Wabi-sabi  (侘寂)

(n.) a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay.

In my last article, I spoke to you about mono no aware and the gentle appreciation for the sadness and wistfulness towards the idea that nothing will endure”. Wabi-sabi, like mono no aware, represents this undeniable view of the Japanese world, as an aesthetic vision centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

Wabi-sabi Ensō

Melancholy, simplicity, rusticity, imperfections, marks of time, asymmetry, humility, nature. Wabi-sabi, is all of this at once and much more. To grasp its essence, one must appeal as much to its senses and to its sensibility as to its reason.

Leonard Koren, the author of Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers devoted himself to help bring the Japanese concept into western aesthetic theory. In his book, we find a kind definition: “Wabi-sabi is the beauty of imperfect, impermanent and incomplete things. It is the beauty of modest and humble things. It is the beauty of atypical things”. Therefore, beauty can be found everywhere. In the most discreet, profound and forgetful place and, even in the most insignificant, defected and ruined object.

This aesthetic appreciation for deprivation may found its origins in Zen Buddhism and it has been called “Zen of things” by Koren, since it illustrates many spiritual /philosophical principles of Zen: contemplation, humility, serenity and detachment. It means to live an ordinary life, taking in consideration detachment of things, insufficiency and imperfections.

Wabi-sabi teacup

We can also relate it to chanoyu, as it is no coincidence that Murata Shukō, the first wabi-sabi tea master, was a Zen monk. At that time, tea was the subject of sumptuous ceremony, mainly because its objects, imported from China, were luxurious. In opposition to this fashion, Sen no Rikyū, a son of a merchant who became a tea-maker, replaced the luxurious Chinese pieces with local handicrafts, and created a tea-house based on the model of a peasant’s hunt. The Wabi-sabi was born and his spirit was to endure.

According to Koren, three statements summarize Wabi-sabi’s spiritual values:

  • Truth derives from the observation of nature.
  • The “greatness” lies in the discrete and neglected details.
  • Beauty can be obtained from ugliness.

In truth, Wabi-sabi means to devote oneself to the essential, to get rid of the superfluous, to accept the inevitable and impermanence, not to seek perfection and to be fully self, nothing more, nothing less. This is a notion very well expressed through the Japanese’s desire for simplicity and subtlety.

We all carry within ourselves all that we need to feel beautiful and happy and we must only direct our attention to what is essential to us. It is then, by escaping the diktats of the fashions and the dominant criteria of beauty, standardized perfection and flabby luxury, that we can achieve some quietude in our lives, by accepting ourselves and became what we are.


BONUS: Click here to watch a short film about the concept of Wabi-sabi.


This post was originally written in Portuguese. Click here for the original text.

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