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What Is Wabi-Sabi?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy that teaches beauty in imperfection. It is a worldview that eschews human ideas of uniformity and acceptance to find perfection is the humble, the irregular, and the simple. Wabi-sabi as a concept derives from Zen Buddhism. Its main message is that in art, as in life, that which is “perfect” often hangs in a balance of reality, inevitability, and natural progression. Simply put, it is an acceptance of the integrity of things as they are.

It is difficult to pin down a precise definition of wabi-sabi in part because the philosophy is based on loose feelings and sentiments more than it is on hard teachings. The philosophy has been described as a Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values. It is a way of meditating as much as it is a way of doing; a way of being as much as a way of thinking.

Wabi-sabi originated in Zen practices, primarily tea ceremony and meditation. Buddhism came to Japan from China in the sixth century, a time when Chinese culture seemed inundated with ideas of delicate perfection and ordered beauty. It is possible that the aesthetic developed as the predominant Japanese Zen philosophy in reaction to this contrary Chinese worldview.

The phrase wabi-sabi is made up of two distinct Japanese words. Originally, the words had very different meanings. Wabi conjured images of solitude, being alone in nature, or cheerlessness. Sabi, on the other hand, meant “chill,” “lean,” or “withered.” Together, the phrase carried a rather somber image of life and its purpose.

In modern usage, the words have evolved to be essentially indistinguishable, and decidedly more upbeat. They both relate to a way of life, a spiritual path, and an aesthetic ideal. The practice of wabi-sabi is a Japanese worldview centered on finding contentment and joy in the simple — and often overlooked — pleasures of life.

Wabi-sabi as a teaching combines moral, spiritual, and metaphysical elements. Above all things, it is an acceptance of reality. It is a striving for harmony in a world of imperfections; it is a looking for beauty in that which is, rather than in that which simply could be.

Elements of the aesthetic are manifest in simplistic Japanese brushstroke paintings, and in intentionally rustic pottery and clay creations. Even the most skilled artisans would intentionally introduce flaws into their pieces — a thumbprint, for instance, or a crack — in order to keep the piece in line with wabi-sabi. According to traditional teaching, nothing which is outwardly perfect can reflect the inward balance the aesthetic is centered on. These teachings largely shaped the concepts of traditional Japanese beauty.

No Zen practice better idealizes the spirit of wabi-sabi than the tea ceremony. Japanese tea ceremony is a ritual combining several elements, including hospitality, design, and performance. The ceremony follows certain carefully prescribed steps. In the late 1400s, one of the driving goals of tea ceremony was to experience wabi-sabi. Other individualized experiences, such as painting or poetry, sought to capture the nature of the aesthetic, but tea ceremony was believed to be one of the only ways to actually experience it in its fullness.

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