WABI-SABI: The Art of Imperfection
The Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi offers an inspiring new way to look at your whole life.
“Wabi sabi is the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, the antithesis of our classical Western notion of beauty as something perfect, enduring, and monumental.” — Leonard Koren,
The initial inspirations for wabi-sabi’s principles come from ideas about simplicity, naturalness, and acceptance of reality found in Taoism and Chinese Zen Buddhism. It also absorbed the ethereal ambience of Noh, a form Japanese musical performance, known as Yugen (profound grace and subtlety).
Wabi Sabi’s origins are in ancient Chinese ways of understanding and living, known as Taoism and Zen Buddhism, but wabi sabi began to shape Japanese culture when the Zen priest Murata Shuko of Nara (1423–1502) changed the tea ceremony. He discarded the fancy gold, jade, and porcelain of the popular Chinese tea service, and simple, rough, wooden and clay instruments. About a hundred years later, the famous tea master Sen no Rikyu of Kyoto (1522–1591) brought wabi sabi into the homes of the powerful. He constructed a teahouse with a door so low that even the emperor would have to bow in order to enter, reminding everyone of the importance of humility before tradition, mystery, and spirit.
Wabi (侘び) describes loneliness, not the negative feeling of isolation from others, but rather a pleasant feeling of being alone in nature, away from society. Sabi (寂び) means to be weathered, but in an elegant, rustic fashion.
As it relates to notions of beauty, it’s a concept that has been misunderstood and intentionally obscured throughout history, often by those peddling mystical knowledge or items claiming to imbue wabi-sabi qualities. The misconception here is that wabi-sabi is not an intrinsic property of things, but an “event”, or state of mind. In other words, the beauty of wabi-sabi “happens”, it does not reside in objects or environments directly.
Broadly, wabi-sabi is everything that today’s sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn’t. It’s flea markets, not shopping malls; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses. Wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a gray December landscape and the aching elegance of an abandoned building or shed. It celebrates cracks and crevices and rot and all the other marks that time and weather and use leave behind. To discover wabi-sabi is to see the singular beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly.