Whether to Wabi or Sabi

“You can’t really say what is beautiful about a place, but the image of the place will remain vividly with you.” – Tadao Ando

 Close-up of potter turning a pot on a potter's wheelWabi Sabi is a Japanese aesthetic philosophy. It revolves around three central thoughts: everything is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Wabi sabi celebrates simplicity, the profound elements of nature and natural causes. It is imperfect and asymmetrical like a tree, yet elegant and long-lasting. It’s the difference between a 300-year-old Japanese garden and a pre-fab Tiki bar. It’s the difference between the battered wooden bench in your grandma’s kitchen and stackable plastic chairs. It’s Grace Kelly vs. Kelly Kelly. Beauty is radiant and tactile, not airbrushed. It’s something you watch over, not something you stare at.

Some Japanese differ with the rather symbiotic western definition of wabi sabi, arguing that the terms are mushed together because they sound good as a pair, like zig-zag or Steve and Edie. Wabi and sabi are distinct terms. Wabi sabi is a composite of two concepts: wabi – which is a quietness attuned with nature in a simple despondence, an ascetic, monastic lifestyle; and sabi – which is the withered beauty that attends age, like a patina, chill and solitude. Both terms are better translated to describe feelings, rather than objects. To some, wabi and sabi together evoke a reverent austerity, wisdom, an appreciation for what is known to be good, rather than a longing for what is missing. A respect for authenticity and a shedding of accoutrements.

To a Japanese, wabi sabi is described as more of an inexplicable feeling than a physical trait. According to Tim Wong, Ph.D. and Akiko Hirano, PhD, “Westerners tend to associate wabi sabi with physical characteristics – imperfection, crudeness, an aged and weathered look, etc. Although wabi sabi may encompass these qualities, these characteristics are neither sufficient nor adequate to convey the essence of the concept. Wabi sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it.”

Martin Mull said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I think that quotation expresses the inexpressibleness of wabi sabi.

Wabi sabi is an understanding that life is not endless, that all of us and all that is around us will return to the dust from whence it came. In that regard, wrinkles, cracks, blemishes and other signs of weathering are symbolic of the life lived, the life enjoyed. It doesn’t mean that you don’t build with quality and don’t care for what you have; indeed that is what makes our home and furnishings last and become part of our memories. Rather it means if my son spills grape juice on my hand-made, Roy McMakin coffee table, I clean up the spill and then value it for reminding me of a relaxed afternoon having lunch with my boy. It’s a memory that may have blended into the others were it not for that purple stain. It’s caring for the good, solid stuff, without the need for ornamentation. It strips away gaudiness. It is an ability to make do with less, without sacrificing love, kindness, caring and purposeful work. Above all, wabi sabi is genuineness. It is an Andrew Wyeth farmhouse.

We have a natural yen for wabi sabi. You should pardon the pun. It explains our fixation with finding innovative ways to age things, such as, chemically enhanced patina, crackled paint, distressed furniture, barn-wood-look flooring, stone-washed jeans and other fake finishes. We want to feel the comfort of things that don’t just look weathered, but are weathered, that have been cared for and lasted, that hold songs and laughter in their energy and link us to the easier joys of youth. We want fulfillment, the satisfaction of mastery over endeavor. If we don’t have these feelings we try to create them thru artifice. But here’s the difference; being wabi sabi means you create real things, imperfect things – things that last, things you can’t count, things that matter.

My thoughts, my daydreams, my considerations, the way in which I think about the things that get me thinking, have been elevated by wonderful books. The better writers leave us wondering about the flawed people who live in their stories. They don’t reveal every last thought, they let us live alongside them and decide for ourselves. We root for them despite their defects, understand their misgivings and misguided enthusiasms. Sometimes we loathe them because we fill in their missing parts with our own frailties, the things we hate about ourselves that we project on the people we despise. Whether it is the characters or the narrative, the imperfections give the readers a place in the story, a chance to fall into the empty spaces the writers leave behind.

Now let it go. It’s impermanent. Wabi Sabi is not something to obsess over. It’s the place in your head where you put it and the thing that goes in that place.

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10 thoughts on “Whether to Wabi or Sabi

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