The Allure of Imperfection: Wabi Sabi

I have heard about wabi-sabi before but have not grasped the meaning. This article grasps the concepts.

Originating in Taoism during China’s Song dynasty (960-1279) before being passed onto Zen Buddhism, wabi-sabi was originally seen as an austere, restrained form of appreciation. Today it encapsulates a more relaxed acceptance of transience, nature and melancholy, favouring the imperfect and incomplete in everything, from architecture to pottery to flower arranging.

Wabi, which roughly means ‘the elegant beauty of humble simplicity’, and sabi, which means ‘the passing of time and subsequent deterioration’, were combined to form a sense unique to Japan and pivotal to Japanese culture. But just as Buddhist monks believed that words were the enemy of understanding, this description can only scratch the surface of the topic.


pinyin: chà jì Japanese: 侘と寂 わびとさび

Custom made products are never as perfect as machine made, but this does not detract from their beauty. The plain but natural has its own beauty that far surpasses the garishly coloured and mass produced. There is no soul to the mass produced.

Products such as leather and wood are natural. They breath and have flaws, as do their creators and owners. These flawed products have character that reflects the natural cycle of nature and therefore life.

As to why they sought imperfect, rustic pieces, Prof Otabe explained that “wabi-sabi leaves something unfinished or incomplete for the play of imagination”. This opportunity to actively engage with something considered to be wabi-sabi achieves three things: an awareness of the natural forces involved in the creation of the piece; an acceptance of the power of nature; and an abandonment of dualism – the belief that we are separate from our surroundings.

Combined, these experiences allow the viewer to see themselves as part of the natural world, no longer separated by societal constructs and instead at the mercy of natural timelines. Rather than seeing dents or uneven shapes as mistakes, they are viewed as a creation of nature – much as moss would grow on an uneven wall or a tree would curve in the wind.

Who wants to live in a plastic house with plastic furniture? Plastic has no intrinsic soul.

I would rather sit on a ripped but repaired leather seat, though there is an obvious blemish of the repair, than sit on hard plastic. Where once was a cow, there is now a ripped cow. I would rather fix than discard, so now there is now a repaired cow. I find few people appreciate this, but wabi-sabi talks to this. In the end the cow will degrade and return to the land, to be used again and again. Plastic cannot do this.

The dents and scratches we bear are all reminders of experience, and to erase them would be to ignore the complexities of life. By retaining the imperfect, repairing the broken and learning to find beauty in flaws – rather than in spite of them – Japan’s ability to cope with the natural disasters it so often faces is strengthened. When my bowl from Hagi arrived in the post months later, its uneven edges were no longer a defect, but instead a welcome reminder that life is not perfect, and nor should I try to make it so.

2020 Jan 03: I have, over the years, read this same article many times, and each time come away with a different understanding of wabi sabi. This wiki seems to explain wabi sabi better.

The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”…

Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.

My understanding is that life is always changing, up until death. Completeness is the final state, which is in death. We need to appreciate objects that are not perfect, incomplete and not permanent. We need to appreciate beauty in the not yet dead. This is wabi sabi.

It is in the here and now that we should appreciate beauty, that perfection is only achieved when there is no further change, and this only occurs in death。

The Chinese characters 侘寂 cha4ji1 don’t seem to translate well into the Japanese meaning. Google (侘: boast, 寂寞: lonely) and Baidu (侘: a kind of, 寂: quiet, silent; lonely; lonesome; solitary). Baidu does have references in usage to wabi sabi and Japanese spiritualism.

If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi. source: Baidu

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