Envisioning A Wabi-Sabi World

In my previous post, Can Wabi-Sabi Save The World?, I explored the Japanese aesthetic known as wabi-sabi in addition to briefly sketching out my rationale for pondering whether it might actually “save the world.” I’ll continue in that vein in this post, to the point where (I hope) you’ll be willing to agree that there’s at least some cause for someone to respond to that question with a great big emphatic “Yes!” First, though, let me review some of the pertinent aspects of wabi-sabi that relate to the point that I’m trying to convey. Toward that end I’ll try my hand at composing a concise and reasonably accurate definition of wabi-sabi:

Wabi-sabi is the traditionally Japanese aesthetic encompassing the appreciation of things that are simple, rustic, weathered, flawed, and natural in such a way that their very utilitarian ordinariness is elevated to the realm of artistic beauty. The truest appreciation of wabi-sabi requires the relinquishment (emptying out) of preconceived notions regarding the static nature of things and individuals. This emptying out on the part of the perceiver allows him or her to fully recognize the sufficiency and beauty of even that which is most humble or austere.

Urban Farming in Chicago

At the end of the last post I remarked on how awash in stuff we are – very little of which is actually necessary for our survival. It would be nice if the only downside of having all of this stuff was the cluttering up of our lives. Unfortunately, though, the consumption of all of the lakes full of fossil fuel required to manufacture this unnecessary stuff, ship it to us, maintain it once it’s in our possession, and then dispose of it once we’ve used it up has the earth’s atmosphere so laden with carbon dioxide that it jeopardizes our very survival and that of all living beings. Now, the future that you might be imagining will depend upon your worldview, your faith in the advancement of technology, and your willingness and ability to comprehend the magnitude of the problem. Some people are, of course, still in denial with respect to the reality of climate change. Others think that the solution merely requires that we use renewable energy to power our materialistic lifestyle. Still others contemplate our utilization of elaborate carbon sequestration and storage processes that will allow us to maintain our current levels of consumption even as the world’s population grows higher and higher. Others, like me, think that our response to the reality of climate change will require all of our technological savvy as well as our willingness to live lives that are much less materialistic – less dependent on stuff. And that is where wabi-sabi comes in.

At the core of the wabi-sabi aesthetic resides a spiritual relationship between us and our stuff. Consider the Japanese tea ceremony, for instance, in which the mental state of the participants – their spiritual development, if you will – is of utmost importance with respect to the ritualistic drinking of tea. The kettle, tea bowl, whisk, and cups are not merely objects to be utilized in order to complete the task of getting tea to our lips. Rather, these objects are to be appreciated in their own right as well as for the integral roles that they play in the totality of all that the tea ceremony encompasses, i.e. life itself. In other words, the appreciation of wabi-sabi requires that the subject/object relationship become more intimate. Of course, such intimacy is a function of the aforementioned emptying out of the perceiver.

Now, you might be wondering how this subject/object intimacy differs from, for instance, the subject/object intimacy enjoyed by someone who really loves their new luxury automobile – someone whose identity is closely intertwined with the experience of driving and being seen driving such a vehicle, possessing and being known as someone affluent enough to possess such a vehicle. The vehicle, the object, is not merely appreciated for the utility of the transportation that it provides. It is appreciated within the context of a complex subject/object relationship. So, how is this subject/object intimacy different from that inherent in the appreciation of wabi-sabi as discussed above? 

Well, for one, a new luxury automobile generally does not possess those very sabi qualities of being simple, rustic, weathered, flawed, and natural. That much is patently obvious. More to the point, however, is the fact that its appreciation is not generally related to the emptying out of the perceiver – the nature of their poverty, to use the very easily misunderstood word that Suzuki (1959) uses. Rather, the appreciation of a fine automobile is quite often the result of the subject overlaying the object with ideas and concepts related to the affluence, status, and power that the object might represent. Overlaying objects with meaning such as this, meaning that is ultimately rooted in the ego of the subject, is the antithesis of the emptying out that has been referred to – it is the antithesis of the authenticity that must be in existence for something to be considered wabi-sabi.

Suzuki (1959) conveys a fun story related to authenticity. He tells of Rikyu and his son-in-law attending the first tea party of the winter season. As they approach the gate entering into the court the son-in-law remarks how very sabi it is, ancient and weathered so. Rikyu replies:

This is far from savoring sabi, my son; it is on the contrary a most expensive piece of work. Look here closely. Such a door as this is not to be found in this vicinity. It must have come from a remote mountain temple far away from the human world. Think of the amount of labor to bring it here, for which the master must have paid dearly. If he had understood what genuine sabi is, he would have searched for a suitable door ready-made or made to order among the neighboring dealers, and would have had it pieced together with an old board found about his premises. Then the door fixed here would certainly savor of wabi. The taste shown here is not a genuine one. (p.321)

Thankfully, we see some movement in the direction of authenticity these days. In greater numbers people are eschewing highly processed foods in lieu of more basic and nutritious ones. Many have begun to grow their own food – perhaps the most authentic act that one can engage in. More frequently, as well, we hear people speak of shopping at second-hand stores or garage sales, of saying no to the latest fashion trends for the sake of purchasing more timeless articles of clothing instead. We see simplicity and authenticity becoming valued in the realm of product design as well. Newly manufactured cruiser-style bicycles, for instance, appeal to our yearning for the simplicity and authenticity of yesteryear. You might also recall that during the depths of our latest recession it was reported that even the wealthy were foregoing the ostentatious purchase of luxury items so as to not call attention to themselves as others went without. Stories like these are encouraging to me in that they point to the possibility of a more community-focused society. Oh, and do you remember the Hummer! Perhaps the demise of this behemoth of an automobile might be considered in light of an overall shift toward greater authenticity. After all, has any automobile in history been overlaid with meaning so firmly rooted in the ego as the Hummer?

Remember These? Remember Why We Bought Them?

Okay, am I still a bit too vague about how wabi-sabi can save the world? Thank you for the invitation to be more specific! Let me now conjure up a vision of a wabi-sabi world!

Envisioning A Wabi-Sabi World

I awaken as the sound of the rooster crowing down the lane gradually penetrates my peaceful slumber. My eyes blink open and focus on the well-worn chest of drawers that’s been handed down from family member to family member over the years. It’s solid cherry – a wood that’s difficult to find these days now that most furniture is crafted from managed-forest pine. Way back when, such a chest would likely hold little more than socks and underwear, but it now holds nearly all of the clothing I own. Thankfully, things aren’t like they were in the old days when everyone judged everyone else by the manner of their dress. Everything is less formal now – less structured around the keeping up of appearances. It’s even hard to tell the bankers from the farmers these days!

I turn over to face the rest of the room. The morning light filtering in through the front windows softly illuminates my sparsely furnished studio apartment. Bookshelves made from repurposed lumber line the wall beside the rustic dining table that also doubles as a desk. An old couch that I’ve recently reupholstered sits in front of the windows with a coffee table fashioned from a slab of salvaged granite countertop positioned in front of it. I suppose I don’t really have that much stuff compared to what I used to own. To tell you the truth, though, I don’t miss any of it. I’ve grown to enjoy these new feelings of spaciousness and simplicity. And what I do have I really use and enjoy – things that seem to have a character all of their own.

You might be surprised to learn that I live in a big city. With the exception of the rooster, though, and the occasional bleating of the goats down the lane, it’s rather quiet here. Motorized traffic has been routed one street over in order to foster pedestrian traffic and the development of green space. Sure, people have to walk a little bit further from their parking spots to their apartments, but the exercise does us all good. Besides, few people even own cars anymore. Usually people just rent one for a day or so if they want to go out into the country, for instance, where mass transit doesn’t reach. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the zoning ordinances have been revised in order to allow appropriate amounts of urban farming. It was kind of a no-brainer given the fact that the death of the old fossil-fuel industries left so much brownfield land to be reclaimed. In fact, such land reclamation has become a major part of our economy these days. People seem to like the results, too.  The mix of buildings and green spaces helps to decrease the heat-island effect even as it improves our overall mood; not to mention the fact that having food grown so close to home is healthier in terms of freshness and requires less energy to package and ship.

I get up and get some grain simmering in an old copper kettle. Yes, a hot breakfast will use up a fair share of my stored solar energy, but that’s okay. It looks like it’ll be a sunny day and there’ll be plenty of time for it to recharge while I’m away at work. And if it turns out that there’s not enough to take care of my evening needs, then I’ll just take a cold shower to make up for it. While I’m waiting for my breakfast to cook I check to see what’s new on the web. Oh, perhaps you were thinking that we’d stepped backwards in time! No, we’re probably more connected than ever before. The fact of the matter is that people are more productively employed now than in a long, long time due to the more realistic mix of low-tech and high-tech jobs, and that has made it so that more people can own computers and such than ever before.

In the old days our economy was beholden to the advance of technology. Now things are much more in line with our needs and the realities of the workforce. Not everybody can be a computer engineer, after all, nor does everybody want to be one! Sure, things are relatively more expensive now that we utilize more labor-intensive technology. But we need less stuff, we want less stuff than we did in the past, and the greater prevalence of meaningful, productive employment has greatly increased the overall health of society by decreasing crime and mental illness and addiction and so forth.

Yes, with the exception of our solar and information-related technology, most of what we own is decidedly low-tech. I used to be fascinated when I’d hear stories of ingenious Vietnamese people fashioning the aluminum remains of exploded ordnances into cooking pots, but now we have that sort of thing going on right down the street! Our stuff, for the most part, is crafted locally and capable of being repaired locally. People generally don’t buy something anymore unless they know it can be repaired. To buy something with the intention of throwing it away is now seen as the height of ignorant behavior. Sure, plastics are still used. Primarily, though, you only see them used in hospitals and for medical devices and such. Yes, and for the electronic stuff that we still have.

Well, I’m going to have to eat my breakfast and ride my bike down to the community garden. I’ll be meeting a bunch of my friends there to put in a couple of hours of work before it gets too hot, then I’ll be off to my job as a cabinetmaker. Hey, if you want to hear more, come join us for a beer this evening down at the Public House. I’ll introduce you to my girlfriend and some of my other friends. Bring an instrument if you’ve got one. The evening usually ends with quite a rousing jam session. Take care!

If you appreciated this post, you might also like Aspirational Contentment, Aspirational Contentment, Part 2, and Space, Stuff, Meaning. Thank you so much for reading!


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

Image Credits

Urban Farm in Chicago by Linda via:
Restored Dales Barn by Phil Catterall via:
Cruiser Bicycle by Yanks9596 via:
Hummer H2 by IFCAR via:
Old Bicycle and Tools by Mick via:
Apollo 10 view of the Earthrise by NASA via:
Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


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