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

1 / 2
Editors Cecile Andrews and Wanda Urbanska have assembled works that will both educate and inspire you when it comes to the many benefits of simple living.
2 / 2
The concept that beauty lies in the worn and weathered is key to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi.

The following excerpt by Robyn Griggs Lawrence is from the collectionLess 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.

No one’s quite sure how the word “sabi” got hooked up with “wabi,” (or even when that happened), but the two conjoined took wabi a step further. “Sabi” means “the bloom of time,” connoting tarnish and rust, the enchantment of old things. It brings appreciation for dignified, graceful aging: worn cobblestones, weathered wood, oxidized silver. Paired with “wabi,” it became a moniker for a philosophy that reveres age, imperfection and natural order.

But we don’t practice tea in modern America; we drink coffee. So how does this translate? Like all good philosophies, it gives us a launching point toward thinking about what matters. Wabi-sabi says we can take pleasure in ending the spending spree and feel good about frugality. It lets us celebrate the beauty in just getting by — something a lot of us crave right now.

In his sacred tea text, Nanporoku, Sen no Rikyu wrote: “A luxurious house and the taste of delicacies are only pleasures of the mundane world. It is enough if the house does not leak and the food keeps hunger away.” Sage advice that stands the test of time. We can start developing our own wabigokoro, or wabi mind and heart, in our homes.

Wabibitos live modestly, satisfied with things as they are. They own only what’s necessary for its utility or beauty (ideally, both). They revere humans over machines, surrounding themselves with things that resonate with the spirit of their makers. Wabi-sabi is imperfect: a beloved chipped vase or a scarred wooden table.

This getting-away-from-perfect is one of wabi-sabi’s most appealing facets. It means you can keep the tablecloth even though it’s fraying on the edges and admire the rug as it fades from brilliant red to pale rose. You can let things be. It’s like going to Grandma’s house.

Our Depression-era grandmothers knew wabi-sabi. And their houses were so comfortable because they understood, inherently, the difference between wabi and slobby. Their tablecloths and linens were faded, but they never had rips or tears. Their furnishings had a settled-in quality, but they weren’t dilapidated. Their floors showed wear, but they were always swept, with rag rugs that wove together memories in their use of old garments.

We can’t order that warmth and comfort through a catalog or online — regardless of our household budget. Like all good things, wabi-sabi is more about time than money. It’s about taking the time and having the perspective to find beauty in things as they are. One of my personal heroes, Elizabeth Gordon — who was at the helm of House Beautiful throughout the mid-20th century — once wrote, “If you can’t find beauty — for free — when you are poor, you won’t be likely to have it when you are rich … even though you may have bought and paid for it.”

Gordon often railed against conspicuous beauty, which was rife in the prosperous 1950s. “When a thing is self-consciously made to be beautiful (as though beauty was the total aim) it never seems to work, and it becomes futile and knick-knacky,” she wrote. “There has to be some purpose and usefulness about the creating.” A Japanophile, she was translating for Americans the principle of yo-no-bi, defining beauty by its utility. The Japanese call this hidden beauty a thing’s “ah-ness.”

One of the first lessons of the wabi tea ceremony is to find and admire the beauty in every utensil, from the bamboo water scoop to the tea bowl. Several tea masters I’ve met have suggested bringing this reverence to items you use every day — maybe your coffee mug. Christy Bartlett, a San Francisco-based tea master who represents the family of Rikyu’s descendants, does this with a tea bowl she’s had for 22 years. “Every time I look at it, I still see something new,” she said. But to do this, she warned, “You can’t be lazy. It’s up to you to see and see something new, to sustain your interest in the world around you. It’s not up to the world to entertain you. It requires effort to be interested.”

That probably means turning off the TV — maybe the hardest first step toward a wabi-sabi lifestyle.

Wabi-sabi has made inroads in Western culture time and again; strains of it can be seen in the lifestyles of the Puritans, the Shakers and the Transcendentalists. It showed up in Arts and Crafts furnishings (a reaction to the overwrought Victorian era) and even in Eames chairs (simple, functional design for the masses).

Wabi-sabi is a logical reaction to a society disgusted with its own excess. (William Morris, father of the Arts and Crafts movement, often railed against the “swinish luxury of the rich,” and many of his lectures could be used on the campaign trail today.) But the beauty in it is that it’s not a bitter condemnation — it’s a change in perspective. Instead of buying, we could make things. We could grow our own. We could put away the credit cards. We could start by taking on the most important tenet of the tea: ichigo, ichie, or “once in a lifetime.” This reminds us that every meeting is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion to enjoy good company, beautiful art and a cup of tea. We never know what might happen tomorrow, or even later today. But in the moment, we could stop to share conversation and a cup of tea. And that sure beats the bad news on TV.

Reprinted with permission from Less is More, published by New Society Publishers, 2009.