‘Unattainable ideals are everywhere we turn: television, movies, books, magazines, songs. It’s no wonder that notions of perfection sneak into our fantasies and appear in our scandalously selective memories. It’s no wonder that, at times, we may feel we just aren’t good enough, no matter how hard we try’.
This is one of Taro Gold’s observations of one of the core tenets of Japanese philosophy, architecture, art, and culture. For many Japanese communities, Wabi Sabi is not merely a form of artistic expression; it is a way of living, a way of seeing and interacting with the world, and a route to achieving happiness and satisfaction in a world that very often surrounds us with ideals of permanence and perfection.
This article aims to enlighten its readers on the history and the principles of Wabi Sabi, hopefully guiding you towards embracing a way of life that will ultimately enrich your everyday experiences, perhaps relieve you of some anxieties you may carry, and expose you to an entirely different culture that is ‘diametrically opposed to its Western counterparts’.
The Principles of Wabi Sabi
Andrew Juniper describes Wabi Sabi as the embodiment of the Zen nihilist cosmic view, a philosophy which ‘seeks beauty in the imperfections found in all things, in a constant state of flux, evolv[ing] from nothing and devolve back to nothing’.
It denotes such qualities as ‘impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection’, finding beauty in the natural ebbs and flows of life and nature, and contrasting completely with Western cultures rooted in a Hellenic worldview that values ‘permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection’.
Think of any great European monument for example, the Arc de Triomphe, Buckingham Palace, the Reichstag, and Trafalgar Square. These instances of classical European architecture generally follow a very particular pattern, in that they are all magnificent stone, usually limestone, structures, perfectly symmetrical, and intended to express the state of constance and perpetuity that was central to European power and authority in the modern age.
The philosophy of Wabi Sabi incorporates largely opposing principles to those desired in Western cultures, instead celebrating asymmetry, and imperfection. It offers an aesthetic ideal that uses the ‘uncompromising touch of mortality to focus the mind on the exquisite transient beauty to be found in all things impermanent’.
The History of Wabi Sabi
The history of Wabi Sabi in Japanese art and culture can be traced back to the Song dynasty, from 960-1279. Although Wabi Sabi had not at this point achieved the concrete expression that it sustains today, art produced during this period was beginning to show some leanings towards its modern day principles and ideals.
Namely, the simplicity of the works produced by practitioners of Wen-Jen Hua became the foundations of what would later become the Wabi Sabi expression, with the brevity and simplicity of these contemporary works providing ample space for ‘the mental collaboration of the audience’.
In a later period of the dynasty known as the Southern Song, Japanese artists began to incorporate far more ‘space’ into their works, recognising ‘nothingness’ as a stark and indeed necessary juxtaposition to ‘things that presently exist’.
Where Western cultures would ordinarily aim to fill their canvases with detailed depictions of great battles, historic events, and meetings between prominent figures, Japanese artists during the same period coveted space and emptiness as a necessary component in contemporary art, that would help to truly demonstrate the beauty of the painted expression on the canvas and, more broadly, the beauty of life and experience where nothingness could realistically exist as an alternative.
Architecturally speaking, our modern understanding of Wabi Sabi took much of its inspiration from the Zen monasteries that were so prominent in Japanese culture throughout this early period. The temples were very regularly underfunded, and therefore have very little access to high-quality art that could entertain guests.
The resulting application of the more accessible examples of natural beauty that were available to Zen temples during this period, bamboo and wildflowers for instance, forced a more direct concentration and interaction with ‘the natural, the impermanent, and the humble’.
For Andrew Juniper, the Buddhist monks that were responsible for the maintenance and decoration of contemporary Zen temples understood that ‘in these simple and often rustic objects, they discovered the innate beauty to be found in exquisite random patterns left by the flow of nature’.
Implementing Wabi Sabi into Your Daily Life
The distance between understanding the philosophy of Wabi Sabi, and actively practising it in your everyday life, may at first seem to be a sizeable gap to bridge. However, with these four routines or methods, you will be able to effectively implement Wabi Sabi into your daily life:
Savour the present moment – much of Western culture and society is consumed by the pursuit of something greater. We are constantly encouraged to look towards the future, to aim to achieve more, and constantly look for happiness and gratification in front of us. Wabi Sabi, however, encourages us to focus on the present moment, to be mindful of the smaller joys in life, and how to fully be present in the here and now. By dedicating a few minutes daily to focusing on breathing, body sensations, and emotions, you will be able to connect more deeply with the present moment, enabling you to truly value every day, and find joy and satisfaction in even the most menial daily task.
Embrace your personal story – by reflecting on your own personal journey, understanding all of the various ups and downs that define your story, and by learning and growing from your own experiences, you will both be finding beauty in your own imperfections, whilst also utilising them to heal, and to grow. By confronting our own shortcomings, and facing perhaps the lowest moments we have encountered, we are directly establishing a clearer perspective on what happiness is and can be, by learning to appreciate the positive aspects of our more unpleasant experiences.
Extract learning – truly learning from our experiences, and growing as individuals and as communities, forces us to reimagine our own imperfections. By embracing our imperfections, we are growing from victims into creators, laying the foundations for a more fulfilling future.
Find beauty in simplicity – in your daily interactions and experiences, really try to focus on the elements of these interactions that truly bring you deep and profound joy. This may come in the form of appreciating a friendly conversation with a barista when you buy your next coffee, observing a family spending time together, or starting a new book. By focusing on these interactions, we are redefining our idea of what beauty can be in the modern age, helping us at once to feel far deeper satisfaction from experiences that, without an appreciation for the philosophy of Wabi Sabi, may simply pass us by.
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- Gold, Taro, Living Wabi Sabi: The True Beauty of Your Life (2010).
- Juniper, Andrew, Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence (2011).
- Martin, Valentina, ‘4 Ways to Practice Wabi-Sabi, the Japanese Secret of Happiness’, in Wholebeing Institute, https://wholebeinginstitute.com/4-ways-wabi-sabi-happiness/.