The Beauty in a Blemish
When we decided that this month’s theme was on beauty and perfection, I had difficulty choosing what to write about. At first, I simply couldn’t select a single topic. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t focus on one stunning tradition, temple or place. Instead, I’m going to talk about a Japanese idea of beauty: the aesthetic of wabi-sabi.
What is wabi-sabi?
Simply put, wabi-sabi is the idea that beauty and perfection can be found in the imperfect, the damaged, and the weathered parts of life. This doesn’t mean that you should break all your belongings, but you should find sentimental value in a chipped mug or recognise the beauty in the pattern of stains on a fence. Wabi-sabi is not a philosophy that rejects luxury. Instead, it values comfort and history over modernity and pristine cleanliness.
The origins of wabi-sabi are unknown and remain highly debated. Some date it to the early Song dynasty (c. 960-1279 CE) in China. However, most believe it’s likely to have developed around the 15th century in Japan due to its links with Zen Buddhism and Shintoism, explaining its prominence in Japanese culture. Although today it’s seen as positive, the words wabi (侘び) and sabi (寂) both originally had negative connotations. Wabi has changed from meaning isolation away from society to represent rustic simplicity, calm, and a handcrafted item’s slight flaws. Sabi meant withered and degraded, but now means the beauty that comes with age, with the history of an object visible in its scratches, stains, and patterns. The shift in meaning shows an increased appreciation for rustic beauty, especially with society’s desire for perfection. In a way, it could be an escape from the modernity of city life.
Wabi-sabi in practice
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate wabi-sabi is to give some examples of where and how it is used. Last month I wrote about tea ceremonies. In these, value is placed on the tools’ history. The most valued tool isn’t the pristine solid gold one, but rather the simple lacquer bowls owned by grandmasters of the past. The patterns made by prolonged use have a beauty of their own. This is displayed in the kintsugi practice. This is where broken bowls are fixed with a paste made from gold dust, not hiding the damage but celebrating it as an essential part of the object’s history.
Gardening also draws on wabi-sabi. To the unfamiliar, Japanese gardens may seem like perfectly maintained, flawless spaces. But in fact, wabi-sabi is here too. For example, there’s a story of a tea master named Sen no Rikyu who cleaned up a garden for his master. But after ensuring the garden was spotless, he shook a cherry tree to scatter the petals over the ground before he deemed it complete. This displayed his understanding of wabi-sabi. It was the imperfection that made it unique and made the garden’s beauty stand out.
Even the materials favoured in Japan reflect this philosophy. Woods, lacquers and tatami may not have the pristine cleanliness of plastics and glass. Still, they have a character of their own and gain beauty with age as they degrade and discolour. Metals are an excellent example because the western approach is to polish them to remove any marks, whereas wabi-sabi values the wear and patterns.
In his book In Praise Of Shadows, a highly influential essay published in 1933, Junichiro Tanizaki summarises: “And of silver and copperware: we love them for the burnish and patina, which they consider unclean, unsanitary, and polish to a glittering brilliance.” This, I think, is an excellent summary as it highlights how to value what to others would maybe seem ugly or tarnished and turn it into something of beauty. It’s about picking the discarded or neglected and giving it a new life. Perhaps the most stunning objects are those where you can visibly see the wear over time.
Wabi-sabi isn’t just an ancient tradition but one still gaining popularity and even spreading to other countries worldwide. These days, society focuses on pursuing perfection. This has transferred to the modern aesthetic of clinical whites and shining metals. The escape offered by wabi-sabi is a hard temptation to resist when surrounded by the same tired style. Sometimes, an old and worn wooden table can be far cosier and more relaxing than a new plastic or glass one.
The philosophy of wabi-sabi isn’t just for design or traditional activities, but can be applied to everyday life. Almost any situation can be improved by accepting imperfection and valuing it as a memory to come. Even big names such as Martha Stewart have advocated wabi-sabi as a healthy philosophy to live your life by. Simply accepting the imperfections in your life rather than always striving for perfection can significantly help with anxiety and stress. Wabi-sabi isn’t about settling for worse but instead celebrating the memories and uniqueness of life.
Hopefully, this article has convinced you to look a little more into wabi-sabi and maybe even adopt it in your everyday life. Perhaps if more people valued objects for their flaws and history, we could cut down on waste and fix what is broken rather than replace it. I, for one, hope that wabi-sabi continues to spread and bring its beautiful philosophy to the rest of the world.
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