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Wabi-sabi 侘寂

“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. \
It is the beauty of things modest and humble.
It is the beauty of things unconventional.”

–Leonard Koren

At the core of wabi-sabi is the importance of transcending ways of looking and thinking about things/existence.

“All sorts of attempts have been made to encapsulate the feeling: “rustic,” “desolateness,” or “acceptance of transience and imperfection.” Unfortunately, like many philosophical concepts, wabi-sabi cannot be easily explained or translated. […] It is a significant concept in Japanese culture, and one that can be appreciated everywhere.”

See also “In Praise of Shadows” by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki:

Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers

  • by Leonard Koren

Wabi-sabi can in its fullest expression be a way of life. At the very least, it is a particular type of beauty. (…) Originally, the japanese words “wabi” and “sabi” had quite different meanings. “Sabi originally meant “chill”, “lean”, or “withered.” “Wabi” originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state. Around the 14th century, the meanings of both words began to evolve in the direction of more positive aesthetic values. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the poetically inclined, this kind of life fostered an appreciation of the minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. - pp 21 & 22

Variously called sado, chado and chanoyu, the tea ceremony as it evolved became an eclectic social art form combining, among other things, the skills of architecture, interior and garden design, flower arranging, painting, food preparation and performance. The accomplished tea practitioner was someone who could orchestrate all these elements - and the guests in attendance - into a quietly exciting artistic event that thematically cohered. - pp 31 & 32

(…) institutionalized tea practice still has value as a meditation exercise. Nonthinking repetition of mechanical forms allows one to concentrate simply on being without the distraction of having to make decisions, artistic or otherwise. - pp35

The Wabi-sabi universe

(…) aesthetic system / world view

Metaphysical basis (integrated approach to the ultimate nature of existence)
  • Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness
Spiritual values (sacred knowledge)
  • Truth comes from the observation of nature
  • “Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details
  • Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness
State of Mind (emotional well-being)
  • Acceptance of the inevitable
  • Appreciation of the cosmic order
Moral Percepts (behavior)
  • Get rid of all that is unnecessary
  • Focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy
Material Qualities (look & feel of things, materiality)
  • The suggestion of natural process
  • Irregular
  • Intimate
  • Unpretentious
  • Earthy
  • Murky
  • Simple

(…) The more systematic and clearly defined the components of an aesthetic system are - the more conceptual handles, the more it refers back to the fundamentals - the more useful it is. - pp 40 & 41

Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealized form, is precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the borders of nothingness. - pp 42

(…) nothingness itself - instead of being empty space (…) - is alive with possibility. In metaphysical terms, wabi-sabi suggests that the universe is in constant motion toward and away from potential. - pp45

All things are impermanent. The inclination toward nothingness is unrelenting and universal. Even things that have all the earmarks of substance - things that are hard, inert, solid - present nothing more than the illusion of permanence. - pp 47 & 49

Wabi-sabi is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. (…) Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, he tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes. Like homeopathic medicine, the essence of wabi-sabi is apportioned in small doses. As the does decreases, the effect becomes more potent, more profound. The closer things get to nonexistence, the more exquisite and evocative they become. Consequently to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow way down, be patient and look very closely. - pp50

Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace. - pp 51

Wabi-sabi images force us to contemplate our own mortality, and they evoke an existential loneliness and tender sadness. They also stir a mingled bittersweet comfort, since we know all existence shares the same fate. - pp 54

Wabi-sabi suggests the subtlest realms and all the mechanics and dynamics of existence, way beyond what our ordinary senses can perceive. (…) The way rice paper transmits light in a diffuse glow. The manner in which clay cracks as it dries. The colour and textural methamorphosis of metal when it tarnishes and rusts. All these represent the physical forces and deep structures that underlie our everyday world. - pp 57

Wabi-sabi means treading lightly on the planet and knowing how to appreciate whatever is encountered, no matter how trifling, whenever it is encountered. (…) Wabi-sabi acknowledges that just as it is important to know when to make choices, it is also important to know when not to make choices: to let things be. (…) Wabi-sabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom from things. - pp 59

(…) a symbolic act of humility, everyone either bends or crawls to enter the tea room through an entrance that is purposely designed low and small. Once insite, the atmosphere is egalitarian. Hierarchical thinking - “this is higher/better, that is lower/worse” - is not acceptable. The poor student, the wealthy business person, and the powerful religious leader - distinctly different social classes on the outside - are equals within. - pp 61

An object obtains the state of wabi-sabi only for the moment it is appreciated as such. In the tea-room, therefore, things come into existence only when they express their wabi-sabi qualities. Outside the tea room, they return to their ordinary reality, and their wabi-sabi existence fades away. - pp 61

Things wabi-sabi are expressions of time frozen. They are made of materials that are visibly vulnerable to the effects of weatherting and human treatment. They record the sun, wind, rain, heat and cold in a language of discoloration, rust, tarnish, stain, warping, shrinking, shriveling and cracking. - pp62

Wabi-sabi may exhibit the effects of accident, like a broken bowl glued back together. Or they may show the result of just letting things happen by chance, like the irregular fabrics that are created by intentionally sabotaging the computer program of a textile loom.

Intimate. Things wabi-sabi are usually small and compact, quiet and inward-oriented. They beckon: get close, touch, relate. They inspire a reduction of the psychic distance between one thing and another thing; between people and things. Places wabi-sabi are small, secluded and private environments that enhance one's capacity for metaphysical musings. (…) They are tranquil and calming, enveloping and womb-like. They are a world apart: nowhere, anywhere, everywhere. - pp 67

Things wabi-sabi are appreciated only during direct contact and use; they are never locked away in a museum. - pp 68

Things wabi-sabi have a vague, blurry, or attenuated quality - at things do as they approach nothingness (or come out of it). Once-hard edges take on a soft pale glow. Once-substantial materiality appears almost sponge-like. Once bright saturated colours fade into muddy earth tones, or the smoky hues of dawn and dusk. Wabi sabi comes in an infinite spectrum of grays (…) and browns (…) and blacks). Less often (…) in almost pastel colors associated with a recent emergence from nothingness. Like the off-whites of unbleached cotton, hemp and recycled paper. The silver-rusts of new saplings and sprouts. The green-browns of tumescent buds. - pp 71

The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the state of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is the economy of means. Pare down to the essence, but don't remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don't sterilize. (Things wabi-sabi are emotionally warm, never cold.) Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn't mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn't mean in any way diminishing something's “interestingness,” The quality that compels us to look at that something over, and over, and over again. - pp 72

Ideally the tea ceremony was a complex information ritual in which everybody present was supposed to participate. Much like a John Cage music composition with only basic instructions specifying procedure and methods, each new ceremony created new artistic circumstances that resulted in a new “piece.” Because most people involved had considerable prior tea experience, their knowledge was built into the very structure of the event (…), so that each subsequent ceremony became ever more deeply and intricately layered. - pp78

Objects and people are treated similarly in wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is not a humanitarian philosophy; nor is it about the sanctity of life, man's humanity to man, or good and evil. - pp 82

(…) visual metaphor for things coming into and out of existence, leaving the subtlest of evidence, is the cherry blossom, one of the most potent (and cliched) images in Japanese culture. Every spring the cherry trees bloom for about a week at most. But a sudden rain or wind can cause the delicate pale pink flowers to fall away at any moment. During this brief window of opportunity, large and small groups of people spread mats and blankets under cherry trees throughout Japan. Instantaneously a place - the antithesis of a formal structure - and an event are created together. - pp 83

(…) status, it seems, manages to assert itself whenever given the chance, and almost immediately there developed a high-priced market for these heretofore ugly and obscured things. Once something becomes too valuable, too costly, it ceases to be wabi-sabi. It becomes, instead, only an expensive reminder of what was once a dynamic moment. - pp 85

(about the Mono-ha, school of things - art movement in 1960/70s) Part of the integrity of their work was its non-collectibility (…) As one critic noted, ”[They} rejected the notion of perfect, finished objects. Their sculptures were merely temporary confluences… not originals that would increase in monetary value.“ - pp 86

Things in process, like buildings under constructions, are often more imagistic than the finished thing itself. Poetic irregularity and variability are difficult to mass produce, however. - pp 87

From a wabi-sabi perspective the density of information contained within an object, as does the human relatability, when the scale does. - pp 87 & 88.

(1) “No one object or element in any room shall stand out above any other and (2) “Thou shalt not revere the old for old's sake. If it's new and it fits, use it.” - pp 88

From: Koren, L. (1994) Wabi-sabi. Imperfect Publishing, Point Reyes, California
wabi_sabi.txt · Last modified: 2018/11/02 09:33 by nik