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Wabi Sabi, Japanese Philosophy of Authenticity

Updated on June 6, 2012
Aged patina of an old platter illustrates Wabi Sabi.
Aged patina of an old platter illustrates Wabi Sabi. | Source

Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.

Wabi Sabi is the ancient Japanese wisdom of finding beauty in imperfection and simplicity in nature, of accepting the natural cycles of growth, decay, and death. Enjoying the simple, natural, and uncluttered, Wabi Sabi reveres authenticity above all. It celebrates cracks, chips, and other marks of time, weather, and use. Once we see the beauty in such “deficiencies”, we can learn to embrace the flaws—the wrinkles, rust, and frayed edges, and all the imperfections in our lives.

Wait! Don’t let the philosophical nature

of this topic keep you from reading about something that can immeasurably enrich your life right now. Wabi Sabi, art of the authentic, natural, and imperfect, can bring joy and meaning—and yes, happiness—to our everyday lives. There’s more to this…and as you peel away the layers of meaning, you will find more that Wabi Sabi can give to your life right now.

Rusty piece of tin ceiling.
Rusty piece of tin ceiling. | Source

So what do I know about it?

Wabi Sabi is the beauty of aged imperfection. What could I, a shopping center manager, spending my days in stores with brand-new things, with the smell of fresh thread and polished floors and shiny windows, what could I know about Wabi Sabi, the most mellow and ageless art of Japanese simplicity that celebrates the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete?

I was astonished when my sister showed me the cracked, crazed, and yellowed china plate and said, “Isn’t it lovely?” Then her hand lovingly, gently touched the piece of worn and slightly tattered old lace. And finally she showed me a curling, rusting fragment of tin ceiling. ”It’s so beautiful,” she said.

This was a different idea to me. The me who liked the perfectly installed and displayed brand-new store.

It took a while, but I finally “got it”.

Fragments and Imperfections

She called her business “Fragments and Imperfections”. She had an eye for beauty in the used, ruined, and discarded. She’d pick it out of the junk of a garage sale, the confusion of the flea market, or the trash piled curbside. She rescued it from discard, moved it to her artistically displayed store, and suddenly it became a desirable object of beauty. And people wanted to buy it!

We only had the somehow unsatisfying words, “Shabby Chic”, as a commercial description of her merchandise. But then I saw a display at the Phoenix Art Museum called Wabi Sabi, and voila! the connection was made. And thus began my understanding of Wabi Sabi.

Valuing, not avoiding, the process of decay, loving things that show passage of time, accepting what is slightly flawed. The display at the Phoenix Art Museum was made up of such things. Now I understood better my sister’s deep appreciation for the cracked plate, the doll with tattered clothing, the deglazing mirror. The delicate decaying, fading beauty…there was a rich history—of love, time, memory, and of human stories—contained in these well-used things.

Stained, old tea balls.
Stained, old tea balls. | Source

Where is Wabi Sabi?

It’s easier to see Wabi Side in things. Although Wabi Sabi is an intangible appreciation and awareness of the impermanent, imperfect, and incomplete nature of existence, it is easier to grasp with things such as old photos, heirloom Christmas ornaments, a rusty metal gate, a weathered barn.

Wabi

This part is spiritual essence of tranquility, simplicity, and humble freedom.


Sabi

This has to do with time passage—weathering, tarnish, rusting, patina.

It is about beauty that comes with age. (You can’t buy these things new in a shopping center.)


How to Be Happy

So what does Wabi Sabi tell us about how to live? Developed from Zen Buddhism, Wabi Sabi is a path to enlightenment. It is a practice, a lifestyle of living modestly, simply being satisfied with what is.

People who live a Wabi Sabi life come to a gentle acceptance of the imperfection in their lives. They accept the mistakes, the disappointment, the broken promises. And even eventually, if lucky to live long enough, they accept the liver spots, the gray hair, the wrinkles. They see the beauty even there. They embrace it all.

Finally, it is about us. We are all imperfect. We are all flawed. Being human, we strive to live up to our expectations. Then we fall short. We make mistakes. No one is perfect. We are as we are.

We wish our circumstances were different—a better job, more money, a different partner, fewer problems. But this is our real life. It is what it is. And yet, nothing is permanent. This is just what’s so.

Now, go and be happy.

Clock gears and other pieces repurposed into artwork.
Clock gears and other pieces repurposed into artwork. | Source
Timeless seashore.
Timeless seashore. | Source
Rusty old keyholes.
Rusty old keyholes. | Source
Decayed yucca plant.
Decayed yucca plant. | Source

More examples of Wabi Sabi:

THINGS

  • Amish quilts
  • Old books, eyeglasses, watches
  • Rusty keys, hardware, and tools
  • Cracked Liberty Bell
  • Beat-up, used furniture
  • Worn-out pair of jeans
  • An old stone house
  • Yellowed postcards
  • A doll with her arms loved off

SOUNDS

  • Foghorn
  • Mourning dove
  • Loon out on a lake
  • Gong and its fading tone

NATURE

  • Beams of sunlight in a gray day
  • Fallen petals of peonies
  • Rainbows
  • Snow, rain, hail

DAILY LIFE

  • Handwritten note in the mailbox
  • Japanese tea ceremony
  • Gardening

INNER LIFE

  • Sacred imagination
  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Seeing beauty in the impermanent
  • Practice making the unwanted wanted

QUALITIES

  • Asymmetrical
  • Incomplete, (such as knowledge always is)
  • Impermanence
  • Imperfect
  • Flawed
  • Authentic

A piece of gnarly tree bark.
A piece of gnarly tree bark. | Source

Artists With Wabi Sabi Sensibilities

Andy Goldsworth See his artwork at http://www.morning-earth.org/artistnaturalists/an_goldsworthy.html

Jane Hirshfield Read her poems at http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/563


Comments

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    • Karmallama profile image

      Doreen Lucky 

      4 years ago from St. Paul, minnesota

      I love it! To quote you "simply being satisfied with what is." Such a simple yet extremely complex idea. I only hope to achieve such success with inner peace. Thank you for the hub!

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Gerg, what a lovely comment...reading it was such a pleasure. I was so delighted to discover your article on Wabi Sabi which is beautifully written with delightful photos and examples. I've added a link to it above. Best wishes!

    • Gerg profile image

      Gerg 

      7 years ago from California

      JSParker: I'm happy to read a like-minded writer and connoisseur of this topic. You write well and convey the subject eloquently. Thanks for sharing!

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Brett, I love your comment! That is fascinating, your experience in Thailand...it makes me want to go there now. I will share this new mantra, 'Sabai Sabai' with friends and practice it myself. It's quite beautiful. So peaceful. Thank you so much.

    • Brett.Tesol profile image

      Brett Caulton 

      7 years ago from Thailand

      Wonderfully written hub!

      I think that Thai culture is connected to this in many ways. You often hear 'Sabai Sabai' echoing around you, as locals use it as a kind of 'take it easy' approach to life. They just accept life for what it is and enjoy every minute! I have learned a lot from them.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Phil, thanks for reading. My discovery of Wabi Sabi was such a delightful experience and I, too, have come to see how it is about the natural processes in life. Regards.

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 

      7 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      It is nice to learn the name of something that I've thought about as being an integral part of life. Thanks for the educational hub.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Savoir faire, wow, I'm almost speechless, you have said such moving things. I agree, Wabi Sabi seems like a gentle blessing for us when we must confront issues such as growing older that are difficult to accept. You mention haiku poetry, and I realize how perfectly it aligns with the Wabi Sabi sensibility. Yes, let us be forgiving of ourselves and others. If we all practiced that, imagine what a wonderful world it could be.

      I thank YOU for your gracious compliments and deep reading of the topic. Highest regards, JSP

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Welcome, purple dreams. I see that you and I are both newbies to Hub Pages. Thanks so much for stopping by. It's great to hear from you. Since - as you said - your goal is to live simply and more sustainably, I can certainly see the appeal of Wabi Sabi to your life. It's a perfect fit for those goals and for one who loves philosophy.

      Best wishes to you and good luck with your writing career.

    • profile image

      purple dreams 

      7 years ago

      Lovely article. Wabi sabi really is a great philosophy that can be applied, as you've shown, to so many aspects of life.

    • profile image

      savoir faire 

      7 years ago

      I was touched by this article. I loved the pictures. I think you covered this philosophy succinctly, but with enough detail to make it clear and understandable. This article will help me attend to nature more carefully, and enjoy its seasonal changes on a deeper level. Your article has depth and good advice for us as we pass through time. I will read haiku poems today, and be forgiving of myself. I plan to return to your article often, for the inspiration that comes from reading your Hub. Thank you.

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Hello, L Arbor, nice to hear from you! Ah, yes, I think it will require practice to remember this philosophy when I most need it, as when contemplating weeds as you mention and other such. I like it best applied to truly beautiful old things that are well preserved and to an inner calm and acceptance.

    • profile image

      L Arbor 

      7 years ago

      Very interesting. The whole idea in calming to me, when I look in the mirror, or at my weeds, I can just tell myself, "Wabi Sabi".

    • JSParker profile imageAUTHOR

      JSParker 

      7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      Wonderful! Thank you so much for your comment! What more could a writer wish for?

      I appreciate the tip on Lao Tzu and I will check it out.

      Best regards! ~JSP

    • profile image

      paulgc 

      7 years ago

      As I love anything to do with Japanese and Chinese philosophy I found your article to be absolutely enlightening. You have written a very informative and thoroughly enjoyable hub, well done.

      I have read "Tao te ching" by Lao Tzu and found his philosophy to be interesting, you may find it useful too.

      Great hub, thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      fragmentlp 

      7 years ago

      Oh! This takes my breath away, dear sister. It is so beautifully, lovingly assembled.

    • profile image

      Lynn Arbor 

      7 years ago

      Joy, this is so interesting. I find the whole idea of Wabi-Sabi very calming.

    • profile image

      2bani t 

      7 years ago

      you're such a classy woman, I'm proud to call you friend. the combination of sisters enhances each and all. the list, ahhh, what a conclusion!

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