Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Can Wabi-Sabi Save the World?

Illustration by Ed Young
Can what save the world? Wabi-sabi. You know…, that Japanese aesthetic sense kind of thing. Actually, I don’t believe I’d ever even heard of wabi-sabi until a couple of years ago when I was introduced to the concept by a children’s story about a cat named Wabi Sabi who was trying like the dickens to figure out the meaning of his name. Of course, the premise of the story relates precisely to the fact that the wabi-sabi aesthetic is quite difficult to define. We just sort of know it when we see it – as soon as we know what we’re looking for, that is! Ah, but are we going to let the difficulty of defining a concept stand in the way of us utilizing it to save the world? For the children, for the kittens, for Wabi Sabi’s sake we must try! Let’s begin with a few recent definitions put forth by various authors:

“Wabi-sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.” Leonard Koren (1994)

“[W]abi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered – and it reveres authenticity above all.” Robyn Griggs Lawrence (2004)

“Wabi Sabi is a way of seeing things that is at the heart of Japanese culture. It finds beauty and harmony in what is simple, imperfect, natural, modest, and mysterious. It can be a little dark, but it is also warm and comfortable. It may best be understood as a feeling, rather than an idea.” Mark Reibstein (2008)

Ah, but what is wabi and what is sabi? To be sure, the distinction between the two is not eminently clear. They even seem to be used synonymously at times. Indeed, Iwamoto (2008) points out that “in some ways, ‘Wabi’ is ‘Sabi’ and ‘Sabi is ‘Wabi’” (p. 186). Notwithstanding this inherent potential for confusion, it also seems to be the case that even a fumbling attempt at distinguishing the two will go a long way toward bringing clarity to their hyphenated union. Let’s begin with sabi.


Door in Egypt
A close reading of the definitions above reveals that ‘the beauty to be found in imperfection’ is the only feature common to them all. According to Suzuki (1959), “When this beauty of imperfection is accompanied by antiquity or primitive uncouthness, we have a glimpse of sabi” (p. 24). But sabi should not be construed as pertaining only to crafted objects. It might be present in nature as well. A gnarled tree growing out of a rocky outcropping whispers to us of sabi, as does an ancient door. For crafted objects to possess sabi, however, they must unpretentiously marry art with utility, all the while conveying a sense of seemingly effortless creation.

In addition to imperfect, primitive, and unpretentious, some other adjectives associated with sabi are: asymmetrical, austere, authentic, desiccated, desolate, incomplete, irregular, modest, obscure, rustic, simple, uncontrived, unconventional, worn, weathered, and withered. More than merely pertaining to physical appearances, however, sabi also encompasses the feelings that might be evoked or conveyed by an object or landscape – feelings such as serenity, tranquility, and solitude; or perhaps even chilliness, numbness, or loneliness. It is in this area, by the way, that sabi and wabi begin to become indistinguishable.

Bristlecone Pines in California


“Of all the terms in traditional aesthetics, wabi is the most difficult to define.” Varley (1984)

Cottage in France
Well, it would seem that our exploration of sabi went smoothly enough. Unfortunately, as as soon as we begin talking about wabi we find ourselves utilizing the same or very similar adjectives as we did for sabi! The key to distinguishing the two is to keep in mind that sabi generally refers to the objective realm – objects and the environment – whereas wabi generally refers to that which is subjective and personal (Iwamoto, 2008, pp. 185-186). For example, we might look at the weathered door up above and say to ourselves: “Ah, sabi!” On the other hand, it is the one who dwells within the shadows of that stone abode that is most likely to know the essence of wabi.  

The essence of wabi, according to Suzuki (1959), consists of “[not being] dependent on things worldly – wealth, power, and reputation – and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position” (p. 23). Suzuki refers to this essence as “poverty” – a rather unfortunate translation for us Westerners given the fact that we are generally hard-pressed to find any redeeming qualities in what we consider poverty. The poverty that is the essence of wabi, on the other hand, involves a shift in values or outlook – the embrace of a different aesthetic – without which the poverty that Suzuki refers to would merely amount to indigence and deprivation (p. 284).

Well Bucket in Moldova

Wabi, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony

Wabi is closely related to the practice of Zen. Through Zen meditation, and the subsequent realization of emptiness, aspects of the self such as wealth, power and reputation become diminished (or fall away altogether, for that matter) and the sufficiency of our present circumstances becomes realized – without regard to whether or how another might find those circumstances lacking. It is the cultivation of Zen practice, then, that leads to the embrace of a different aesthetic spoken of above, which in turn leads to the truest realization of wabi.

Raku Tea Bowl
Wabi is also intimately associated with the Japanese tea ceremony. Brought from China by Zen priests, by the mid-1400s the tea ceremony had grown into a popular practice and pastime of the Ashikaga aristocracy (Varley, 1984, p. 317; Suzuki, 1959, p. 272). The utensils used in the tea ceremony were originally imported from China and Korea. However, during the later years of the Muromachi period (1337-1573) a variation of the tea ceremony known as Wabi arose which eschewed the more refined utensils imported from China for those less refined wares from Korea. This aesthetic shift spurred the creation of new and uniquely Japanese pottery favoring “crude simplicity” over polished refinement (Munsterberg, 1962, 122), and tea ceremony proceedings that were “straightforward, considerate, and not arrogant” in contrast to the “gorgeous display” of the previous tea tradition (Iwamoto, 2008, p. 180). It should be noted here that this new development in the art of the tea ceremony can be referred to more specifically as wabicha – “tea (cha) based on the aesthetic of wabi” (Varley, 1984, p. 143). It should also be noted that the various utensils used in the tea ceremony are of a decidedly sabi nature.

Seeing Wabi-Sabi

Let’s put all of this together as we examine the image below. Oh, but first let me mention one more general distinction between sabi and wabi. Recall that I already mentioned that the former is generally more objective and the latter more subjective. Let me also mention here that sabi often relates to the temporal domain whereas wabi relates to the spatial domain (Koren, 1994)

Wind and Waves by Sesson

At first blush this appears to be a modest and humble scene – a fishing vessel and a spit of land upon which ocean waves are crashing. Likewise, the composition might seem somewhat unconventional at first – especially to the Western eye. The dense form in the lower left corner appears to be inadequately offset by a tiny and crudely sketched boat seeming to hover in a sea of emptiness. Rather than being unappealing, however, this asymmetry actually serves as an intriguing invitation to explore the scene more fully, to complete with the “minds eye” that which seems incomplete – in this case, the vastness of the ocean. Worthy of note here is the fact that the composition of this image might actually seem more conventional to a Japanese or Chinese viewer – one more familiar with the one-corner style of painting pioneered by Ma Yuan. If anything, though, the one-corner style is a convention of unconventional composition!

In addition to the humble nature of the subject matter, the apparent simplicity of its artistic execution, and the asymmetrical incompleteness of the composition (all sabi), we can almost feel the passage of time – the temporal aspect of sabi that I just referred to. Certainly this image has the feel of a period of time long past; but even if it were a rendition of a recent event we would still be able to sense the passage of time in the representation of the wind-shaped tree (is it dead, or has it merely lost its needles?) and in the sagging roof of the little cottage. You did notice the little cottage, didn’t you? Perhaps these evoke in you those feelings of sabi mentioned earlier: serenity, tranquility, solitude; or perhaps chilliness, numbness, or loneliness. Note how these words might also seem to relate to the “poverty” of wabi. What else do we see that might be wabi?

Certainly the most moving aspect of this scene for me is the reality that a fisher-person is separated from his or her home and loved ones during the height of a storm. The strength of the storm, by the way, is subtly but unquestionably conveyed by the angle at which the fishing vessel sits – as if it is rising or falling upon a massive passing wave. The separation spoken of is represented by the vast undrawn sea – the spatial nature of wabi. Does the cottage represent the fisher-person's destination – their safe refuge? Is a loved one there, or are the cottage-dweller and the fisher-person absolute strangers to each other? The story is incomplete.

We might be concerned for the safety of the fisher-person. We might be concerned for the cottage-dweller, for that matter! Perhaps the storm will grow strong enough to totally inundate that little spit of land. And, yet, there seems to be a feeling of sufficiency to this scene. The sagging cottage roof will withstand the raging winds. The fisher-person will use his or her skills and knowledge of the sea in order to fish another day. In the face of annihilation there is contentment; there is this moment, and it is enough. This is wabi.   

Can Wabi-Sabi Save the World?

So, can wabi-sabi save the world? In this age of discontent, in this age of disposable everything, in this age in which material wealth seems to be the measure of all things, can we come to know the sufficiency of a mended coat, a repaired piece of pottery, or the enjoyment of a cup of tea with friends in lieu of a night out on the town or sitting in front of the television?

African Village
We are awash in stuff – stuff to make us feel good, stuff to fill our empty places, stuff to ease our workload, stuff to give us a workout, stuff to fill the quiet spaces, stuff to facilitate peace and quiet, stuff to show others the uniqueness of “who we are”, stuff to be like everyone else, stuff to entertain us. We collect stuff until such time as we begin to chafe under its weight and clutter, and then we sell it or give it or throw it away – thereby making way for the acquisition of new stuff. Yes, it is new stuff that is most enticing to us. New stuff makes life easier than it was before, and with our newfound extra time we are able to do more, enjoy more, and have more. Thus, we need more stuff.

I’ve already written about Voluntary Simplicity – the philosophy of choosing to have fewer things in order to make room for a richer experience of life. I’ve also coined my own expression, Aspirational Contentment, in order to convey the sense that contentment is an ideal that we might successfully work towards. However, I am now seeing with fresh eyes how completely congruent Aspirational Contentment is with the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic. I’ll say more about this in my next post. For now, though, I hope I’ve at least provided a glimpse – food for thought, perhaps – as to how Wabi-Sabi might, indeed, save the world.

Earthrise as seen from Apollo 10

P.S. My next posting will probably not be for a couple of weeks. I’ll be away from technology for a spell. However, I do hope to be filled with a sense of rich sufficiency all the while. I hope that life will be likewise for all of you! As always, thank you for reading.      


Iwamoto, H, (2008). Japanese aesthetic sense through Zen. The World Sacred Text Publishing Association, Tokyo.

Koren, L. (1994). Wabi-Sabi: For artists, designers, poets & philosophers. Stone Bridge Press.

Lawrence, R. G. (2004). The wabi-sabi house: The Japanese art of imperfect beauty. Published by Clarkson Potter. Excerpt accessed June 12, 2012 via: and

Munsterberg, H. (1962). The arts of Japan – An illustrated history. Charles E. Tuttle Company.

Reibstein, M., Young, E. (2008). Wabi Sabi. Little, Brown and Company. Hachette Book Group, USA.

Suzuki, D. T. (1959). Zen and Japanese culture. Published by MJF Books by arrangement with Princeton University Press.

Varley, H. P. (1984). Japanese culture: Third edition. University of Hawaii Press.

Image Credits

Wabi Sabi the cat, illustrated by Ed Young for Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein.

The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest of the Inyo National Forest by Jim Gordon via:

Door in the ruins of an abandoned city outside Dakhla oasis, Egypt, by Crashsystems via:

Cottage with stone roof at the cabanes du Breuil, Saint-André-d'Allas, France, by Jochen Jahnke via:

Well Bucket in Moldova by Zserghei via:

Raku ware from the collection of the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, via:

Wind and Waves, ink and colour on paper by Sesson via:

African Village by Africa via:

Apollo 10 view of the Earthrise by NASA via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Sometimes, it's nice to know that someone has similar feeling about wabi sabi as mine.
    Well done ! You spoke my thought.

  2. Thank you for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed the post.