Wabi-sabi (part one)

September 26, 2009


I’m sure most of you will have experienced the phenomenon of being followed around by a particular word or phrase. For example, I remember a couple of years ago the phrase ‘cut of his jib’ leaping out at me from a newspaper – and from that point on it seemed to be everywhere I looked for weeks. More recently I found myself being stalked by the word ‘labyrinth’, prompting me to buy a book on the spiritual practice of ‘walking the labyrinth’ in a bid to establish if it had any particular significance for me, as yet to no avail. (I’ll keep you posted.)

Even more recently, however, I’ve found myself being shadowed by an unusual pairing of words – the Japanese phrase ‘wabi-sabi’. Glimpses of wabi-sabi seemed to creep up on me in both written and spoken word, from a number of sources including the internet, books, newspapers and magazines so with my curiosity piqued, I decided to explore what this strange expression meant. And this time there was no doubting the significance of the words for me, as followers of my blog will soon see…

So what is wabi-sabi?

It’s a Japanese term which is said to be difficult to explain adequately to Westerners, and in my research I found a few differing stories about the origins of the expression – in particular there seemed to be confusion around dates – but here are some definitions and a description of the main principles of the concept as I understand it.

Wabi originally meant sad, desolate and lonely – ‘the misery of living alone in nature away from society – a cheerless emotional state’. However, towards the middle of the last millennium, wabi had evolved to mean simple, non-materialistic, ‘humble by choice’ and in tune with nature.  It also meant ‘the aesthetic of the people’, referring to the simple lifestyle of the ordinary samurai who lacked material comforts, as opposed to the warlord rulers who lived an ostentatious consumerist lifestyle. Another possibility is that this more positive definition evolved because the Japanese held the spiritual asceticism of the monks and hermits in high esteem.

Sabi also originally meant ‘to be desolate’ but its definition evolved to mean ‘to grow old’, and by the middle of the last millennium, it was regarded as meaning ‘the beauty of the natural progression of time’ or ‘the bloom of time’. Sabi is about taking pleasure in the beauty of an object which has aged or weathered, and about carrying the burden of years with dignity and grace.

The expression Wabi-sabi finally came into being in the 16th century, thanks to the style and beliefs of the Tea Master Sen no Rikyu. Rikyu rejected the formal practice of tea ceremonies which he felt had become too ostentatious, exclusive and complex, allowing only a privileged few to participate. He decided it was time to bring the ceremonies to the masses so he built tea rooms like farmers’ huts with rough mud walls, thatched roofs and misshapen exposed-wood structural elements. He also made it an art to use handmade cups, pots and tea bowls, and utensils hewn from unlacquered bamboo.

Aesthetically, then, wabi-sabi offers an alternative to the poor designs, mass production  and disposable extravagance of our commercial world and instead embraces the simple, the well-used, the earthy and the unpretentious. Wabi-sabi is ‘perfect imperfection’, appreciating the beauty of things modest and humble or unconventional and finding perfection in the flaws. It’s about treasuring the old and well-loved objects you already possess rather than discarding them for new bland ones. It’s about keeping only the items which are necessary to us for their utility and/or beauty. It’s about working with natural products and celebrating the handmade – objects made by humans rather than by machine – and the soulful – music and art which comes from the soul rather than slick corporate soulless stuff. And it’s about warmth and comfort and creating a cosy welcoming sanctuary – spending time with loved ones in a quaint rural tearoom instead of an anodyne Starbucks; relaxing at home in a battered old armchair instead of an Ikea special; and snuggling up in a well-worn cardigan instead of the latest throwaway fashion from Primark.

And once again, the definition of wabi-sabi has evolved and now embraces the personal – our lifestyle – as well as objects and environments.  In part two, I’ll share with you the key principles for living a wabi-sabi lifestyle.


One comment

  1. I like this phrase! It just kinda rolls off the tongue.

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