Wabi-Sabi: The Art Of Imperfection

The Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi offers an inspiring new way to look at your home, and your whole life.

According to Japanese legend, a young man named Sen no Rikyu sought to learn the elaborate set of customs known as the Way of Tea. He went to tea-master Takeeno Joo, who tested the younger man by asking him to tend the garden. Rikyu cleaned up debris and raked the ground until it was perfect, then scrutinized the immaculate garden. Before presenting his work to the master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to spill randomly onto the ground.

To this day, the Japanese revere Rikyu as one who understood to his very core a deep cultural thread known as wabi-sabi. Emerging in the 15th century as a reaction to the prevailing aesthetic of lavishness, ornamentation, and rich materials, wabi-sabi is the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all. In Japan, the concept is now so deeply ingrained that it’s difficult to explain to Westerners; no direct translation exists.

Broadly, wabi-sabi is everything that today’s sleek, mass-produced, technology-saturated culture isn’t. It’s flea markets, not shopping malls; aged wood, not swank floor coverings; one single morning glory, not a dozen red roses. Wabi-sabi understands the tender, raw beauty of a gray December landscape and the aching elegance of an abandoned building or shed. It celebrates cracks and crevices and rot and all the other marks that time and weather and use leave behind. To discover wabi-sabi is to see the singular beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly.

Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are all transient beings on this planet—that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to dust. Nature’s cycles of growth, decay, and erosion are embodied in frayed edges, rust, liver spots. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the melancholy found in these marks of passing time.

Bringing wabi-sabi into your life doesn’t require money, training, or special skills. It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate muted beauty, courage not to fear bareness, willingness to accept things as they are—without ornamentation. It depends on the ability to slow down, to shift the balance from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting.

You might ignite your appreciation of wabi-sabi with a single item from the back of a closet: a chipped vase, a faded piece of cloth. Look deeply for the minute details that give it character; explore it with your hands. You don’t have to understand why you’re drawn to it, but you do have to accept it as it is.

Michael Grove
8/8/2020 2:59:17 AM

With regard to my own experience of TEA RATIONING in the UK, what more can I say than... "In the development of chanoyo - literally "hot water for tea" - the common name for the tea ceremony, as opposed to sado - " the way of tea " or " tea-ism" - Sen no Rikyu allowed himself to be guided by two aesthetic principles - wabi - refined elegance and sabi - serenity. http://letschangetheworld.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=5313775%3ABlogPost%3A78&commentId=5313775%3AComment%3A39028

7/1/2019 5:21:44 PM

I remember reading this article in Utne magazine, and it pops into my mind now and then. I appreciate the chance to revisit this favorite of mine, so thank you for posting it. Years ago, I was a member of a few communities in the Utne Salon; does anyone remember that? There are times when I would trade all of Facebook for the Crones I met on Utne, so even if you don't hear much from me, I'm still here in my imperfect Wabi-Sabi way...

2/4/2018 1:14:41 PM

A wonderful philosophy dependent vary much upon an ability to sense the world around us and allow it to reciprocate our perception. It's been amazing to look at this through the lens of David Abram's "The Spell of the Sensuous". Not just my mind, but my entire self has been opened up to the newfound beauty of the real and living world. Anyone interested in wabi-sabi will get a lot out of that book; they're both marriages of philosophy and art.

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