WHAT IS WABI-SABI?
The Japanese view of life embraced a simple aesthetic
that grew stronger as inessentials were eliminated
and trimmed away.
-architect Tadao Ando
Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.
Wabi-sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, shoji screens filtering the sun, the moon 90 percent obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It’s a richly mellow beauty that’s striking but not obvious, that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time-Katherine Hepburn versus Marilyn Monroe. For the Japanese, it’s the difference between kirei-merely “pretty”-and omoshiroi, the interestingness that kicks something into the realm of beautiful. (Omoshiroi literally means “white faced,” but its meanings range from fascinating to fantastic.) It’s the peace found in a moss garden, the musty smell of geraniums, the astringent taste of powdered green tea.
Daisetz T. Suzuki, who was one of Japan’s foremost English-speaking authorities on Zen Buddhism and one of the first scholars to interpret Japanese culture for Westerners, described wabi-sabi as “an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty.” He was referring to poverty not as we in the West interpret (and fear) it but in the more romantic sense of removing the huge weight of material concerns from our lives. “Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau,” he wrote, “and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.”
The words wabi and sabi were not always linked, although they’ve been together for such a long time that many people (including D. T. Suzuki) use them interchangeably. In fact, the two words do have distinct meanings, although most people don’t fully agree on what they might be.
Wabi stems from the root wa, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquillity, and balance. Generally speaking, wabi had the original meaning of sad, desolate, and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature. A wabi person epitomizes Zen, which is to say, he or she is content with very little; free from greed, indolence, and anger; and understands the wisdom of rocks and grasshoppers.
Sabi by itself means “the bloom of time.” It connotes natural progression-tarnish, hoariness, rust-the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting.
Sabi things carry the burden of their years with dignity and grace: the chilly mottled surface of an oxidized silver bowl, the yielding gray of weathered wood, the elegant withering of a bereft autumn bough.
There’s an aching poetry in things that carry this patina, and it transcends the Japanese. We Americans are ineffably drawn to old European towns with their crooked cobblestone streets and chipping plaster, to places battle scarred with history much deeper than our own. We seek sabi in antiques and even try to manufacture it in distressed furnishings. True sabi cannot be acquired, however. It is a gift of time.
Wabi-sabi is not a decorating “style” but rather a mind-set. There’s no list of rules; we can’t hang crystals or move our beds and wait for peace to befall us. Creating a wabi-sabi home is the direct result of developing our wabigokoro, or wabi mind and heart: living modestly, learning to be satisfied with life as it can be once we strip away the unnecessary, living in the moment.
You can start cultivating this mind-set in small ways, taking a lesson from tea. In learning to conduct tea, we’re taught to handle every utensil, from the bamboo water scoop to the tea bowl, as if it were precious, with the same respect and care we would use to handle a rare antique. You can do the same thing with the items you use every day.
Taken from the book, “The Wabi-Sabi house, the Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty”; which is no longer in print, but a revised paperback edition is due out from New Society publishers – Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, or at Amazon.
**This entire article (including the paragraph above referencing the book) was filed in my ‘interesting stuff’ file. I do not have any other information or the author’s name but there may be reference to it in the above mentioned book.
The above image is of a painted wall in a house I visited once. Of all the images I took that day, this was my favorite. I thought the wall was beautiful just the way it was. I’ve posted this image previously, but thought it was the perfect ‘wabi sabi’ image for this post. I hope you don’t mind the repeat!