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,
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.
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.