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The Unexpected Beauty of Wabi-Sabi

Updated on November 28, 2009


As a writer and contemplative person, I enjoy concepts that refocus my attention in new and surprising ways. When we reach midlife, there's a budding awareness that the pursuit of more, the abundant learning of facts, and the relentless jockeying for position isn't as satisfying anymore. So, we start looking internally, and we start recognizing distinctions that reshape our view of what we've grown accustomed to in our world.

For example, when I first started noticing art as an adult, I remember I was most drawn to precision - photographic art, or paintings that mirrored their subject in their closeness to how it actually looked. Little by little, my tastes moved from realism into impressionism, to expressionism, and to abstract - works that are a creation of another mind, another soul that interpret the subject or thought pattern of its creator onto canvas or sculpture. Pieces that make me stop and contemplate, make observations and distinctions that enhance my perspective and understanding of another - our similarities and differences. Or pieces that just tap into some unexplainable feeling inside of me that wants to feel the energy of the artwork, and doesn't need explanation.

One of those concepts is the Japanese art of imperfection, known as Wabi-Sabi. Wabi-sabi is the observation and noticing of aesthetic beauty in simple everyday things, particularly through the natural processes of time and aging - like the gnarled branches of a tree, a weathered chair, a lonely leaf, a rusting car, the crumbled facade of an old building. It evokes words such as authenticity, simplicity, modesty, stillness, reverence, timelessness, asymmetry. The closest English word is likely "rustic", though that doesn't fully capture it.

Describing chocolate...

I'm not entirely certain what draws me to the unexplainable - at least in words.  Wabi-Sabi is one of those. A friend of mine who is of Japanese ancestry tells me she has difficulty fully articulating it, and says it can also apply to a way at looking at one's own life - so it's not just focused on things. It has been described as "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."

I love the chocolate analogy. It reminds me in a scene in the movie "City of Angels" where Nicholas Cage's character - who is an angel, asks Meg Ryan's character - a person, how a bosque pear tastes. She says, "you've never tasted a pear?" And he says, "I want to know how it tastes to you."

Another explanation of Wabi-Sabi is “accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death… It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind.” It is the celebration of the basic, and unique, the imperfect. The translation of the Japanese term wabi is "lonely", which means: "a taste for the simple and the quiet" and incorporates rustic beauty, such as patterns found in straw, bamboo, clay, or stone. It refers to both that which is made by nature and that which is made by man. Sabi refers to the patina of age, the concept that changes due to use may make an object more beautiful and valuable. This incorporates an appreciation of the cycles of life and careful, artful mending of damage. The person credited with first combining the words wabi and sabi into a phrase is the poet Matsuo Bashō. Bashō is most famous for inventing the haiku poetry form.

Here are some examples of Wabi-Sabi styles, and here is an example of something described as a Wabi-Sabi retreat.

For the remainder of your understanding of this interesting concept, just click through the pictures on this hub and feel what it means....

~ G

Wisdom of the Tao

At birth you are supple and soft.
At death you are stiff and hard.
Grass and trees are pliant and tender when living,
but they are dry and brittle when dead.
Therefore, the stiff and hard are attendants of death,
the supple and soft are attendants of life.

Thus, the hard weapon will be broken.
The mighty tree will invite the axe.

Therefore, the hard and mighty belong below;
the yielding and gentle belong above.

- The Tao Te Ching, Verse 76


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    • Gerg profile image

      Gerg 6 years ago from California

      Hyphenbird - thank you for your comment and I'm happy to hear you've come to value these qualities. I appreciate your encouraging words.

    • Hyphenbird profile image

      Brenda Barnes 6 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

      Hi Gerg. The Wabi-Sabi life brings great beauty and peace. As I get older, I say I am becoming Wabi. Patina, quality, simple beauty is ageless and timeless. I enjoyed your Wabi-Sabi article very much, Thank you.

    • Gerg profile image

      Gerg 7 years ago from California

      Thank you, JSParker - I just went and read yours. Beautifully done! This is actually a pretty fascinating topic, almost contrary to the nature of our "now" culture. I appreciate your comment and validation! Now, I'm going to go and comment on yours:

    • JSParker profile image

      JSParker 7 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      I am enchanted by your hub. I wrote a hub on Wabi Sabi which describes how I came to it through my sister. She is the one who found your hub and shared it with me. I think I like yours better than mine. I will put a link to yours on my hub. Your photos are extraordinary, but even without them, your writing is excellent. Bravo! Voted Up! Awesome! and Fanned you "Good Writer".

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 8 years ago from the short journey

      Definitely, there is much to appreciate in being in a place in time where we can take in beauty and have a time of quiet reflection.

      One of my favorite poets wrote, "In Acceptance Lieth Peace."

    • Gerg profile image

      Gerg 8 years ago from California

      It's a perceptual difference. I see meaning in things that slow my mind from trying to churn and create to one that just takes in, accepts what is. In that quiet reflection - initiated by that appreciation, I find meaning.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 8 years ago from the short journey

      I don't see meaning of our world, but the concept has an undeniable beauty that draws us to the wonders of creation.

    • Gerg profile image

      Gerg 8 years ago from California

      I agree, RTalloni - I appreciate concepts like this that give us greater distinctions of the beauty and meaning of our world. Thanks for commenting!


    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 8 years ago from the short journey

      Wabi-Sabi is a beautiful concept...real, without need of a facade, and uncomplicated is my impression.

    • Gerg profile image

      Gerg 8 years ago from California

      Glad I could enlighten you to wabi-sabi, Carmen! Thanks for your comment.

    • Carmen Borthwick profile image

      Carmen Borthwick 8 years ago from Maple Ridge, B.C.

      Hmmm, had never heard wabi-sabi till now. Interesting, I'll have to revisit my pics and separate the wabi-sabi to their own file. Very interesting, thanks Gerg.

    • Gerg profile image

      Gerg 8 years ago from California

      Thanks MTG!

    • Midtown Girl profile image

      Midtown Girl 8 years ago from Right where I want to be!

      Quite introspective. Your explanation and translation of Wabi-Sabi particularly struck me. In our consumerism and youth driven culture, this concept teaches us a better way to enjoy the circle of things and in ourselves.

      Thank you for enlightening us with another method to understanding the profoundness of this world we inhabit.

    • Gerg profile image

      Gerg 8 years ago from California

      Pam - glad I could introduce you. A Japanese friend introduced me, with a couple of books. I love the concept, and tried not to write too much about it, since it's really indescribable.

      Dad - that is at Bodie State Park in the eastern Sierras just north of Mono Lake - the old ghost town that I took the kids to a couple of years ago: check out A very Wabi-Sabi place!

    • Jackwms profile image

      Jackwms 8 years ago

      I guess I hadn't signed in before the first comment. Anyway, the pictures were great. Where in the world did you get the photo of the old truck at the shell gasoline station?

    • profile image

      Jackwms 8 years ago

      WOnderful hub Greg. And, I absolutely love the pictures.

    • profile image

      pgrundy 8 years ago

      I never heard of wabi sabi until your hub. Thank you. What a beautiful perspective this is. I will definitely find out more, and thank you also for the wonderful photos.


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