Wabi-sabi is a Japanese concept through which the world is accepted as beautifully imperfect with humble and subtle flaws as it naturally grows and decays.
Etymologically, the noun Wabi is better understood through its adjective form wabishii (wretched, dreadful).
In time, a negative connotation of Wabi transformed through the influence of Zen philosophy, with its core concepts of accepting and contemplating imperfection and impermanence, into the quiet simplicity of rustic beauty, for things created by nature or people.
Wabi is beauty coming from subtle imperfections.
The noun Sabi is related to the verb Sabu, which initially meant the state of deterioration with time. Nowadays, Sabi conveys a deep appreciation for all cycles of life, which bring their hues of patina.
Sabi is beauty coming from the passing of time.
In a BBC article, Tanehisa Otabe, professor at Tokyo University’s Institute of Aesthetic, remarks that wabi-sabi emerged from tea masters Murata Juko and Sen no Rikyu from the late 15th to 16th Centuries as a response to the opulent tea ceremony of their times. Instead of choosing exquisite Chinese pottery with bright colors and elaborate design, the two tea masters preferred tiny and modest tea houses where tea was served in local wares with imperfect and subtle colors and textures.
Many wise traditions know the importance of finding a balance between action and stillness. One way of achieving that balance is by a simple yet profound way of living called wabi sabi.
It is a way that is natural, drawing close to the real world, and relaxing perpetually into the beautiful patterns that exist there. It is an ancient way, tried and practiced over many years. It is an intuitive way that wells up within anyone who looks for it. It only needs to be recognized and named.
Wabi sabi is a way of life that appreciates and accepts complexity while at the same time values simplicity. It nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.
Richard Powell – Wabi Sabi Simple: Create beauty. Value imperfection. Live deeply
Wabi-sabi is a way of seeing the world that is at the heart of the Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and
It can be a little dark, but it’s also warm and comfortable. It may best be understood as a feeling, rather than an idea.
Mark Reibstein – Wabi Sabi
We can also apply wabi-sabi to its own definition and accept that perhaps defining wabi-sabi should be imperfect, like pebbles thrown on the smooth surface of a lake.
Wabi-sabi underpins much of Japanese cultural and aesthetic norms on what is considered beautiful. So, there is no wonder that wabi-sabi examples are visible throughout the tea ceremony, ikebana, bonsai, Japanese dry gardens, or Japanese potter.
Nevertheless, my favorite example of wabi-sabi is made of plastic, not natural material like wood or ceramic. It is a generic cup like tens of thousands from the same company, and it didn’t have any imperfections when I bought it. But now, the letters are all faded out, and some dents are on the cup. It is my daughter’s first cup of drinking water, and after more than five years of usage, it’s still one of her favorite mugs. Sometimes, when I take this mug out of the dishwasher, I look at it and remember how much depth it can hold, from when my daughter was still mine to when she slowly becomes her own.
If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi.
Andrew Juniper, Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence
As foreigners first coming in contact with wabi-sabi, we can be forgiven if we think that “nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect” should give a free-for-all in our work and accept substandard outcomes. Being mindful of wabi-sabi and accepting our flaws should act as an antidote against the tyranny of perfection, a “good enough” rather than “meh, I tried”.
There is an expression in Japanese that says that someone who makes things of poor quality is, in fact, worse than a thief because he doesn’t make things that will last or provide true satisfaction. A thief at least redistributes the wealth of a society.
Andrew Juniper – Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence
Consider cultures that hold symmetry as an ideal of beauty and proportion. Symmetry is derived from Ancient Greek (συμμετρία or symmetria, meaning “agreement in dimensions, due proportion, arrangement”). Parthenon, Gothic cathedrals, patterns on rugs, pottery, and metal vessels proportionally balanced paintings. In such cultures, cracks on a newly made vase might be considered a terrible flaw.
Or, consider a culture where everything is on high speed: fast culture, fast entertainment, fast fashion, fast beauty. We might not mend a broken bag but throw it away and buy a new one. A person not adhering to a particular way of aesthetics would be shunned for having wrinkles, grey hair, or extra kilograms.
And finally, consider a vase that perhaps was passed down from generations to us. One day, an earthquake, a tsunami, or a war between samurai clans leaves that vase broken. There was a story behind that vase, and now it is all gone. How would a culture react to this? Perhaps we might bury the broken pieces of the vase, giving them back to earth. We might share the broken pieces between the family members, so each has a legacy from their ancestors. Perhaps we could grind the parts together and create something new to be passed down to future generations. Or maybe we could repair the vase with gold or lacquer, highlighting the cracks and allowing them to become a part of the vase. This last method is kintsugi, closely related to wabi-sabi.
Which attitude is preferable? Highly dependent on context and our receptivity to new ideas.
Lisa Feldman Barrett suggests in her book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain that one of the easiest ways to gain new concepts is by learning as many words as possible.
You’ve probably never thought about learning words as a path to greater emotional health, but it follows directly from the neuroscience of construction.
Words seed your concepts, concepts drive your predictions, predictions regulate your body budget, and your body budget determines how you feel. Therefore, the more finely grained your vocabulary, the more precisely your predicting brain can calibrate your budget to your body’s needs.
And perhaps this is why we need to learn new words and respectfully be curious about how other cultures see the world as our perception might grow better. Wabi-sabi teaches that less is more as it takes a conscious effort to slow down and cultivate our minds to cherish the beauty of old, weathered, incomplete or unfinished.
Also published here.
Throughout my research, I couldn’t find a definitive way of using hyphenated or non-hyphenated forms, so I used the term wabi-sabi, as it is used in the Wikipedia article.