How Did It Take Me This Long to Learn About Wabi-Sabi?

CC BY 2.0. Duff Axsom

I finally stumbled upon wabi-sabi. But somehow I have always known it.

A lovely article in BBC about Japan's unusual way to view the world brought wabi-sabi to my attention.

I began to research wabi-sabi. It seems that to express a definition of the concept in words would truly be incompatible with what wabi-sabi means. The English words "patina" or "entropy" don't really come close but point in the right direction. If you have ever felt a melancholic yearning inspired by a scene that you personally found beautiful at least in part because it draws you to meditate on its imperfections, then you have experienced wabi-sabi.

In the original Japanese, the word itself embodies its own reality. According to Leonard Koren, author of Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, the word wabi used to mean the loneliness of living in nature and sabi meant "chill" or "lean" or "withered," but both words evolved into a more positive connotation. Now wabi means something like humble, natural beauty and sabi ranks right up there with entropy in implying that the inevitability of decay with the passage of time is an essential element of balance in the universe. So the word wabi-sabi itself is a product of the elegant evolution of etymology.

It seems to me that in an era when one of the most celebrated pieces of art has increased in value after being shredded - I refer, of course, to Banksy's Girl with Balloon - the time is ripe for the Japanese aesthetic to overcome the Greek ideals of beauty in perfect proportions and divine essence.

Imagine how much less stress we would all feel if instead of striving for perfection, we believed that being perfect is akin to death, being a state in which there is nothing left to learn, to grow, to improve? If we could break the consumer cycle by loving our old things more than the new? If our concept of beauty based on the accident of symmetry ceded to an ideal that values each of our unique quirks and flaws? (Note with chagrin how the very words that we use to express these special characteristics inherently imply an imperfection in which Western culture fails to find the wabi-sabi.)

In her article on wabi-sabi in BBC, Lily Crossley-Baxter mentions that "Buddhist monks believed that words were the enemy of understanding." But if we have to use words, wabi-sabi needs to be one of them.

Finally, there is a concise way to communicate the beauty in nature that captures the glory of imperfection. If you had already heard of this word before landing here, share in the comments what it means to you.