Revering modest living and authentic, useful objects, the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi can help you discover the sacred in the everyday and the beauty in imperfection.
I arrived at Kate NaDeau’s sweet, rustic stone house on a hillside near Belfast, Maine, while scouting houses to feature in Natural Home magazine (a sister magazine of MOTHER EARTH NEWS), which I led for 11 years. That day I had gone to see Kate’s gardens, bountiful with vegetables, flowers and herbs that she sells at the farmers market, but found I couldn’t stop asking about her stone cottage.
Kate and her former husband, both disciples of back-to-the-landers Scott and Helen Nearing, had placed every stone with their own hands over the course of five years. The home was appointed with cozy, flea market furniture and dumpster finds. Kate’s 1930s stove had narrow rust rivulets in its chipped and yellowing enamel, but it worked well enough for regular meals as well as some heavy canning and preserving. The wooden dining chairs didn’t match, and an armchair near the woodstove had seen better days. Herbs and flowers hung drying from beams overhead. I wanted to sit down and spend the rest of the afternoon at the kitchen table, helping Kate snap beans. I loved her casual, frugal decorating style. Nothing was new, and everything had a story and a reason for being in her home. I asked about a rusty grate hanging on the wall.
“Oh,” she said, “that is so wabi-sabi.”
Kate described wabi-sabi as the Japanese philosophy of appreciating things that are imperfect, primitive and incomplete. This ancient concept of revering gracefully weathered, rusty things exactly matched my own proclivities. Finally, I would have a word I could use when my mother asked whether I was going to paint those old wooden French doors or replace the 1940s enamel table I work on as a desk. I delved more deeply and found that décor was wabi-sabi’s surface — just one facet of a philosophy that promotes attention, generosity, respect and reverence.
Intimately tied to Zen Buddhism and the Japanese Way of Tea, wabi-sabi is a subtly spiritual philosophy that sees home as a sanctuary — a simple place devoid of clutter, disturbance and distraction. Through wabi-sabi’s lens, everything in a home — from the breakfast table to the attic windows — presents an opportunity to see beauty, because beauty is ordinary.
Honoring modest living and the ever-changing moment, wabi-sabi finds beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, accepting the cycle of growth, decay and death. It’s slow and uncluttered, and regards authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not laminate. Minimalist wabi-sabi respects age and celebrates humans over invulnerable machines. It finds beauty in cracks and crevices and all the marks that time, weather and use leave behind. It reminds us that we are transient beings — that our bodies and the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which they came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace both the glory and the impersonal sadness of liver spots, rust and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.
In a wabi-sabi home, possessions are pared down, then pared down again, to those that are necessary for their utility or beauty (ideally, both). What makes the cut? Useful things: The hand-crank eggbeaters from the flea market that work as well and with less hassle than electric ones. A handmade chair, a child’s lumpy pottery, a bumpy sheep’s-wool afghan — things that resonate with the spirit of their makers. Pieces of history: sepia-toned ancestral photos, baby shoes, a set of dog-eared Nancy Drew mysteries.
Wabi-sabi’s roots lie in the simple, Zen-inspired tea ceremony made popular by tea master Sen no Rikyu in the 16th century. After centuries of war and extravagance, Rikyu’s Tea Ceremony provided a simple, unpretentious oasis that society craved. He served tea in bowls made by anonymous Korean potters and Japanese craftsmen, and commissioned Raku pottery, a traditional, hand-molded style that endures today. Rikyu made his own utensils out of unlacquered bamboo, and he arranged flowers simply in bamboo vases and fishermen’s baskets. His tiny tea huts — based on the traditional farmer’s hut of rough mud walls, a thatched roof and organically shaped, exposed wood — included a low entryway that forced guests to bow, experiencing humility as they entered.
For wealthy merchants and shoguns, this simple, unembellished atmosphere felt like the ultimate luxury — the epitome of high art. For peasants and commoners, it made the Way of Tea accessible. Through Rikyu’s simple ceremony, everyone, from warlord to peasant, could experience Tea.
Today, wabi-sabi is still practiced across Japan’s socioeconomic strata. Fortunately for us, it has also migrated to Western countries. You don’t need a special tea hut or membership in a regal dynasty to take part — that’s the beauty of the philosophy. Whether admiring simple windowsill flowers in your suburban home or savoring tea in a hand-thrown mug on your rural homestead, wabi-sabi shows that there is value to be treasured in the simple and imperfect, no matter where you hang your — preferably well-loved and well-worn — hat.
1. Cultivate Slowness. Rebel against the machines. Hand a towel to a loved one and ask him or her to dry dishes while you rinse. Take 10 minutes to sweep the floor with a real broomcorn broom rather than filling your space with the roar of the vacuum.
2. Cultivate Vision. Start with the container you use to hold your morning beverage. Treat yourself to pottery that feels solid and heavy in your hand. Admire your mug’s shape, textures and colors every morning to strengthen your ability to find beauty in the rest of the day.
3. Cultivate Craft. Making and growing things yourself is a gentle rebellion against globalized mass production. Spinning wool, making pottery and weaving baskets provides a tactile meditation almost impossible to experience by any other means.
4. Cultivate Cleanliness. An ancient tea master described wabi-sabi as “putting one’s whole heart to cleaning and repeating it several times.” Every time we sweep, dust or wash, we’re creating clean, sacred space.
5. Cultivate Solitude. Find a space in the attic or a spare bedroom that you can dedicate to solitude and meditation. In tight quarters, designate a quiet corner in your bedroom or even living room as your meditation space.
6. Cultivate Space. Clutter smudges clarity, physically and psychologically. In wabi-sabi, space and light are the most desirable ornaments.
7. Cultivate Silence. To cultivate what Quakers call the “still, small voice within,” slowly reduce the noise sources in your life. Less is more.
8. Cultivate Sabi (the beauty that comes with age). Antique doorknobs and radiator grates give your home soul. Building with salvaged materials gives a new house depth and history it couldn’t otherwise have.
9. Cultivate Soul. A piece made by hand holds the steady, solid vibrations of its maker rather than those of the jarring, impersonal machine. Surrounding yourself with things made by real people invites a tiny piece of each craftsman into your space.
10. Cultivate Imperfection. Real people leave mail piled in the entry, let the flowers go a little too long in the vase (if they have them at all), allow the dog on the bed and have unpredictable cats. Wabi-sabi embraces these flaws.
11. Cultivate Hospitality. Give every room in your house a soft seat, a blanket to curl up with, gentle lighting and a deep, delicious rug. Invite people to stay, curled up in afghans and sipping tea.
12. Cultivate Simplicity. Less stuff means more time to spend with family, friends and nature — a philosophy simple enough for even the most complicated lives.
Robyn Griggs Lawrence is Editor-at-Large for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and the author of Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House.
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