The Japanese Philosophy of Wabi-Sabi: Seeing Beauty in the Everyday

Learn how this Japanese philosophy fits into the simple living movement. It will inspire you to see that less is more, simple is beautiful and there is endless beauty in the everyday objects around you.

| March 10, 2010

The following excerpt by Robyn Griggs Lawrence is from the collection Less is More  (New Society Publishers, 2009). This compilation of essays comes from some of the most respected voices to grace the simple living movement over the past few decades.

My first articles on wabi-sabi were published right around 9/11. At that time, the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in the imperfect had a serious underground following, but the concept was new to most. I’d recently discovered wabi-sabi, which to me seemed a great umbrella for a lot of the conversations getting under way at that time: Simplicity, slow food, recycling and reuse. In the first wheredo-we-go-now months after the planes hit the towers, I thought Americans might go the wabi way, toward Victory Gardens and plainer living. Instead, we went for easy credit and patriotic shopping; wabi-sabi had to wait.

Hard knocks change a nation. Wealth ebbs and flows, thrift and greed take turns in our cycling consciousness. After 9/11, we shopped. Seven years later, we stopped. “It’s the end of the era of conspicuous displays of wealth,” historian Steve Fraser told the New York Times in October 2008. “We are entering a new chapter in our history.”

Wabi-sabi time.

Wabi-sabi is an ancient Japanese philosophy with roots in Zen, revering austerity, nature and the everyday. It stems more directly from the Japanese tea ceremony, a simple Zen ritual for making and sharing a cup of tea — an approach that warlords in 15th-century Japan turned into a means of showing off their immense wealth through gaudy tea houses and imported goods. The wabi way of tea (wabichado) grew out of a backlash to that, championed by a master so powerful that his style is practiced to this day. Sen no Rikyu’s quiet, simple tea ceremony, with tea served in locally fired bowls and flowers in fishermen’s baskets, quickly became the most sought-after way to have tea. Wood and bamboo replaced porcelain, and lacquer and hospitality trumped pretension as the height of taste.

The name for Rikyu’s style of tea, wabi, is a poet’s word. It’s a little bit melancholy; one of my favorite descriptions is “the feeling you have when you’re waiting for your lover.” It describes a little monk in his torn robe, enjoying a night by the fire — content in poverty. The status of these monks rose alongside wabi in 15th-century Japan, as people grew war-weary, and the upper classes grew tired of conspicuous consumption. Simplicity — the aesthetic of the everyday samurai — took on a new nobility. And no matter how much wealth they had, everyone in Japan could make and share a cup of tea.

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