfect. This is representative of natural decay which alludes to the passage of time, something we are also part of, as we get old and decrepit.
Broadly speaking, Wabi-sabi is the contemplation of impermanence. It is the reverence of imperfection as it is more natural and genuine than perfection is. As noted, perfection is an ideal driven by our concepts, perfection doesn’t exist in the world, but is a product of mind alone. Imperfection then is a reminder of what is real, and the aesthetic of wabi-sabi helps us to uncover this. It is akin to a Zen Buddhist’s regard of reality, a direct, non-intellectual sense of what is real.
The Japanese word ‘wabi’ refers to a feeling of humbleness, of living in rustic simplicity and quietude. The word ‘sabi’ refers to the weathered quality of an object, aged and worn, possibly crudely constructed, endearing with an unsophisticated charm. Together, wabi & sabi are more than an aesthetic, it represents a spiritual mode, where the heart is open and reverent to the impermanence of all things. Wabi-sabi is an invitation to regard our pursuit of perfection as being artificial, and that a deeper sense of reality is to appreciate the beauty of things just as they are; imperfect, incomplete and transitory.
Wabi-Sabi is the feeling someone may have for an old article of clothing, like a wool sweater they’ve kept over the years. It’s mended and faded look possessing a charm from being aged. Once put on, it is comfortable, form fitting and puts the wearer at ease, supporting a tranquil, reflective mood. Contrast this with a business suit, one of fine fabrics and rigid shapes. It’s formal appearance stands in opposition to the curved natural lines of the body. It is very much unnatural: the shoulders are squared off, sharp lines plunge from the lapel, and points rise from the folded handkerchief in the breast pocket. The formal nature of the suit creates a state of mind that is similar to its style; rigid, sharp and stressed.
Wabi-sabi is the worship of authenticity. It is an awareness of the profundity of nature, of its integrity and wholeness. It is a manifestation of spiritualism: which involves being reverent of others. Wabi-sabi is about leading a life that is humble and ever-striving. A genuine life of quiet joy, that moves within poverty, yet thrives with self sufficiently.
As mentioned, Wabi-sabi has a deep history in Japanese culture, born from a philosophical upheaval, a significant cultural shift that happened at the end of the 12th century. During this time Imperialism gave way to military rule under the shogun and triggered a societal shift, having hedonism move towards a more somber, lowly and contemplative disposition. This feeling endured and evolved into a culture that worshipped the aesthetic of poverty. Yet not pitiful and desperate, as from a lack of resources, but free of the weight of material concerns.
This idea permeated the arts and affected the culture. The tea ceremony is one such manifestation, where connoisseurs of artistic culture in the 15th and 16th centuries would convene in rustic locales to share tea together.
The ceremony itself was a performance of the aesthetic, as it was carried out in a simple hut or small building, typically ten feet square. A modest structure with a small opening for a door, having you enter on your knees, forcing you to lower yourself both literally and psychologically. This prepares you for the etiquette of the ceremony, which is simplistic and selfless. Inside, the furnishings are minimalist, even the apparatus for tea making is very plain and peasant looking.
Aside from tea drinking, wabi-sabi affected other art forms; like gardening, poetry, and pottery. Where sparse zen gardens sprawled widely with subdued features of sand, gravel and rock; again minimalistic, looking more like an anti-garden than something flamboyant and impressive.
The message here is to impress is to appeal to the intellect, to aspire towards perfection, which is ultimately unnatural. Perfection is a human contrivance, an example of our intent to fashion nature into an ideal, which isn’t natural.
Haiku poetry reflects wabi-sabi as well, as poems are made concise, leaving out much description and detail, yet still arousing a strong emotion regardless. Haiku poems are required to include an element of the seasons, in order to remind us of the passage of time. Again, alluding to impermanence and transition.
Japanese Pottery of a wabi-sabi style, is plain and unpretentious, generally with natural imperfections. Where a crack, discoloration or asymmetry is its endearing character. There is a famous story of a tea connoisseur who tried to impress a special guest with an expensive and prized tea caddy. The display of the perfect caddy during the visit went unnoticed by the guest, which upset the host. Later the caddy was accidentally dropped and shattered into pieces. It was then glued together and repaired as best as it could be. When the guest returned for another visit, the caddy was finally remarked upon favorably, despite it obvious repair. This had pleased the host and served as a quiet reminder of the true heart of the tea ceremony; the beauty of imperfection.
As we’ve uncovered here, wabi-sabi is more than an aesthetic, it is a spiritual longing brought about from the transiency of all things. For just as objects show age and eventually are beyond repair, we also approach our end as well. A fact we must accept, transcend and not be burdened by.
A wabi-sabi mood then is contemplative and somber, yet has positive affects towards a view of living. It instructs us to make the most of the time we have. Not to get too wrapped up in serious endeavors, but to allow simplicity, tranquility, politeness and reverence towards others permeate our daily activities, as a tool to offset the stresses that are an inevitable part of life.
Wabi-sabi is uniquely Japanese as we’ve discussed, but ultimately it is akin with nostalgia, which is an intuition we all have. It is looking fondly upon something that is meaningful to us, something that stands as a symbol of the passage of time, to which has imparted some special quality. Old family photographs are a good example; faded, discolored, possibly ripped or cracked. Their aged look represents the years gone by, creating a sentimental yearning; where each picture is a portal to a different time, typically what is perceived as a simpler life. The perception whether accurate or not is not important, the spiritual longing that arises is the mood that opens your regard to nature, that change is natural, and we are embedded in that change, part of it like everything is. This feeling is precisely Wabi, and the Sabi is the aged look of the photographs, the evidence of the passage of time which helps to support the wabi feeling.
So, Wabi and Sabi are two sides of a coin, an intuition shared by everyone, across many cultures. So much so that manufacturers of goods try to imitate the ‘warmth of the well-used’ by artificially distressing the appearance of their products. This can be seen in clothing, where holes are intentionally added or patches are sewn in random areas.
Even new Furniture can have its surface purposely dented, scraped, gouged and stained in order to give an ‘old look’.
Graphic designers will sometimes create a ‘grunge style’ to their designs by adding elements of decay or fading to type or pictures to help communicate a visual idea. However, this is imitation, not genuine, a mischievous way to push consumerism and falsely influence our senses. Wabi-sabi is not about imitation, it is about the genuinely imperfect, which uncovers another nuance of Wabi-Sabi: it should never be premeditated, it should be the natural reflection of what is, in all its incomplete and imperfect splendor.
Beyond feelings for old things, Wabi-Sabi induces a yearning for simplicity. An occasion to get away from the busyness of life. It is the reason we flee to weekend retreats, to a camp site, beach or cottage. To get away from modernity and replenish our senses in the sanctuary of the natural. To rejuvenate the psyche with what is pure, modest and quiet; away from the noise of high-functioning purpose.
But as much as we retreat to simplicity, we unknowingly carry the potential of its destruction. For just as we are enchanted by an old cottage in the woods, there is an inborn temptation to tear it down and replace it with a beautifully constructed country home, surrounded with meticulously manicured gardens, decks and docks, lavish open-concept spaces brimming with perfect design and perfect function— all of which is not Wabi-Sabi.
And so the original charm that drew us to the feeling of the area, is now replaced with much of the same that we have fled from in the first place. Destroyed under the weight of a manufactured aesthetic, an ideal, a contrivance. If any hint of Wabi-sabi is left, it is in the old wooden shed at the edge of the property. The last vestige of the original cottage, now pushed aside, partially hidden behind overgrowth.
This forgotten dilapidated structure, with the creaky door, all moss covered and water damaged: an abandoned depository of rusting tools, scraps of wood, and old cans of paint. The place rarely visited, except when explored to find something seldomly used or of unique character. A place that, when the mood strikes, you go to with open interest, perhaps to return in thought to a former time in one’s life, a time of simplicity, modesty and warmth. And so the old shed is kept. Nostalgia stops us from removing it. But eventually it will disappear. Like the cottage will in time, and the camp site will return to forest, and the beach will be overgrown with weeds. Everything changes and disappears, like we will as well.
Buildings collapse, steel rusts, wood rots, fabrics wear out, and food spoils. What has been created, falls apart in time, giving way to the force of nature and its cycles. It is all seasons of birth, growth and death, the stream of life connecting it all. Wabi-sabi is in concert with this, and when you hear the orchestra and feel the melody, you enjoy the music until it’s end.