“Western beauty is radiance, majesty, grandness and broadness. In comparison, Eastern beauty is desolateness. Humility. Hidden beauty.” So says kendo sensei Shozo Kato in a video by The Avant/Garde Diaries. “Desolateness” is used in the subtitles when the Japanese Kato actually uses is wabi-sabi 侘わび 寂さび.
There’s obviously more to this concept. In his book, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, Leonard Koren describes it as occupying “roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic [that is, the philosophy of beauty] values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West.”
All sorts of attempts have been made to encapsulate the feeling: “rustic,” “desolateness,” or “acceptance of transience and imperfection.” Unfortunately, like many philosophical concepts, wabi-sabi cannot be easily explained or translated. But that’s no reason to give up. It is a significant concept in Japanese culture, and one that can be appreciated everywhere.
But before we continue, it should be noted this philosophy doesn’t suit attempts to be distilled or understood. So remember the statements made are based on personal thought and opinion, be that of others or my own.
Rather than a concrete “wabi-sabi definition,” I hope to give a broad-strokes, consciously incomplete introduction. To promise anything else wouldn’t fit with a philosophy that emphasizes incompleteness and imperfection.
LAUGHING IN THE FACE OF UNTRANSLATABILITY
Just because the concept is difficult to understand, there’s no reason we can’t look at the words’ changing meanings to get a foothold. Let’s start with wabi 侘わび.
Originally, wabi’s main feeling was of loneliness. The Japanese have a knack for thinking up words that describe specific feelings, and this is one of them. What distinguishes wabi from standard loneliness is this feeling comes from living in nature, far away from society. Imagine a sad, solitary hermit, and you’re on the right track. A hermit’s life even used to be called wabizumai 侘わび 住ずまい.
Sabi 寂さび, on the other hand, is a bit simpler, It has been described as “chill,” “lean,” or “withered.” It shares a pronunciation with 錆さび (to rust), and this connection with degradation is not coincidental. The WaniKani elite (Level 56, to be precise) will recognize the kanji from sabishii 寂さしい (lonely).
In the 14th Century, these connotations began to change. The hermit was no longer a sad outcast, but a wise man freed from the trappings of an increasingly decorated and artificial Japanese society. The words drifted closer together until they became interchangeable or, more commonly, combined. Wabi-sabi began to imply rustic simplicity in a positive light, or the grace that comes with age and use.
That’s not to say they are always combined. There are many who argue the two words should not be combined. They feel the combination creates a snappy phrase, diluting the separate meaning of each.
It’s worth noting that in earlier thoughts on this aesthetic, wabi is spoken of much more, and tends to be the base for a lot of related words, like wabichadō 侘茶道わびちゃどう (the wabi-sabi style of tea ceremony).
To my mind this emphasizes the humility aspect. This is a philosophy for people, rather than just a style of objects. The two coming together can be seen as a hint that the philosophy (wabi) can be better explored, described, and understood by using the aesthetic (sabi).
BASIC CONCEPTS OF WABI-SABI
he nature of philosophical teaching means concepts like wabi-sabi were almost never written down. Instead they are communicated personally from master to student indirectly. The reasoning behind the master’s riddles is to guide students to their own understanding, rather than nailing down a concept that is naturally fluid. That hasn’t stopped people from trying, though. And we can learn a lot by reading other people’s attempted definitions.
Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.
An active aesthetical appreciation of poverty … To be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau, and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.
In physical objects you can expect the use of natural materials in a rustic style. Imperfections are not from sloppiness but the nature of the materials and process, or the use of the object itself. Objects will be personal, humble, and functional. As a worldview, attention is paid to transience, harmony with nature, and attention to the tiniest of details.
To get further insight, I interviewed Prof. Timon Screech of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He also underscored the idea of wabi-sabi being against what was considered mainstream. He used Marie Antoinette as a counter-example:
“She lived in Versailles and would occasionally pretend to be a shepherd. But whereas in Western thought that’s a very artificial, false and even irresponsible thing to do, in Japanese thought it’s a very good thing to distance yourself from all the finery of the court and disappear into a self-consciously rustic space.”
More than anything he stresses this philosophy is a deliberate choice. The samurai and wealthy merchants had the option to drape gold over everything (sometimes literally). But they chose to use simple tools and architecture instead.
A criticism made toward Westerners trying to understand wabi-sabi is they focus too much on the visual aspect. We saw earlier that the wabi side is used more. And I think this emphasizes the philosophical nature of the concept. Tim Wong and Akiko Hirano quote Kakuzo Okakura in The Book of Tea:
Translation…can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade,—all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of color or design.
They argue that trying to define the philosophy in physical terms “is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color.” And I’m inclined to agree with them.
HISTORY OF WABI-SABI: DOWN TO A T(EA)?
When looking for a genesis of wabi-sabi, the best place to look is tea ceremony. And the man who most infused the philosophy and aesthetic into tea ceremony is Zen monk Murata Shukō (or Jukō), who lived from 1423-1502.
In Shukō’s time, the consumption of tea mostly involved the ruling class and detailed Chinese utensils (called karamono 唐物からもの). While the ruling classes liked to show off their wealth, and drink tea looking at the full moon, Shukō consciously used simple, Japanese-made goods like Shigaraki and Bizen pottery. He wanted students to appreciate the half moon, or one covered by clouds.
He didn’t use simple utensils exclusively though. And his attitude was more of coexistence than replacement of extravagant ceramics. Nevertheless, he is sometimes credited as the originator of the wabi-cha 侘わび 茶ちゃ style of tea ceremony, which is marked by the use of these simple utensils.
Flash forward a century to Sen no Rikyū (1522-91). This man is arguably the single most important influence on the tea ceremony, and the philosophy. Like Shukō, he was trained in Zen. But unlike Shukō, he took no prisoners when wabi-sabifying the tea ceremony.
Despite first serving Oda Nobunaga (who started the unification of Japan), and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi (who finished it), he used tiny, hermitage-like rooms called sōan with entrances which required guests to remove their swords and crawl inside. In one, he compressed the size down to just two tatami mats (approx. 39 sq. ft./3.6 m2).
Even the movements used to make and serve tea were stripped down to be as efficient as possible, removing the opportunity for a host to be too extravagant or fussy. An insistence on simple implements and efficient movement pushed wabi-sabi ideals into the spotlight.
But it’s a risky business to force warlords to use lumpy cups and cramped spaces for their elegant ritual expressions. Hideyoshi wanted a tea-room covered in gold leaf and other extravagance. Rikyū would be damned if that were to happen.
It also didn’t help that Hideyoshi came from a peasant background. Being told to use peasant utensils didn’t sit well with him. So, at the age of seventy, Rikyū was ordered to commit seppuku.
Tea ceremony may be the primary method of understanding wabi-sabi, but Prof. Screech also notes aesthetics come in many forms.
“For example,” he says, “Japan always had the option of painting in bright colors, which was regarded as ‘the Japanese way to paint,’ or in black and white, which was regarded as ‘the Chinese way to paint.’ Tea rooms would often have ‘Chinese style’ paintings hanging up, which is all part of this notion of fleeing from standard worldly pursuits. The Chinese had that concept in a sense, so the Japanese borrowed it and it became part of wabi-sabi.”
Prof. Screech also notes the intense stratification of Japanese society around this time. There was a merchant class with money, but no power, and who weren’t allowed to take part in elite activities. “Therefore, they tended to opt for escapist activities like ukiyo-e1 and wabi-sabi.”
The interesting thing here is these merchants often wouldn’t have been allowed to indulge in the ostentatious decorations or rituals that the ruling classes displayed. By adopting these ideas they were able to imply noble birth by imitating the “escaping the world” part, even though they didn’t have the same world to escape from.
“The merchant class was enormous with all sorts of people in it, but when so many are excluded from courtly activities, it can sometimes be easier to say ‘to hell with the whole lot, it’s all meaningless anyway’ and sit in a little hut to meditate,” says Screech.