The Lessons of Wabi-Sabi

Wabi-sabi restores a measure of sanity to modern living

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I first learned of wabi-sabi during my youthful spiritual quest in the late 1960s. At that time, the traditional culture of Japan beckoned with profound “answers” to life’s toughest questions. Wabi-sabi seemed to me a nature-based aesthetic paradigm that restored a measure of sanity and proportion to the art of living. Deep, multidimensional, elusive, wabi-sabi appeared to be the perfect antidote to the pervasively slick, saccharine, corporate style of beauty that I felt was desensitizing American society. I have since come to believe that wabi-sabi is related to many of the more emphatic anti-aesthetic movements that invariably spring from the young, modern, creative soul: beat, punk, grunge, or whatever it’s called next.

Wabi-sabi also springs from nature. The Japanese, like other cultures, have tried to control nature as best they could. But there was little they could do about the weather, the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, floods, fires, and tidal waves that periodically and unpredictably visited their land. The Japanese didn’t particularly trust nature, but they learned from it. Some of the most compelling lessons (leavened with Taoist thought) were incorporated into the wisdom of wabi-sabi.

All things are impermanent. Even things that have all the earmarks of substance—things that are hard, inert, solid—present nothing more than the illusion of permanence. All comes to nothing in the end. Everything wears down. The planets and stars, and even intangible things like reputation, family heritage, historical memory, scientific theorems, mathematical proofs, great art and literature (even in digital form)—all eventually fade into oblivion.

All things are imperfect. Nothing that exists is without imperfections. When we look closely at things, we see the flaws. The sharp edge of a razor blade, when it is magnified, reveals pits, chips, and variegations. And as things begin to break down and approach the primordial state, they become even less perfect, more irregular, and perhaps more lovely.

All things are incomplete. All things, including the universe itself, are in a constant, never-ending state of becoming or dissolving. Often we arbitrarily designate moments, points along the way, as “finished.” But when is a plant complete? When it flowers? When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout? When everything turns into compost?

Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring. Wabi-sabi is found in nature not at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are almost invisible at first glance.

Like homeopathic medicine, the essence of wabi-sabi is apportioned in small doses. As the dose decreases, the effect becomes more potent, more profound. The closer things get to nonexistence, the more exquisite and evocative they can become. Consequently, to experience wabi-sabi, you have to slow way down, be patient, and look very closely.

Leonard Koren lives in San Francisco and Tokyo. Trained as an architect and artist, he created the 1970s avant-garde magazine WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. He is the author of several books. “Exquisite Decay” was excerpted from Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers (Stone Bridge, 1994). Based in Berkeley, California, Stone Bridge Press has been publishing books about Japanese culture for 11 years (www.stonebridge.com).