Coming to Japan in 1987, I sat in wonderment, amazement, and sometime dismay about these strange new things and customs that have now surrounded me for decades.
I was never consciously aware of wabi-sabi, but like many unspoken mysteries of Japan, awareness of wabi-sabi is an innate trait in the spirit of the Japanese.
In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.
Wabi-sabi is derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence:
(三法印, sanbōin), impermanence
(無常, mujō), suffering
(苦, ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (空, kū)
Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetics include:
And once one has recognized and understood wabi-sabi, one gains the deep and meaningful appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.
The words wabi and sabi do not translate easily.
Wabi embodies rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object.
Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its tear and wear, or in any visible repairs.
With its roots in Buddhist influences from China, wabi-sabi has now evolved into a distinctly Japanese ideal.
From around 700 years ago, understanding emptiness and imperfection was honoured as tantamount to the first step to “satori”, or “enlightenment”.
In modern Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi contains the meaning of “wisdom in natural simplicity”. It can also hold the connotation of “flawed beauty” in particularly in the sphere of art.
One can see wabi-sabi in certain styles of Japanese pottery.
In the Japanese tea ceremony, the pottery items used are often rustic and simple-looking.
Hagiware is an example of this, with shapes that are not quite symmetrical, and colours or textures that appear to emphasize an unrefined or simple style.
It is up to the knowledge and observational ability of the observer to notice and discern the hidden signs of a truly excellent design. One can see wabi-sabi in many things, if one opens the eyes (and heart).
Wabi and sabi both suggest sentiments of desolation and solitude. In the Mahayana Buddhist view of the universe, these may be viewed as positive characteristics, representing liberation from a material world and transcendence to a simpler life, or what is know in Buddhism as “satori” or “enlightenment”.
Keep in mind as you ponder this dear reader, a genuine understanding of wabi-sabi cannot be achieved through words or language.
Therefore, one must accept wabi-sabi on nonverbal terms and this may be the most appropriate approach to understand the meaning of wabi-sabi.
Wabi-sabi describes a means whereby one can learn to live life through the senses and better engage in life as it happens, rather than be caught up in unnecessary thoughts.
In this sense wabi-sabi is the material representation of Zen Buddhism. The idea is that being surrounded by natural, changing, unique objects helps us connect to our real world and escape potentially stressful distractions and one’s noisy “monkey brain”.
In wabi-sabi, one learns to find the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful.
Looking more deeply and pensively at the world around and one will have begun the wabi-sabi journey, wherever one may be on our shared earth.