Shambhala Sun | January 2003
Wabi-Sabi For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers
LEONARD KOREN is founder of the 1970's avant-garde publication Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, and the author of several books, including Gardens of Gravel and Sand and Undesigning the Bath. The Shambhala Sun is pleased to have the chance to present an excerpt from Koren's gem, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, considered a class statement on this Japanese aesthetic.
Like many of my contemporaries,
I first learned of wabi-sabi during my youthful spiritual quest in the
late 1960’s. At that time, the traditional culture of Japan beckoned
with profound “answers” to life’s toughest questions. Wabi-sabi seemed
to me a nature-based aesthetic paradigm that restored a measure of
sanity and proportion to the art of living.
resolved my artistic dilemma about how to create beautiful things
without getting caught up in the dispiriting materialism that usually
surrounds such creative acts. Wabi-sabi—deep, multidimensional,
elusive—appeared the perfect antidote to the pervasively slick,
saccharine, corporate style of beauty that I felt was desensitizing
American society. I have since come to believe that wabi-sabi is related
to many of the more emphatic anti-aesthetics that invariably spring
from the young, modern, creative soul: beat, punk, grunge, or whatever
it’s called next.
is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of
as traditional Japanese beauty. It occupies roughly the same position in
the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideas of
beauty and perfection in the West. Wabi-sabi can in its fullest
expression be a way of life. At the very least, it is a particular type
closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably “rustic.” Webster’s
defines “rustic” as “simple, artless, or unsophisticated… [with]
surfaces rough or irregular.” While “rustic” represents only a limited
dimension of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, it is the initial impression many
people have when they first see a wabi-sabi expression. Wabi-sabi does
share some characteristics with what we commonly call “primitive art,”
that is, objects that are earthy, simple, unpretentious and fashioned
out of natural materials. Unlike primitive art, though, wabi-sabi almost
never is used representationally or symbolically.
the Japanese words “wabi” and “sabi” had quite different meanings.
“Sabi” originally meant “chill,” “lean,” or “withered.” “Wabi”
originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from
society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional
state. Around the fourteenth century, the meanings of both words began
to evolve in the direction of more positive aesthetic values. The
self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic
came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the
poetically inclined, this kind of life fostered art appreciation of the
minor details of everyday life and insights into the beauty of the
inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature. In turn, unprepossessing
simplicity took on new meaning as the basis for a new, pure beauty.
The Metaphysical Basis of Wabi-Sabi
What is the universe like?
Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness. As
dusk approaches in the hinterlands, a traveler ponders shelter for the
night. He notices tall rushes growing everywhere, so he bundles an
armful together as they stand in the field, and knots them at the top.
Presto, a living grass hut. The next morning, before embarking on
another day’s journey, he unknots the rushes and, presto, the hut
de-constructs, disappears, and becomes a virtually indistinguishable
part of the larger field of rushes once again. The original wilderness
seems to be restored, but minute traces of the shelter remain. A slight
twist or bend in a reed here and there. There is also the memory of the
hut in the mind of the traveler—and in the mind of the reader reading
this description. Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealized form, is
precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence, at the
borders of nothingness.
the universe destructs it also constructs. New things emerge out of
nothingness. But we can’t really determine by cursory observation
whether something is in the evolving or devolving mode. If we didn’t
know differently we might mistake the newborn baby boy—small, wrinkled,
bent, a little grotesque looking—for the very old man on the brink of
death. In representations of wabi-sabi, arbitrarily perhaps, the
devolving dynamic generally tends to manifest itself in things a little
darker, more obscure and quiet. Things evolving tend to be a little
lighter and brighter, a bit clearer and slightly more eye-arresting. And
nothingness itself—instead of being empty space, as in the West—is
alive with possibility. In metaphysical terms, wabi-sabi suggests that
the universe is in constant motion toward or away from potential.
Wabi-Sabi Spiritual Values
What are the lessons of the universe?
Truth comes from the observation of nature.
The Japanese have tried to control nature where they could, as best
they could, within the limits of available technology. But there was
little they could do about the weather—hot and humid summers, cold and
dry winters and rain on the average of one out of every three days
throughout the year, except during the rainy season in early summer when
everything is engulfed in a fine, wet mist for six to eight weeks. And
there was little they could do about the earthquakes, volcanic
eruptions, typhoons, floods, fires and tidal waves that periodically and
unpredictably visited their land. The Japanese didn’t particularly
trust nature, but they learned from it. Three of the most obvious
lessons gleaned from millennia of contact with nature (and leavened with
Taoist thought) were incorporated into the wisdom of wabi-sabi:
1. All things are impermanent.
The inclination toward nothingness is unrelenting and universal. Even
things that have all the earmarks of substance—things that are hard,
inert, solid—present nothing more than the illusion of permanence. We
may wear blinders, use ruses to forget, ignore, or pretend otherwise—but
all comes to nothing in the end. Everything wears down. The planets and
stars, and even intangible things like reputation, family heritage,
historical memory, scientific theorems, mathematical proofs, great art
and literature (even in digital form)—all eventually fade into oblivion
2. All things are imperfect.
Nothing that exists is without imperfections. When we look really
closely at things we see the flaws. The sharp edge of a razor blade,
when magnified, reveals microscopic pits, chips and variegations. Every
craftsman knows the limits of perfection: the imperfections glare back.
And as things begin to break down and approach the primordial state,
they become even less perfect, more irregular.
3. All things are incomplete. All
things, including the universe itself, are in a constant, never-ending
state of becoming or dissolving. Often we arbitrarily designate moments,
points along the way, as “finished” or “complete.” But when does
something’s destiny finally come to fruition? Is the plant complete when
it flowers? When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout? When
everything turns into compost? The notion of completion has no basis in
“Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Wabi-sabi represents the exact
opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental,
spectacular, and enduring. Wabi-sabi is not found in nature at moments
of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding.
Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees or bold
landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative
and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to
homeopathic medicine, the essence of wabi-sabi is apportioned in small
doses. As the dose decreases, the effect becomes more potent, more
profound. The closer things get to nonexistence, the more exquisite and
evocative they become. Consequently to experience wabi-sabi means you
have to slow way down, be patient and look very closely.
Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.
Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or
ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is, in one respect, the condition of
coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that
beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else.
Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment given the proper
circumstances, context or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state
of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.
the wealthy merchants, samurai and aristocrats who practiced tea, a
medieval Japanese farmer’s hut, which the wabi-sabi tea room was modeled
on, was a quite lowly and miserable environment. Yet, in the proper
context, with some perceptual guidance, it took on exceptional beauty.
Similarly, early wabi-sabi tea utensils were rough, flawed and of
undistinguished muddy colors. To tea people accustomed to the Chinese
standards of refined, gorgeous and perfect beauty, they were initially
perceived as ugly. It is almost as if the pioneers of wabi-sabi
intentionally looked for such examples of the conventionally
not-beautiful—homely but not excessively grotesque—and created
challenging situations where they would be transformed into their
The Wabi-Sabi State of Mind
How do we feel about what we know?
Acceptance of the inevitable.
Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life. The
luxuriant tree of summer is now only withered branches under a winter
sky. All that remains of a splendid mansion is a crumbled foundation
overgrown with weeds and moss. Wabi-sabi images force us to contemplate
our own mortality, and they evoke an existential loneliness and tender
sadness. They also stir a mingled bittersweet comfort, since we know all
existence shares the same fate.
wabi-sabi state of mind is often communicated through poetry, because
poetry lends itself to emotional expression and strong, reverberating
images that seem “larger” than the small verbal frame that holds them
(thus evoking the larger universe). Rikyu used this oft-repeated poem by
Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) to describe the mood of wabi-sabi:
All around, no flowers in bloom / Nor maple leaves in glare, / A solitary fisherman’s hut alone / On the twilight shore / Of this autumn eve.
common sounds also suggest the sad-beautiful feeling of wabi-sabi. The
mournful quarks and caws of seagulls and crows. The forlorn bellowing of
foghorns. The wails of ambulance sirens echoing through canyons of big
Appreciation of the cosmic order. Wabi-sabi
suggests the subtlest realms and all the mechanics and dynamics of
existence, way beyond what our ordinary senses can perceive. These
primordial forces are evoked in
everything wabi-sabi, in much the same way that Hindu mandalas or
medieval European cathedrals were constructed to emotionally convey
their respective cosmic schemes. The materials out of which things
wabi-sabi are made elicit these transcendent feelings. The way rice
paper transmits light in a diffuse glow. The manner in which clay cracks
as it dries. The color and textural metamorphosis of metal when it
tarnishes and rusts. All these represent the physical forces and deep
structures that underlie our everyday world.
Knowing what we know, how should we act?
Get rid of all that is unnecessary. Wabi-sabi means treading lightly on the planet and knowing how to appreciate whatever is encountered,
no matter how trifling, whenever it is encountered. “Material poverty,
spiritual richness” are wabi-sabi bywords. In other words, wabi-sabi
tells us to stop our preoccupation with success—wealth, status, power
and luxury—and enjoy the unencumbered life.
Obviously, leading the simple wabi-sabi life requires some effort and
will and also some tough decisions. Wabi-sabi acknowledges that just as
it is important to know when to make choices, it is also important to
know when not to make choices: to let things be. Even at the most
austere level of material existence, we still live in a world of
things. Wabi-sabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the
pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom of
Focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy. The
behavior prescribed for the wabi-sabi tea room is a clear expression of
wabi-sabi values. First, as a symbolic act of humility, everyone either
bends or crawls to enter the tea room through an entrance purposely
designed low and small. Once inside, the atmosphere is egalitarian.
Hierarchical thinking—“this is higher/better, that is lower/worse”—is
not acceptable. The poor student, the wealthy business person and the
powerful religious leader—distinctly different social classes on the
outside—are equals within.
to the sensitive observer, the essential qualities of the objects
inside the tea room are either obvious or they are not. Conventional
aids to discernment, like the origins and names of the object makers,
are of no wabi-sabi consequence. The normal hierarchy of material value
related to cost is also pushed aside. Mud, paper and bamboo, in fact,
have more intrinsic wabi-sabi qualities/value than do gold, silver and
diamonds. In wabi-sabi, there is no “valuable,” since that would imply
“not valuable.” An object obtains the state of wabi-sabi only for the
moment it is appreciated as such. In the tea room, therefore, things
come into existence only when they express their wabi-sabi qualities.
Outside the tea room, they return to their ordinary reality, and their
wabi-sabi existence fades away.
Adapted from Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren, published by Stone Bridge Press. © 1994 by Leonard Koren