Saturday, July 24, 2010


Old Peacock Feather

One of the books that has captured my imagination in recent weeks is Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers.  Published in 1994, this small book was written by Leonard Koren, a trained architect who, according to the publisher's note, had never previously built anything, except an eccentric Japanese tea house, "because he found large, permanent objects too philosophically vexing to design." 

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic ideal that is rooted to some extent in Zen Buddhism.  Like Zen, it is difficult to precisely define because it abhors structures, criteria, and formulas. According to Koren, however, wabi-sabi encompasses --

     the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent,
     and incomplete;

     the beauty of things modest and humble; and

     the beauty of things unconventional.

Looking around the outside of my home in the last few days, I have found several objects or groups of objects that seem to radiate wabi-sabi beauty: the remains of a weathered peacock feather that was arbitrarily stuck in a flower pot several years ago; odd pieces of colorful sea glass gathered by my wife from various beaches; a weathered stone with interesting patterns; a bird's abandoned nest still containing a broken shell that once contained new life; and a metal lattice strip succumbing to rust. Each of these objects is imperfect and each is a testament to the impermanence of all things.

Pieces of Weathered Sea Glass

In its celebration of things that are imperfect, impermanent, incomplete, modest, humble, or unconventional, wabi-sabi stands in opposition to the western aesthetic ideal.  With its Greek heritage, the western ideal reveres perfection and disparages "flaws"; venerates that which is perceived to be permanent and frowns upon that which is perceived to be transitory; and favors "completed" things over those that are slow works in progress.  Westerners may occasionally find the modest and humble to be charming, but we seldom equate it with beauty.  Nor are we inclined to ascribe beauty to unconventional things; more often than not, the unconventional is suspected of "ugliness," the cardinal aesthetic sin.

Weathered Stone

Understandably, the western aesthetic ideal may seem more rational to westerners, particularly Americans. Like Zen, however, wabi-sabi is decidedly anti-rational, which is to say that it abhors any habit of systematic, conditioned thinking that separates the thinker from the reality of the present moment.  As a result, the focus of wabi-sabi is never on some abstract, intellectual notion of what could be or should be, but rather on the singular beauty emanating from that which is at any given point in time.

Bird's Abandoned Nest with Cracked Shell

While wabi-sabi is often associated with ambiance, the physical environment, or the beauty of things, it is anchored in larger philosophical propositions that can also provide the framework for one's entire life.  Those propositions, as I understand them, would include the following:

-- One should accept and embrace impermanence, not only because it is the undeniable state of all things, including the universe, but also because it is the condition that gives value to anything at any given moment.

-- One should see and appreciate the beauty of every stage of transition, the old no less than the new, the broken no less than the whole, the tarnished and tattered no less than the slick and fine.

-- One should discover wonder and beauty in unexpected places and things, perhaps even places or things that are suspected of being "ugly."  As Koren says, "beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness," and is often found in "the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to the vulgar eye."

-- One should live simply, modestly, and frugally by getting rid of everything that is unnecessary, including nonessential material things as well as illusions of wealth, success, status, power, and luxury.

-- One should always favor the intuitive over the logical, nature over technology, the present over the future, natural materials over the man-made materials, modesty over ostentation, and the inner life over the outer life.

None of this is meant to suggest that wabi-sabi would require one to live in a perennial state of austerity or deprivation; indeed, Buddha himself advocated "the middle way."  The key, as Koren essentially states in his book, is to pare down to the essence of life without removing its poetry.

Rusting Metal Lattice Strip


  1. This is such an inspiring post, George. I found myself saying: yes, yes, yes. I am so much in sympathy with this philosophy. So much is racing through my mind as a result of reading this - too much to work out and distil at the moment, but I think it would be great to develop and take these ideas further, perhaps in future posts from people within this community.

    Just to say at the moment: what a refreshing antidote to the Western, perfectionist, Classical ideal, derived from the Greeks. Food for thought: recently in Agrigento I've been looking at Doric temples, amateur paintings in the Agrigento B&B, random stone and leaf patterns in the Valley of the Temples and graffiti in the new town. Mmm...

    Wabi-sabi reflects and celebrates the transitory, the unfinished - and thus truly reflects life itself, which is always in a state of becoming, and is never complete.

    Wabi-sabi recognises and encourages the artist in each one of us - which is a wonderfully inspiring and democratic idea. Beauty is all around us, even in the most unexpected places, and we can all create beauty - in our lives, works and actions. We are all artists; and we are all imperfect.

    There can be beauty even in 'ugliness'. The idea of physical, mental and artistic perfection is a myth, an unattainable ideal - and can be an unhealthy and dangerous one at that.

    My mother had Alzheimer's for the last few years of her life. During the final 9 months she degenerated fast. But I have always thought: she was as beautiful then as she was in her youth.

    Forgive these random, ill-thought-out jottings. Though perhaps wabi-sabi is at work here?

    I can see why you were particularly interested in my recent postings on Richard Long and those other landscape artists.

    Thanks again for this most inspiring post. It has really invigorated my Sunday morning.

  2. To Robert,

    Thanks for making such an important contribution to this discussion. Your comments, which are both visceral and thoughtful, confirm that I am not alone in my skepticism about western ideals and philosophy.

    At this point, I have only scratched the surface of wabi-sabi ideas, and I would heartily welcome a broader discussion of the topic in our blogging community. I will probably explore the matter further in future postings. During the meantime, I invite you to write about wabi-sabi in some of your own postings. As Mae West once said, "too much of a good thing can be wonderful."

    I like your statement that "we are all artists; and we are all imperfect." As a painter, I have often heard people diminish themselves by saying things like "I have no talent," "I'm not artistic," or "I'm just not any good." I find these self-defeating expressions to be profoundly sad. You are absolutely right. We are all artists, notwithstanding the imperfections of ourselves and our creations. I am reminded of the lyrics of Leonard Cohen: "Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."

    I hope you follow the comments that are filed by others on this posting, Robert, and jump back in if you have any additional insights.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post, George.

    After my friend Inge gave me the book the wabi-sabi house a few years ago, I read and recognized my own worldview, aesthetic and philosophy of life. It has also shaped my thinking since I read and re-read it. I think you've hit on the important points here -- the beauty in things as they are, in transition, in impermanence.

    It's about slowing down. There is a sense of melancholy about it. It is a lifelong process, moment by moment. It's authenticity, and valuing the essence of things and people, of caring for things out of respect for them, not out of slavery to certain ideals. It's not being weighed down by things.

    For me it is realizing that I am no higher than anything else in space, in this moment.

  4. Hi George,

    You have all my cells tingling with surprise and glee ... for you see, I purchased Koren's book about one month ago! The philosophy seemed as familiar as those moments when you meet someone new and yet feel you have known them your entire life.

    Koren's wabi-sabi nature is evident even on the cover and spine of his book, where his name or the publisher's name do not appear.

    I cannot imagine a better way to proceed through the days still allotted to me than in a wabi-sabi state of mind - finding value in each moment, in the simple, in the unadorned, in the under-appreciated - loving what is as it presents itself.

    I enjoyed reading your summary and appreciation of Leonard Koren's book. (I almost typed Leonard Cohen - which reminds me how he, Cohen, being a student of Zen, kept his home and the room where he composed and wrote his music so sparse, humble and bare. Undistracted by clutter or visual noise made room for beauty to emerge from within. Wabi-sabi surely fosters creativity.)

    Delwyn from A Hazy Moon (who is unfortunately posting quite infrequently now) introduced me to the philosphy of wabi-sabi several months ago. I am delighted to find another wabi-sabi friend in you George.

  5. Okay George - I just finished my comment and clicked post comment to see you have put up a reply to Robert - in which you mention Leonard Cohen!! How ... interesting!! We must be sailing on the same cosmic current today ... spooky ... but fun! :-)

  6. To Ruth,

    Thanks for the comments on the impact of wabi-sabi in your own life. Three things you mention really resonate with me -- no slavery to ideals, not being weighed down by things, and always being no higher than anything else in space.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. To Bonnie,

    That deletion above was because of a typing error. In any event, we are, indeed, sailing in the same cosmic current today -- most days, in fact. I love your observation that encountering wabi-sabi is like meeting someone who you feel you have known for your entire life. That's precisely my reaction, and it appears to be the reaction of others (see comments of Robert and Ruth).

    Thanks for reminding me that neither the spine nor the cover of Koren's book reflect the names of the author and publisher. How refreshing it is to see something created and released in such a simple, wabi-sabi manner.

  9. Thanks, George. (I feel the tingle of excitement, in myself, and in Robert and Bonnie. When something rings true . . .)

    I came back to add that when I wrote melancholy, that is not a sad thing for me. It is more like acknowledging the temporal and wounded in all of life, and in the things we live with. There is beauty in these things worn with patina - for me far more than in the shiny and new.

  10. WOW! George a really powerful post. Just look at the responses in this short time. I'm going to have to reread...and the go get the book. I never knew there was a "name" for what I like about things. My friends have often laughed, when they find something rusty, half broken, and commented they should "give it to Karin, she'll think it's beautiful!!" So I'm not the only one!! Truly I never knew there a "philosphy" or such...I am blown have totally made my day! Now I'm going to go check my old bird nest with broken robins eggs sitting on a shelf....with the joy of knowing, others might appreciate it too!

  11. Hi George, I am sending along a link to a Wabi Sabi article from the Robert Genn Letters that I subscribe to.. you may enjoy it...

    Wabi-sabi feels good.... I very much connect with it..

  12. The link I mentioned..

  13. I too find the whole subject fascinating. There is a beauty in some of the most prosaic objects - we just have to learn to look for it and to recognise it when we see it. Here in the Western world we are 'trained' to see only the obvious so-called beautiful things and the whole philosophy seems to be the acquisition of such things. I would welcome wide discussion on such subject matter. Super post - has relaly made me think.

  14. To KSAM,

    Thanks for the wonderful comments. I'm delighted that you, like others, have related to wabi-sabi on a very personal basis. One of the truly great things about blogging is the ability of people like us to connect on matters of great philosophical importance. For reasons I don't quite understand, it's more difficult to make that connection in our local, off-line communities, even when surrounded by friends and family.

  15. To Gwen,

    Thanks so much for the link. I will check it out as soon as I get a chance. I am looking for anything I can find that will help me bring more of the wabi-sabi experience into my life.

  16. To Pat,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Pat. I agree with everything you said. As for having a wider discussion of wabi-sabi, I think it's beginning, thanks to the contributions of you and others who have commented.

  17. To Ruth,

    I understood exactly what you meant by "melancholy." I have seen others use the same term, not in a negative sense, but in an honest acknowledgment of the fragile beauty of every aspect of life.

  18. A very stimulating post and exchange in the comments, George. I am unfamiliar with wabi-sabi and this strikes me as a fine introduction. Indeed, along with the "tingle of excitement" noted by Ruth, there is a shudder of recognition, as when one sees something aptly put in words that one feels could have (and should have) come from onself. This approach really is so diametrically (and refreshingly) opposed to the Platonic ideal.

  19. Lorenzo,

    Thanks for the contribution to this discussion. Your comments echo what many of us have felt, specifically, that wabi-sabi gives legitimacy to something we have long felt at a visceral level -- and, indeed, it is a refreshing departure from the Greek ideal that beauty is to be found only in perfection.

  20. Beautiful. I love the peacock feather, as well as your discussion of wabi-sabi. I love old, weathered, crooked and even leaning houses or buildings. To me, those types of buildings are so much more beautiful than the conventional ones. They are full of aura and stories.

    "The beauty of things imperfect, impermanent,
    and incomplete" also makes me think of people. Some of the most beautiful people I've ever met are not society's "pretty" people. They live in shacks, homeless shelters, or are struggling with addictions.

    The older a person gets, the more beautiful he/she gets. And I mean physically beautiful, not just spiritually. In my eyes, a twisted old oak is much more beautiful than a sapling.

    One lesson I learned this last year was the impermanence of "things." My family lost everything in the Recession, including our family home. At first, I was heartbroken. It's not as if we had much to start with, but the house was an old farmhouse where we raised our daughter. I mourned the loss of all those memories. How silly of me.

    But now, I am truly happy. It's hard to describe without going on too long. I am light and free.

    Thank you very much for the introduction to wabi-sabi and the book. I will definitely check it out.

  21. I came back to catch up on comments posted at this stimulating post. After reading Lorenzo's, and your response, I also think of the Apollonian and Dionysian spectrum. It's not that the Dionysian is more wabi-sabi, but maybe there is a blend of the orderly of the Apollonian and the passionate intoxication of the Dionysian that can result in a wabi-sabi kind of view. I guess those concepts are informing my thoughts on wabi-sabi. I'll have to think more about whether it fits.

  22. Hi Julie,

    Thanks for the generous, thoughtful, and intimate comments. I agree with everything you say, the loveliness of the crooked and weathered houses, the appeal of unconventional people and things, and the beauty of the aging face. I am also moved by the story of how your family lost so much during this painful recession. Fortunately, you did not lose your soaring spirit and the wisdom of knowing that security is never truly found in material things. Your comments remind me of Alan Watt's great book, "The Wisdom of Insecurity, " in which Watts argues that all insecurity of predicated on the illusion that we can avoid the law of impermanence. When we accept impermanence and recognize that we cannot control the events that affect our lives, we, ironically, find ourselves feeling more secure. It's wonderful knowing that you are still light, happy, and free. You are obviously leading some kind of wabi-sabi life, even if it hasn't been called that.

  23. Hi Ruth,

    Thanks for the additional comments. I think the Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy is clearly relevant, and I think it is fair to say that the Dionysian, being more intuitive than rational, is closer to the wabi-sabi end of the spectrum. As you will see from my next posting, however, I do not believe that one has to completely abandon the modern world or the world of logic in order to live a more wabi-sabi life. It's a matter of finding balance, perhaps what Buddha referred to as "the middle way."

  24. I am here because of Ruth's latest wabi-sabi post. A most thought-provoking philosophy/idea (ideal would be an oxymoron wouldn't it). Imperfection, transience, a statue with a broken nose...On to your next...still thinking.
    Thank you.

  25. To DS,

    Welcome to my blog! I'm glad that you stopped by for a visit, and if you're still thinking after reading the post, that's great. The whole purpose of this blog is to promote meaningful conversations about the important issues that each of us encounter on our respective journeys. Thanks again.

  26. A vermiculated journey to your blog:
    1. Clipped article about The Bard of Provincetown from NYT July 2009.
    2. Finally added New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1 to Amazon shopping cart, Oct 2010.
    3. Read Mary Oliver's poem 'Stanley Kunitz'
    4. Intrigued by gardening allusions, googled Stanley Kunitz and clicked images.
    5. Randomly selected image of 'The Wild Braid.'
    6. Arrived at your memorial posting.
    7. Thinking 1 hour later that I really must get to work. Read the post on "Loafing."
    8. Another hour later read "Wabi-Sabi" -- this book has been one of my favorites for years.

    One of my favorite books on this topic is purportedly for children, Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, art by Ed Young.
    "seeing herself plain -- and beautiful, she whispered, -- "Now I understand."

    Thank you for your extraordinary posts. I look forward to following your blog.

  27. To Juliana,

    Thanks for stopping by on your vermiculated journey, Juliana. I'm happy that you found some postings that resonated with you, and hope you will return. During the meantime, I plan to check out your own blog. Best wishes and have a lovely day.