Wednesday, July 28, 2010


As my last posting indicates, I have been reading Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers, which was written by Leonard Koren and published about sixteen years ago.  This small, elegant volume is a great introduction to the Japanese aesthetic ideal of wabi-sabi, which celebrates the beauty of things that are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete; the beauty of things that are modest and humble; and the beauty of things that are unconventional.

Based on the comments I received on the first wabi-sabi posting, it's clear that many people are interested in exploring wabi-sabi as possible alternative to the western aesthetic ideal that dominates our modern world.  To that end, I think it's helpful to consider Koren's side-by-side comparison of the ways in which wabi-sabi stands in sharp contrast with modernism.

Modernism                                wabi-sabi

Primarily expressed                  Primarily expressed
in the public domain                  in the private domain

Implies a logical                        Implies an intuitive
rational worldview                     worldview

Absolute                                    Relative

Looks for universal                    Looks for personal,
prototypical solutions                 idiosyncratic solutions

Mass-produced/                        One-of-a-kind/
modular                                     variable

Expresses faith in                      There is no progress

Future-oriented                          Present-oriented

Believes in the                           Believes in the
control of nature                         fundamental
                                                   uncontrollability of

Romanticizes                              Romanticizes
technology                                  nature

People adapting to                      People adapting to
machines                                     nature

Geometric                                   Organic
organization of form                    organization of form
(sharp, precise                            (soft, vague shapes
definite shapes                            and edges)
and edges)

The box as metaphor                  The bowl as  metaphor
(rectilinear, precise,                    (free shape, open at
contained)                                   top)

Man-made materials                   Natural materials

Ostensibly slick                           Ostensibly crude

Needs to be                                 Accommodates to
well-maintained                           degradation and

Purity makes its                          Corrosion and
expression richer                        contamination
                                                    make its expression

Solicits the reduction                  Solicits the expansion
of sensory                                   of sensory
information                                  information

Is intolerant of                              Is comfortable with
ambiguity and                              ambiguity and
contradiction                                contradiction

Cool                                             Warm

Generally light and                      Generally dark and
bright                                           dim

Function and utility                      Function and utility
are primary values                      are not so important

Perfect materiality                       Perfect immateriality
is an ideal                                    is an ideal

Everlasting                                  To everything there
                                                     is a season

Most people, I suspect, are not willing to completely abandon everything that is valued by modernism.  I, for one, plan to keep using my computer, camera, and cellphone -- and, much as it saddens me, I do find it necessary to occasionally visit the rational and logical part of my brain, if only as a tourist.  The great thing about wabi-sabi, however, is that it makes no demands. It simply invites us to move at our own speed toward a world that is more authentic and better connected with reality. Some may wish to practice wabi-sabi in every aspect of their daily lives.  Others may find that a middle way -- one that avoids extremes -- offers a better solution. What is undeniable, however, is that wabi-sabi offers an antidote to the modern ideal that finds beauty only in the perfect, the permanent, the completed, the grand, and the conventional.

This is a fascinating subject and I would welcome further comments on how wabi-sabi values have shaped your lives, without regard to whether you knew you were practicing wabi-sabi at the time.


  1. Looking back, I seem to have instinctively recognised wabi-sabi values from an early age. When very young I developed a passion for the countryside and the outdoors - and had various what can only be described as 'semi-mystical' experiences within nature. Very wabi-sabi. As some of my childhood and school life was troubled, I dived into poetry (not a physics textbook!) as both escape and release. Again, pure wabi-sabi. And later, at university, I embraced Romanticism as opposed to Classicism in my literary studies, devouring Nietzsche, Hesse, Baudelaire, and the English Romantic poets. I remember when I first came across Keats's concept of 'negative capability', that state in which 'man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason' - a significant and exciting moment which shook my world (in a good way). (Come to think of it hitchhiking - which was the common way for many of us to travel back then - was a very wabi-sabi-like activity, as was reading Kerouac, Snyder and the Beats, and trying to emulate their lifestyle a little at weekends.)

    For me, I think it's no exaggeration to say that wabi-sabi is necessary for my mental and psychological health and well-being. The paid work most of us have to do for much of our lives - unless we are fortunate enough to be able to earn our living as creative artists - is most definitely non-wabi-sabi. Conventional work is all about career ladders, promotions, progress, logical analysis, increased profit, cause and effect, angular graphs, desks and offices, box-like cars, straight-as-a-die motorways etc. (I know some modern, trendy management ideas are popular now which try to counter this with touchy-feely group sessions, feng shui and so on, but I view these changes as little more than cosmetic.) Wabi-sabi is a wonderfully refreshing antidote to all of this. Indeed, when I was at work, just the knowledge that a different world and a different set of values existed, into which I could 'escape' at any time, was a psychological necesity.

    I suppose the trick is to be able to incorporate wab-sabi consciousness (rather like Zen consciousness with which wabi-sabi has much common ground) into all situations (including work) rather than 'escape' into it - but that's not always easy when you've got an appointment with a buyer 250 miles away and only 3 hours to get there.

    I'll get hold of the book you mention - I haven't read it, and it sounds fascinating.

  2. Thank you, George.

    In this list, I can see what you meant about wabi-sabi being more aligned with the Dionysian in your comment response to me in your last post.

    The Apollonian/modern part of me wants to know how you got these column lists to line up so perfectly in a Blogger post? Seriously.

    I am not surprised by what is in both lists, but that does not mean I did not sort of moan and groan in pleasure reading them. The simple psychological process of reading the modern trait on the left, and then the wabi-sabi trait on the right, and the relief I felt each time, validates that wabi-sabi is how I want to live. A bowl instead of a box! Organic instead of geometric. Present-oriented. But what really got me, I mean really did surprise me actually, was that little statement tucked in the column: There is no progress.

    That, right there, is maybe the best, most profound revelation I’ve witnessed in a long time. It is such a relief, a release. When you have faith in progress, you have a linear way of seeing things. And expectations. If there is no progress, you see things as a whole, and acceptance of things as they are. I tend to see things in a spiral, which I suppose is a combination of linear and a whole circle. When I say spiral, I mean we keep encountering the same things in our life, but at future points we are different beings and so they seem different. But again, this is still a linear way of thinking, and is inherently conscious of the past and future.

    Do you know Wendell Berry? I assume you do. He’s a poet-farmer who uses a horse and plow, does not own a computer, and believes in the stories of a locale. I don't choose to give up my laptop or work the land, but I like how his lifestyle challenges me to reflect.

    You know, what is so great about blogs is that we can interact with these ideas, which is very meaningful. Thank you for this, because I feel such good things stirring inside me.

    One last thing (well, I won't promise it will be the last). I just read this piece this morning, and if you have time, I think you would enjoy it, about living in a culture that has been manipulated to be consumer-driven. It's at the Raptitude blog, called Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful comments, Robert. I can relate to virtually all of your experiences and observations. When I was twenty-one, I spent a summer hitch-hiking around Europe with nothing but a sleeping bag, one change of clothes, and an insatiable sense of adventure. Being penniless for all practical purposes (I arrived in Europe with $16 and managed to receive $20 more by mid-summer), I survived on day-old bread, an occasional piece of cheese, and whatever fruit I could gather from fieldside orchards. My nights were spent in parks, train and bus stations, and often in jails, where I would walk in an request a cell for the evening. It was during this period, which I now see as completely wabi-sabi, that my life began to flourish.

    In the years which followed, I often found myself enslaved to a viciously competitive and capitalistic world that was always at odds with my personal values. I survived once again, but it was only through finding frequent escapes into the worlds of nature, literature, and creativity. Now that I have retired, I rejoice in the fact that I can move closer and closer each day to the wabi-sabi ideals. I agree that it's difficult to incorporate wabi-sabi consciousness into every situation. Every step in that direction, however, is a step closer to the truly authentic life that remains my lodestar.

  4. Your blog is one of my favorites.
    Through friends Delwyn, Bonnie and Noela, I have come to recognize my own leanings toward a wabi-sabi view of life...a meaningful appreciation of my surroundings, nature and my moments in them.

  5. To Ruth,

    Thanks for the wonderful comments. I, too, enjoyed the psychological process of slowly reading the comparisons of modernism with wabi-sabi. With my heart saying "no, yes, no, yes, no, yes," there was no doubt about my orientation.

    When Koren notes that "there is no progress," I think he is reminding us that progress, by definition, is a linear concept, one that is vested with either some element of the past or the future. With its Zen roots, however, wabi-sabi is present-oriented. To accept that the present contains all that we need is, for me, very liberating.

    Yes, I love Wendell Berry, a true wabi-sabi man. His poem, "The Peace of Wild Things," which I know is posted on the sidebar of your blog, was quoted in full in my April 26 posting, "Quiet Thoughts, Quiet Beauty."

    Thanks for the reference on the Raptitude blog. I will check it out.

  6. To Wanda,

    Thanks for the kind and supportive comments. I am delighted that your life is becoming more joyful as you embrace the wabi-sabi perspective.

  7. I have also read this book as I am most interested in wabi sabi and have written a few posts on this myself-- I have surrounded myself with wabi sabi in my home and garden and studio-- great post with the lists of comparisons- I preferred the wabi sabi side for sure.

  8. To Donna,

    Thanks. From seeing photos of your art, home, and garden, I knew you were a wabi-sabi person before I even received your comments. Wabi-sabi appears to be a welcome and refreshing approach to life for many of us who have grown fatigued with the slickness of the modern world.

  9. To Everyone,

    My friend, Robert, whose excellent blog is "The Solitary Walker" (, has written a lovely poem that captures the spirit, essence, and beauty of wabi-sabi. Enjoy!


    a rounded pot
    curved like the crescent moon:
    tints of leaf and stone

    a peacock's feather
    impossibly iridescent:
    the third eye

    glass fragments
    worn into what they are:
    shards of time

    a bird's nest
    cupping a cracked egg:
    thin as paper

    sparse brush strokes
    hint a vision:
    unfinished symphony

    summer's pinnacle
    lush green, a perfect blue:
    evanescent as dust motes or shadows

    Thank you, Robert, for this wonderful contribution.

  10. Hi George, I read through several of your posts, enjoying your writings about Wabi-Sabi, your photographs, and your paintings. It pleases me to view life with simplicity - I like to study the small pieces that make up the whole. My friend, Delwyn, wrote of Wabi-Sabi several weeks ago. Though I had not previously encountered the philosophy, I think I do practice several of its tenets. I'm glad that you visited me from Wanda's Blog - she is a special friend whom I met shortly after I started to blog. Enjoy your weekend. PS I lived for awhile on the Chesapeake in Havre de Grace, MD.

  11. To Barb,

    Thanks for visiting my blog, Barb, and I agree that a life of simplicity, surrounded by the glory of nature, is the best of all worlds. I look forward to following your own postings.

  12. I don't want to seem negative, perhaps I am missing something, I often do; but I see this as common sense rather than a whole philosophical band waggon to jump on.
    We are in the 21st century, that gives even a basic people like myself access to a multitude of things nobody knew of a few years ago. I choose to make use of some of these and ignore others. I hope some of them are just transient fashion as were some of the trappings of my youth.

  13. To Tramp,

    Thanks for the comments. If common sense offers you everything that wabi-sabi does as an aesthetic, you are far ahead of many of us, Tramp, and, by all means, stay on your path. For some of us, however, the modern, western world has grown oppressive, with too much emphasis on everything being perfect, durable, new, shiny, slick, well-maintained, etc. In that kind if environment, wabi-sabi can be a refreshing reminder of a different kind of life.

    Personally, I do not regard wabi-sabi as trendy; it has been around for centuries and, philosophically, it seems to stand in opposition to anything trendy. It's true, of course, that many in the west are becoming increasingly attracted to the idea, but, in my view, that's because it gives a name and legitimacy to something that many of us have long felt in our hearts. We want to accept, rather than resist, the impermanence of things; we want to honor things that are not perfect; we want to celebrate the modest and the humble. Perhaps this is common sense, but I do not find these virtues to be flourishing in my country. All I need to do is turn on the television, I will be inundated with messages that the new is better than the old, that things need to be replaced, that dull and tarnished is ugly, that aging is to be feared and corrected if possible -- so on and so forth.

    In the final analysis, every person must find his or her own bearings in life. For me, ancient eastern wisdom, including Taosim, Buddhism, and Zen, have been critical. Wabi-sabi is nothing more than an outgrowth of these traditions, and to that extent, I find that it fits well in my own life. Again, however, that is a personal choice, and I respect the fact that other choices may better serve the needs of other people.

  14. Hello George
    It is nice to meet you and read your recent posts on the concept of wabi sabi. The ensuing discussions of thoughtful comments were a great read and made me think further of the arc of my life and its approximation to wabi sabi.

    Wabi sabi seems to be more than a philosophy or an aesthetic. It flows through my physical, mental, spiritual and emotional life; yes it is very zen; it is a life style in the real meaning of that phrase.
    I loved the way that Bonnie and some of your other readers suggested that this notion is rather like a dormant ideal or knowing that has been awaiting recognition. It is almost like an intrinsic understanding that has been camouflaged by the 20th centuries ideals and promises.

    Strangely enough I finished my novel a few nights ago and have instead been reading a tiny book by Dianne Durston called Wabi Sabi, The Art of Everyday Life. Durston also wrote a great book about the old family businesses and crafts in Kyoto, called Old Kyoto. I came across it when walking in Japan a while back.

    I have been writing postcards to friends recently including the phrase 'To everything there is a season' This passage from Ecclesiastes has been stuck in my mind since my Father's death a few months ago. My sister read the passage in the funeral service. So I smiled to myself when I read the phrase at the bottom of the list of wabi sabi attributes.

    Thank you George for contacting me and for your thoughtful and interesting posts.

    Happy days

  15. To Delwyn,

    Thanks for the kind and thoughtful comments. I was also struck by the responses to my article on wabi-sabi; with few exceptions, people seemed to feel that they were on a wabi-sabi path even before they heard the term or realized that wabi-sabi is a recognized aesthetic or philosophy. It's a way of life, in my view, something that one feels in one's soul and bones, and it's a refreshing departure from western cultural ideals.

    Thanks for the visit. I look forward to reading more of your own postings.


  16. To Tramp,

    To follow up on my response to your comments, check out Delwyn's comments. She picks up on your idea that wabi-sabi is common sense when she says: "It is almost like an intrinsic understanding that has been camouflaged by the 20th century's ideals and promises."

  17. I want to respond to these latest comments by Tramp, Delwyn and you. There is truth in what Tramp says, as you validated, that it may be common sense, this way of seeing and living. For myself, what you said, that finding this term and definition of something that feels so right, giving it a "name and legitimacy," is exactly right. There is something about pointing something out, like the finger pointing at the moon, the naming of a thing or a concept, that acknowledges and connects my mind consciously with what is being pointed out. Some people get this intuitively, while someone like me, who is very well trained in the linear way of seeing and thinking, needs a naming and a recognition to close the circle. I don't know if I'll ever be able to unlearn how I've been trained to see in this Western culture of mine, but awakening and strengthening ways of seeing and feeling that ring more true than those that feel deadening is what I want to do. I'm not really saying anything new after what has been said, but it's good to interact on Tramp's point, that really does ring true, and yet, I know I needed something to help me shape these concepts. Knowing they've been around for so long and have shaped cultures even, is freeing, not enslaving, and makes me feel part of a humanity that sees different possibilities than this new-and-shiny-is-better culture's way of seeing.

  18. To Ruth,

    Thanks so much for these additional comments. This is exactly the kind of thoughtful discussion I had hoped to generate with this posting and the previous one.

    As I read the various comments on wabi-sabi, it occurs to me that there may be some cultural nuances at work here. Wabi-sabi values may be closer to common sense in Europe, which has such a rich, lengthy, and diverse cultural heritage -- a heritage which, for the most part, is celebrated and preserved. In America, however, we seem to be obsessed with throwing out the old and bringing in the new; few things are built to last; and finding beauty in the simple and unadorned is often regarded as the last resort for those who cannot afford anything else. It is true that there have always been people in this country with a wabi-sabi spirit -- Thoreau was the embodiment of wabi-sabi -- but the dominant theme of American life runs in a different direction. Wabi-sabi may be good sense, but I find it all too uncommon in American culture, such as it is.

    Thanks again to you, Tramp, and everyone else who has contributed to this discussion. It's been enlightening and fun!