“Wabi Sabi is about the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent & incomplete.” says Leonard Koren, American artist and aesthetics expert and writer.
“There is beauty in transience, the perishable, the impermanent’’.
Already as a child we are taught that a colouring-in picture is only beautiful if it is coloured within the lines and with the correct colours so that it will compare with reality. We also value the undamaged things more than the worn-out. Remember that new exercise book at the beginning of the school year or term? Or the new shoes with the undamaged toes that you were intent on keeping shiny and unscratched?
This Western thought emerges from the ancient Greek times when the ideals about beauty as we now know them came into being: perfectionism, the new, symmetry and proportionality; not accepting what is, but always searching for what could be.
In Japan it is different. They have a wonderful word for the beauty of imperfection: Wabi Sabi.
This principal may change your outlook on life.
Where in the Western world the focus is especially on ‘what could be’, Wabi Sabi finds focus in what is. A kind of mindfulness therefore, an acceptance and living in the now.
There is not a real definition of Wabi Sabi, but the Japanese words Wabi Sabi, broadly translated, stand for simplicity, the seeing of beauty in imperfection and acceptance of the process of change. Concretely it means three things:
- Nothing is perfect
- Nothing is permanent
- Nothing is complete
Wabi Sabi emerged in the 15th century as an antidote to Chinese Culture, in which there was a constant striving for perfection. It is something that very much exists in present Western culture.
Misshapen tomatoes, carrots or other vegetables are thrown out to satisfy the grocery shopper’s need for aesthetically acceptable vegetables. At least that’s the desire the retailer projects onto the public. Thankfully the trend might be turning around. In countries like France retailers are now made to donate these misshapen veggies to the poor.
Blemishes are removed from our bodies, at times out of life saving necessity. Body parts are enhanced or de-enhanced (I made up that word), machine knits are favoured over home knits, and as Joan Mooney observed, three D printing is the next perfect creation.
I have a vivid memory of being endowed with knitted cotton underpants and singlets created by my aunt! They did not mould perfectly to the body and they were damned uncomfortable. I think my mother took pity on me, for they disappeared eventually, probably due to the fact too that the shops in post-war Holland began to stock regular underwear again.
So what remains is a boring lifeless world in which everything is “perfect”. The perfect skin, the perfect teeth, genetically modified fruit, vegetables, grains etc. A brand spanking new car or pristine snow white crockery. It already exists. Millions of people have the same. Cheap production techniques in factories make sure that every ideal is achievable and affordable for everyone. How lifeless and boring.
As soon as our use of an item leaves a visible impression on that item – a fingerprint, a stain, a tear – we regard the article as ‘worn’. It is no longer in its original state. Away with it! Mind you my comments are an over simplification. It no longer pays, financially or time-wise to darn socks, taking pride in creating a beautiful grid-like patch.
With Wabi Sabi the attraction is the influence the use of the article has. It creates a value that no factory can produce.
Wabi Sabi is a movement that appears time and again in art and architecture but it is especially about a way of life. Take time to discover Wabi Sabi in your environment. You don’t have to travel far to find beauty in the simplicity of imperfection. Try it out on yourself. How often you are confronted in daily life with imperfection and your reaction to it. How easily do you throw out a worn object without thought?
How do you interact with imperfect people? There is no need to become a woolly thinking person but it might help for us to accept the uncertainties in life such as relationship schisms or a change of circumstance.
By not striving for perfection, but just seeing beauty in imperfection, we gain happiness and contentment.
I conclude with a Wabi Sabi poem by poet/author Jamie Dedes:
if only i knew
what the artist knows
about the great perfection
i would sip grace slowly
at the ragged edges of the creek
kiss the pitted
face of the moon
befriend the sea
though it can be a danger
embrace the thunder of a waterfall
as if its strains were a symphony
prostrate myself atop the rank dregs on the forest floor,
worshiping them as compost for fertile seeds
and the breeding ground for a million small lives
if i knew what the artist knows,
then i wouldn’t be afraid to die,
to leave everyone
i would be sure that some part of me
would remain present
and that one day you would join me
as the wind howling on its journey
or the bright moment of a flowering desert
if i knew what the artist knows,
i would surely respond soul and body
to the echo of the Ineffable in rough earthy things
i would not fear decay or work left undone
i would travel like the river through its rugged, irregular channels
comfortable with this life;
imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete
– Jamie Dedes
WABI-SABI Homily 1 & 2 April 2017