The ancient Japanese concept of wabi-sabi celebrates all things natural, humble, primitive. It’s an apt antidote to today’s sleek, technology-saturated world.
Photo By Stephen Dabrowski
It is said that true beauty is to be found when a person completes in his or her mind that which is incomplete.
-Sen Shoshitsu XV, The Japanese Way of Tea
According to Japanese legend, in the sixteenth century Sen no Rikyu sought to learn the Way of Tea. He went to tea-master Takeeno Joo, who tested the younger man by asking him to tend to his garden. Rikyu cleaned up debris and raked the ground until it was perfect, then scrutinized the immaculate garden. Before presenting his work to the master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to spill randomly onto the ground.
Later, when he had become one of Japan’s most revered tea-masters, Rikyu served under Toyotomi Hikeyoshi, a warrior known for his ostentatious taste. One day the ruler went to visit Rikyu’s famed morning glory garden and was shocked to find it in shambles, all the flowers uprooted. He entered Rikyu’s humble teahouse to find the master sitting in front of an alcove, where he had placed one perfect morning glory in a clay pot.
To this day, the Japanese revere Rikyu as one who understood to his very core an elusive cultural thread known as wabi-sabi. Emerging in the fifteenth-century as a reaction to the prevailing aesthetic of lavishness, ornamentation, and rich materials, wabi-sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all. In Japan, the concept is now so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to explain to Westerners; no direct translation exists.
Broadly, wabi-sabi is everything that today’s sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn’t. It’s flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses. Wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a Decembral landscape devoid of color and life, the aching elegance of an abandoned hut on a wintry shore. 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 spend time finding the singular beauty in something that may present itself as decrepit and ugly.
Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in liver spots, rust, frayed edges. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the impersonal sadness of these blemishes, and the march of time they represent.
All things are impermanent
All things are imperfect
All things are incomplete
My hat has come apart during a long journey .... I am a Wabi man who has tried and known every Wabi thing.
—Matuo Basho (1644–94), from The Winter Days
Bringing wabi-sabi into your home doesn’t require money, training, or special skills. It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate muted beauty, the courage not to fear loneliness or bareness, the willingness to accept things as they are—without adulteration or ornamentation. It takes the ability to slow down, to shift the balance from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting.
You might ignite your wabi-sabi appreciation with a single item found at a yard sale: a chipped vase, a distressed table. Even if you’re attracted to an item, you may have to fight the urge to dismiss it as junk. Look deeply for the minute details that give it character, explore its tactile nature. You don’t have to understand why you’re so drawn to it, but you do have to accept it as it is.
Rough textures, minimally processed goods, natural materials, and subtle hues are all pieces of wabi-sabi. Consider the nubby feel and hen’s-egg color of unbleached organic cotton sheets, the musty-oily scent that lingers around an ancient wooden bowl, the mystery behind a tarnished goblet. We’re drawn to this patina in a way that we’ll never relate to the lacquer and polish of the new. Our universal longing for wisdom, for authenticity, for shared history manifests in these things.
There’s no right or wrong to creating a wabi-sabi home. It can be as simple as finding an old bowl at a flea market to use as a receptacle for the day’s mail or as involved as replacing drywall with weathered barnwood. It can be a decision to let the paint on an old chair crumble or let the garden go to seed. Whatever it is, it can’t be bought. Wabi-sabi is a state of mind, a way of being. It’s the subtle art of being at peace with yourself and bringing that peace to your home.
Koren, Leonard. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press, 1994.
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