Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking on to the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of spring — these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to bloom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration … In all things, it is the beginnings and endings that are interesting.
— Yoshida Kenko
I remember when my mother, doing renovations to her newly purchased home, discovered a wood floor that had been hidden for decades underneath sheets of linoleum. She couldn’t believe that someone before her had decided to cover up the beautiful wood with layers of shiny plastic, and she was ecstatic to get rid of the fabricated material to reveal the natural, earthy wood that lie just beneath the synthetic surface.
This anecdote suggests some of my personal observations about Western ideology. First, the quest for so-called happiness seems to have led us so far from our roots that the innate appreciation for everything natural was all but lost in this pursuit of manufactured perfection. Second, we are slowly becoming more aware of this void, and are resuscitating a long-dormant understanding of the concept known as wabi sabi.
What is Wabi Sabi?
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
— Leonard Cohen
Before trying to define wabi sabi, one must realize it is an ancient concept with no direct or simple translation to English. We can acquire a rough understanding by loosely translating the words and their meanings, but the essence tends to get lost in translation. Wabi sabi is closely tied to the Japanese tea ceremony, and it is said that “to truly understand tea, you must also study poetry, art, literature, architecture, legacy, and history” (Lawrence & Coca 2004). Mahayana philosophy, One of the main branches of Buddhism, warns that genuine understanding cannot be achieved through words or language, so accepting wabi sabi on nonverbal terms may be the most appropriate approach (Smith).
Wabi-sabi describes a means whereby students 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. (Brown)
A most basic definition of wabi sabi could be “the Japanese art of appreciating the beauty in the naturally imperfect world” (Roberts). Wabi sabi is largely about aesthetic perception. More specifically it refers to appreciation of the elegant refinement that comes with imperfection, age and loving use. Wabi sabi is also a philosophy, which helps us to see the inherent beauty in simplicity or poverty. This isn’t to say poverty in the sense of insufficiency or inadequacy, but rather contentment in owning few material possessions.
Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, tried unsuccessfully to discover a precise definition while researching his book. He eventually coined his own, which has become standard for authors in the West: “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” (Roberts).
Wabi & Sabi
Wabi and sabi are actually two unique but complementary concepts that became intertwined over time. Makoto Ueda, author and former professor of Japanese literature at Stanford University, described them as such:
“Sabi … is a poetic mood vaguely pointing toward a certain view of life. This view of life is called wabi. Wabi originally meant “sadness of poverty.” But gradually it came to mean an attitude toward life, with which one tried to resign himself to straitened living and to find peace and serenity of mind even under such circumstances. Sabi, primarily an aesthetic concept, is closely related to wabi, a philosophical idea.” (Durston 24)
Some tea masters protest the use of these words together, saying that the marriage “dilutes their separate identities” (Lawrence & Coca). The conjoining of wabi and sabi is at least partly due to the catchy sound of it, similar to the way ‘ping-pong’ rolls off the tongue. Another reason is that though the two words have distinct meanings, people don’t fully agree on what they might be (Lawrence & Coca).
Wabi is like the feeling
of the evening sky in autumn,
somber of color,
hushed of all sound.
Somehow, as if for reasons
one should be able to call to mind,
tears begin to flow uncontrollably.
— Kamo no Chomei (Durston 7)
Wabi Sabi in Everyday Life
“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
— William Morris
Wabi sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, which was brought from China to Japan by Eisai, a twelfth-century monk. Zen, with its principles of vast emptiness and nothing holy, stresses austerity, communion with nature, and above all, reverence for everyday life as the real path to enlightenment. To reach enlightenment, Zen monks lived ascetic, often isolated lives and sat for long periods of concentrated meditation (Lawrence & Coca).
Rather than trying to own the most possessions, wabi sabi teaches to own fewer, but those few objects should be a testament to craftsmanship and functionality. To put it simply, buy the best. This doesn’t mean the most expensive or even the highest quality, but rather the best suited to its purpose and the one you have the best connection with. Wabi sabi seems to truly embody the ‘less is more’ spirit.
The Tea Ceremony
The tea ceremony is considered a means of achieving enlightenment and peace of mind through the simple, everyday preparation of tea. The famous tea master Sen no Rikyu (1521-1591) is known as the man who brought the “way of tea” to the height of refinement in the 16th century (Durston xiii). The way of tea (also called cha-no-yu) is closely associated with wabi sabi. To Sen no Rikyu, “the ceremony is nothing more (or less) than this:
Make a delicious bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so it heats the water; arrange flowers as they are in the field; in summer suggest coolness, in winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain; and give to those with whom you find yourself every consideration.” (Durston xiii)
“”How hard can this be?” one of his students asked, to which Rikyu replied, “Well, if you can master that, you can teach me”” (Durston xiv).
In many ways, this spiritual discipline of tea can be understood in the context of the Zen master Rinzai’s (? – 866) teachings: “The Buddha-dharma does not have a special place to apply effort; it is only the ordinary and everyday — relieving oneself, donning clothes, eating rice, lying down when tired,” as well as Zen master Dōgen’s (1200-1253) meditative focus on shikantaza or “just sitting” (Park).
The Japanese Rock Garden
Along with the tea ceremony, another manifestation of this spirit is the Japanese rock garden, or as they’re known in the West, the zen garden. Called karesansui in Japanese, this garden is made up of two main elements: sand and rocks. The sand is artfully raked daily in patterns that evoke the ripples of the sea, and rocks are placed wherever the maker sees fit. Some may include other elements in the gardens surroundings, such as grass, moss, or ornamental trees. Japanese rock gardens got their western name because of the tranquil nature of the garden, which encourage meditation and a zen-like atmosphere (Wallace).
A priest named Muso Soseki is thought to be the progenitor of the Japanese rock garden in 13th century Japan, although some say that it is an art dating back to 3000 BC. It appears that Kyoto, Japan, was a hot spot for Japanese rock gardens, with many centuries old examples surviving today. A 500-year-old garden in Kyoto’s Ryōan-ji Temple is one of the most famous in the world, drawing thousands of visitors each year. (Wallace)
My Own Experience
“Fewer and fewer Americans possess objects that have a patina, old furniture, grandparents’ pots and pans — the used things, warm with generations of human touch … essential to a human landscape.”
– Susan Sontag
Reverence for everyday life seems to be the lifeblood of wabi sabi. In practice, at least in my limited understanding, part of wabi sabi is not being distracted and fettered by unnecessary thought and extraneous material goods, and deriving pleasure from things that you otherwise might not have given a second thought. My three most memorable moments from yesterday are catching a spider in my home and releasing it outside, seeing the first tiny pink flower buds beginning to appear on a tree, and pausing for a moment to enjoy a deep breath of fresh air.
It wasn’t long ago that I would have found little to no meaning in such seemingly insignificant things. Going back far enough in time though, to when I was very young, these were the kinds of things that I, and most others, would have appreciated. We admire kids for their purity, their ability to find joy in the simplest things. In learning wabi sabi, I can feel myself slowing down, shifting back a gear, like I’m experiencing a return to that childlike sense of wonder.
While researching and writing this article, there were a few things that came to mind from my own life. The first thing was a few of my favourite pieces of clothing, and how they absolutely get better with age. Another thing was a pair of boots, but in this case they were already made to look aged when I bought them. Though the boots did look better for it, it was clear that the aging was artificial, and this helps me understand that “true sabi cannot be acquired, however. It is a gift of time” (Lawrence & Coca).
The other things that came to mind were a photo I took of a neighbours driveway, and an old sugar bowl handmade by my great grandmother. The sugar bowl has become my favourite item in my kitchen, and it’s perfection lies in the fact that it is imperfect, and that it bears the qualities of being lovingly handmade, enjoyed and appreciated over time.
When I took this photo, I wasn’t quite sure why I felt such an urge to capture the scene, or why I loved the result. From a wabi sabi viewpoint though, it becomes obvious. The photo alludes to a true appreciation for the passage of time, through the sense of impermanence evoked by the yellow leaves that highlight the changing season, and their contrast with the ancient rock. The photos simplicity is another endearing quality; it is a relaxing image that might inspire one to ponder rather than analyze. Lastly, the aged but clearly visibly address sign made from two old saw blades suggests that when these items reached the end of their intended usefulness, the owners loved them enough to put them on display and give them a whole new life and purpose.
My journey into understanding these concepts and gaining an appreciation for “the art of everyday life” began only recently after I visited the Portland Japanese Garden and purchased there a small book about wabi sabi. The more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn.
It seems students of Eastern philosophies like Zen Buddhism have sometimes found their mentors’ instructions rather puzzling, when they expected to be taught as they would in school. They are often instructed in a seemingly roundabout way, their lessons filled with mundane, everyday tasks, going months with no mention of anything more. Perhaps true understanding is not achieved through memorizing the answer to a question, but rather through taking each individual step as it comes, slowly and simply realizing the path, and ultimately appreciating the problem just as much as the solution.
The snow-covered mountain path
Winding through the rocks
Has come to its end;
Here stands a hut,
The master is all alone;
No visitors he has,
Nor are any expected.
– Sen no Rikyu (Suzuki 2010)
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Brown, Simon. Practical Wabi Sabi: Create the Home That Will Make You Happier, More in Tune with Nature, and Capable of Meeting Life’s Challenges. Carroll & Brown, 2007.
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Wallace, O. “Portland Rock Garden.” Wisegeek, 18 Apr. 2018, http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-a-zen-garden.htm#portland-rock-garden.
Excellent essay Connor! The more we can learn to achieve peace and harmony in our lives the better. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful❤️