Somewhere I heard about the Japanese spirit of wabi sabi, and had no idea, until I found the explanation of Nobuo Suzuki in introduction of his book: Wabi Sabi – The Wisdom in Imperfection.
I share it here:
Wabi Sabi regards things that resemble nature as beautiful, and may be summed up with the following three principles:
- Nothing is perfect,
- Nothing is finished,
- Nothing lasts forever.
Applied to humans
Apply principle 1 to humans:
Being aware of our imperfection makes us humble; accepting it, frees us from being unhealthily self-demanding and from the fixation on a perfection that does not exist in nature and by extension does not exist in humans either.
Accepting our own imperfection and each person’s unique nature (and imperfection!) does not mean resignation.
On the contrary, it shows us the path to follow to evolve as human beings. Anyone who believes they have achieved excellence and perfection is both wrong — there is always room for improvement — and lacking in flexibility.
Secure in their absolute and subjective truth, they have no margin for growth. Such a person is rigid and fossilized and does not exude life1.
Moving on to the second principle, wabi sabi reminds us precisely that nothing is finished. Just as nature develops infinitely, amid cycles of births and deaths, so too are humans dynamic.
Taking a wabi sabi approach to life means, once you have recognized your own imperfection, embracing continuous learning and assuming that everything is still to be done, and therefore, that everything is still to be lived.
The third principle of wabi sabi is understanding the fleeting nature of all that exists, a concept that takes us back to Zen. As the Buddha once pointed out, when talking about suffering, that one of its causes is that humans wish that things that by nature are transitory should be permanent.
Youth flies and becomes maturity and then old age. That fantastic television you have just bought eventually stops working or becomes outdated or obsolete. That person who seemed so charming and amusing stops surprising us, or maybe we start to drift apart because, like two branches of a tree, we have grown in opposite directions. Rather than saddening us, accepting that nothing lasts forever inspires us to value the beauty of the moment, which is the only thing we can capture here and now. It is an invitation to give our everything to whatever we may be doing.
That is the magic of wabi sabi, which inspires our life offering us a new horizon of sensitivity, growth and self-fulfillment.
So far Nobuo Suzuki.
Wabi and Sabi according to Omar Itani
Wabi sabi is a concept that motions us to constantly search for the beauty in imperfection and accept the more natural cycle of life. It reminds us that all things including us and life itself, are impermanent, incomplete, and imperfect. Perfection, then, is impossible and impermanence is the only way.
Taken individually, wabi and sabi are two separate concepts:
- Wabi is about recognizing beauty in humble simplicity. It invites us to open our heart and detach from the vanity of materialism so we can experience spiritual richness instead.
- Sabi is concerned with the passage of time, the way all things grow, age, and decay, and how it manifests itself beautifully in objects. It suggests that beauty is hidden beneath the surface of what we actually see, even in what we initially perceive as broken.
Together, these two concepts create an overarching philosophy for approaching life:
Accept what is, stay in the present moment, and appreciate the simple, transient stages of life.
The first teaching of the wabi sabi philosophy is to practice gratitude and acceptance. It’s not about giving up. It’s about surrendering to the gravity of the situation at hand and then actively playing a role in deciding what happens next.
It is similar to what the Stoics called Amor Fati, a love of fate. And wabi sabi preaches the same: you will find peace and freedom, and you will step onto the path of growth, once you begin yielding and surrendering to the imperfect flow of life.
If everything in nature is always changing, then nothing can ever be absolutely complete. And since perfection is a state of completeness, then nothing can ever be perfect. Hence, the wabi sabi philosophy teaches us that all things, including us and life itself, are impermanent, incomplete, and imperfect. The problem, however, is that our flawed ways of thinking have now blurred our understanding of what perfection really is.
Open up a thesaurus and search for the antonyms for “perfect” and you’ll find the following words: flawed, corrupt, inferior, poor, second-rate, inept, broken, wrong, bad… All this negativity. No wonder we’ve become so obsessed with seeking perfection.
In order to eliminate this negative stigma around imperfection, we first need to completely reject it as being “the opposite” of that fictional construct that is perfection.
We need to write a new narrative that reads: Imperfection is not a compromise; imperfection is the only way because imperfection is the true nature of things.
The teaching of the wabi sabi philosophy is simple: Strive not for perfection, but for excellence instead.
In other words, simply do your best to be the best that you can be.
All things in life, including you, are in an imperfect state of flux. Change is the only constant.
Everything is transient and nothing is ever complete. And that’s why perfection doesn’t exist.
An ancient form of art stems from wabi sabi, whereby you mend broken objects with gold fillings, giving them “golden scars.” It’s known as Kintsugi.
Think of a bowl or teapot that has been dropped onto the floor. What would you do with it? You’d most probably pick up the pieces and throw them away. But not with Kintsugi. Here, you bring the pieces of broken pottery back together and glue them with liquid gold. Wouldn’t that make them imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed, but somehow, more beautiful?
Kintsugi reminds us that there is great beauty in broken things because scars tell a story. They demonstrate fortitude, wisdom, and resilience, earned through the passage of time. Why hide these imperfections or golden scars when we are meant to celebrate them?
The idea here is simple: There will be many times in your life when you will feel broken. There will be events that will leave you with emotional or physical scars. Do not hide in the shadow of your own sunshine. Do not dim your own light with the darkness of a cloud. Instead, let those scars be redrawn with gold.
Consider that your failures are there to teach you how not to do things, your mistakes are there to teach you the importance of forgiveness, and your wrinkles are there to remind you of your laughs that caused them.
Near the teahouse at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto is a famous stone water basin, with water continually flowing for ritual purification. Because of the low height of the basin, the user must bend over to use it, in a sign of reverence and humility.
On this 17th-century tsukubai (water basin) there’s an ancient inscription with four Chinese characters: 五, 隹, 止, 矢. Read alone, these characters are of no significance. But when combined with the borders of the central square, they become: 吾, 唯, 足, 知 and can be read as “ware, tada taru (wo) shiru” meaning “I only know plenty,” or “I only know contentment.”
The tsukubai also embodies a subtle form of Zen teaching using ironic juxtaposition: while the shape mimics an ancient Chinese coin, the sentiment is the opposite of materialism. Thus, over many centuries, the tsukubai has also served as a humorous visual koan for countless monks residing at the temple, gently reminding them daily of their vow of poverty.
“I only know contentment” is to be content with the emotion of anger just as how you are usually content with the emotion of excitement. To be content with the state of sadness just as how you are incredibly content with the state of happiness.
But how about a more poetic translation to that inscription? How about, “rich is the person who is content with who he is or what he has.” Or, how about this: “What I have is all I need.” You see, the root of all unhappiness is born from being discontent with where you are and what you have. It really is as simple as that.
Wabi Sabi aesthetics
From wikipedia I quote:
Characteristics of wabi sabi aesthetics and principles include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and the appreciation of both natural objects and the forces of nature.
The words “wabi” and “sabi” do not translate directly into English; ‘wabi’ originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; ‘sabi’ meant “chill”, “lean” or “withered”. Around the 14th century, these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations.
‘Wabi’ came to connote rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects as an expression of understated elegance. It can also be used to refer to the quirks and anomalies that arise from the process of making something, which are seen to add uniqueness and elegance to the finished object.
‘Sabi’ refers to the beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.
In one sense wabi sabi learns us to find the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful. Fading autumn leaves would be an example. Wabi sabi can change our perception of the world to the extent that a chip or crack in a vase makes it more interesting and gives the object greater meditative value (uniqueness). Similarly materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time.
Wabi Sabi Haiku
Some haiku in English also adopt the wabi sabi aesthetic in written style, creating spare, minimalist poems that evoke loneliness and transience, such as this one from Nick Virgilio:
the wreath on the door
lifts in the wind“.
1 Exude life: living life to the fullest! Or as in my motto: One Life, live one.