Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty

By Michael Quesada July 16, 2018

Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty

Introduction

The Western world holds beauty as equal to perfection, symmetry, and eternity.  But in the East, particularly in Japan, beauty is found in imperfection, asymmetry, and impermanence.

Wabi Sabi, a Japanese philosophy, albeit having no direct English translation, celebrates beauty in the face of imperfections, simplicity, and limitations. It finds beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly-- whether it is the scenery of a grey and melancholic December or the cracks and crevices of an old cup, and even the scars and wrinkles of an ageing woman. 

“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

As an aesthetic expression, the Japanese view Wabi Sabi as the refined beauty that comes along with use and time. It is rustic elegance, authentic expression, natural materials, rough edges, and even deliberate flaws.

Wabi Sabi House

History of Wabi Sabi

The history of Wabi Sabi traces its core principles to Zen Buddhism and ancient tea ceremonies.

Zen Buddhism inspired a frugal, unsophisticated lifestyle embraced in the natural dimension that had become a way of life for some poets and artists in the East. In Japan, tea ceremonies became a way of understanding Wabi Sabi (although the actual word was inexistent during this period) among the aristocratic class of Japan.  The act of drinking tea together, in a simple and rustic setting, served as a celebration and humble appreciation of the arts, language, architecture, gardening, and painting among many others.

This modest gathering, however, changed by the 15th century when tea ceremonies became a pastime of the elite who loved to boast of their abundant possessions.

Instead of intellectual conversations, the ceremony became an extravagant display of Chinese ceramics and accessories.

Eventually, Murata Juko found himself disgusted with the lavishness of what was supposed to be a humbling experience.  Known in Japanese history as the founder of Japanese tea ceremony, Juko in his composition “Letter of the Heart” emphasised that it was unacceptable to concern one’s self of too much aesthetics in tea ceremonies.

Wabi Sabi - Match Tea Ceremony

Juko was the first to codify the Wabi Sabi philosophy using the four elements in tea ceremonies, namely: Kin (ceremonial reverence), Kei (respect for tea), Sei (purity of both body and spirit), and Ji (liberation from desire and base impulse).

The 16th century saw the zenith of Wabi Sabi as a philosophy through Juko’s student Sen no Rikyu, who served as tea master to feudal lord Oda Nobunaga, and to his predecessor Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

In essence, Rikyu knew the value of Wabi Sabi and practised it in tea ceremonies. As such, he used minimalist bamboo utensils, held tea ceremonies inside small, hermitage-like rooms called sōan, and upon entry, mandated guests to remove their swords and crawl inside.  In one, he compressed the size down to just two tatami mats or approximately 39 square feet or 3.6 square meters.

Instead of embracing this practice, Hideyoshi, who came from a peasant background, considered Rikyu’s style of tea ceremonies as insulting, thereby ordering Rikyu to perform ritual suicide.

Wabi & Sabi

While Wabi Sabi sounds like perfectly paired words of profound meaning, individually, Wabi and Sabi had far different interpretations.

Originally, Wabi used to mean the isolation of a person who is living in nature and away from the society.  Other times it is associated with poverty, but it was not about the absence of material possessions, but to the non-dependence upon material possessions.

For instance, in Japan, a hermit is called wabizumai.

Over the years, however, Wabi has come to mean rustic simplicity of nature or the idiosyncrasies and uniqueness of objects such as the asymmetry in a handmade ceramic bowl. 

There is even an art known as Kintsugiwhere instead of throwing away old or broken pottery, the Japanese repair it with gold or silver lacquer.  It treats the repair as a part of the history of the object, rather than something to disguise or discard of.

Wabi Sabi Gold Bowl

Sabi, on the other hand, has a more precise definition in the Japanese language.  It means the serenity that comes with time like a withered flower past its bloom, or the occurrence of an ageing object like the oxidation on the exterior of a bronze statue. 

During the 14th century, Wabi and Sabi became closely interrelated and interchangeably used in a day-to-day setting.  By then, Wabi Sabi began to imply rustic simplicity in a favourable light, or the grace that comes with age and use.

Wabi-sabi in Zen Buddhism

Aside from aesthetics, Wabi Sabi has spiritual connections too.

In Zen Buddhism, there are Three Marks of Existence. The first mark of existence is impermanence.  In Wabi Sabi, one embraces the wear-and-tear concept or the damage that comes with age.

Suffering, as the second mark of existence, is a core principle in Wabi Sabi.  It adheres to the idea that scratches and brokenness is part of a normal life.  A perfect cup may look perfect today, but by functioning to its use and as time progresses, it may seize to remain perfect as it was.

The third mark of existence, emptiness or absence of self, is the acceptance that an object moves from or towards nothingness.

Only when a person makes peace with the three marks of existence can he or she achieve wisdom.  For one, Wabi-sabi is a way of practicing peace and acceptance, and thereby wisdom and enlightenment.

Wabi Sabi Zen Garden

Wabi Sabi in arts and design

Contrary to the universal principles of design that are intensely associated with visual attractiveness, Wabi Sabi might be perceived as a unique approach.

“Whereas modern design often uses inorganic materials to defy the natural ageing effects of time, Wabi Sabi embraces them and seeks to use this transformation as an integral part of the whole. This is not limited to the process of decay, but can also be found at the moment of inception, when life is taking its first fragile steps toward becoming.”

― Andrew Juniper, Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence

In design, the Japanese philosophy focuses on the asymmetry, unevenness of surface, incompleteness, and minimalism.  In interior design, it focuses more on the people (and their mindset) who live in the space rather than material things.  Material fixtures and other items are pared down to the essentials based on utility, beauty, or nostalgia, or all three.

Wabi Sabi inspired art and designs usually take in the form of handmade wooden chairs, a natural drooping of a flower head in a vase, or repairing broken pottery. 

Wabi Sabi in the 21st century 

The demands of the modern times challenged the ideals of Wabi Sabi.  The 21st century amplifies the brightest and the most extraordinary, as such that it no longer feels natural to celebrate the ordinary and the imperfections.  Moreover, material luxuries have become the new religion.

In Japan, for instance, Wabi Sabi art is now considered some of the most expensive objects sold in the market.  Some believe that by placing this level of monetary value, they lose the essence of Wabi Sabi itself. 

Nevertheless, others see Wabi Sabi as an integral part of Japanese culture and society that is here to stay, despite the materialism and perfection that the modern world strives for.  This ancient Japanese philosophy doesn’t necessarily come with a hefty price tag.  Wabi Sabi is everywhere when one chooses to see the beauty of things beyond its obvious imperfections, and the willingness to accept things as they are.

In personal life, it is the ability to shift the mind from denying and perfecting towards acceptance and appreciation.

As one writer puts it,

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen
Pint it!
Wabi Sabi - The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty

Michael Quesada

Founder of this website; currently living vicariously through himself.


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