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Embracing Wabi-Sabi

Mikki Brammer

The Japanese have long known the secrets to living a simple, authentic life. One need only look to the painstaking care and reverence of their traditional tea ceremonies to see a wonderful example that truly embraces the art of slow. It was the simple act of making a cup of tea that brought to life the centuries-old Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, the roots of which lie in Zen Buddhism and Taoism.

Rebelling against the traditional Chinese tea ceremonies that embodied an elite, ostentatious opulence, 16th-century Japanese tea master and Zen monk Murata Shuko began to conduct ceremonies that were exactly the antithesis. Using rustic, coarse and unrefined tools set in sparse, basic furnishings, he emphasized the notion of simplicity and being present in the process itself: fetching water, gathering wood for the fire, boiling the water, making the tea, and serving it to others. Other Japanese tea masters and Zen monks began to adopt a similar practice, and soon the subtle lessons that lay within the revised tea ceremony became a philosophy itself, known widely as wabi-sabi.

The true meaning of “wabi” is rather elusive, though it was often used to describe someone who was content with having very little in life, and who was free from greed, anger and attachment to material possessions. “Sabi” refers to the impermanence of time and the acceptance of the cycle of growth, decay, and death—objects that have aged with a certain grace and dignity, elegantly bearing the brunt of time.

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Among those who first introduced the idea of wabi-sabi to Western culture was Zen Buddhist monk Daisetz T. Suzuki, who is said to have described it as an “aesthetical appreciation of poverty.” But poverty, in his interpretation, was not a lifestyle defined by lack, but one of finding abundance in simplicity—trimming away the inessentials and the weight of material concerns to find pleasure in living with only what you need. Author Leonard Koren cites a similar notion—that material poverty yields spiritual richness—in his book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (which, though brief, is an excellent overview of the philosophy).

But how does wabi-sabi apply to our modern world? For some, it exists merely as an aesthetic—a means of decorating the home in rustic, minimalist décor. But to dismiss it as a mere design device would be missing its true essence. In life in general, wabi-sabi is the acceptance of the ebb and flow—the understanding that this, too, shall pass. Life, as with most things, is impermanent, making it essential to savor every moment and live as slowly as you possibly can amongst today’s frenetic world.

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Wabi-sabi is not the absence of beauty, but rather a reframing of it. Eschewing common Western ideals of what is beautiful, wabi-sabi seeks beauty in the flawed—in the overlooked, subtle details. At its quintessence is the idea of finding beauty imperfection—in the crevices, the wrinkles and the cracks. It’s the grit in a singing voice, the crackle of an old vinyl record, a knot in a piece of wood, a gapped-tooth grin, or the dog-eared pages of a beloved book. It’s a tree stripped of its leaves in winter, exposing its withered branches, knots and all.

We needn’t resort to extreme asceticism in order to weave wabi-sabi into our own lifestyle. By narrowing our limited possessions to only those things that bring us joy, we can strip our life of unnecessary attachments and general clutter to become one of simplicity—at least in the aesthetic sense. Buy things with the intention of keeping them forever (or as long as they will last). Pare down possessions to those that are of emotional rather than monetary value: a grandmother’s chair, old photographs, a treasured stone found during a walk through the woods.

Murata Shuko is said to have once uttered, “It is good to tie a praised horse to a straw-thatched house,” a philosophy that rings particularly true in the modern age. It’s wonderful to enjoy a few beautiful, high-end things in our home, but they can be balanced with rustic, worn-in, simple items. Embracing wabi-sabi means seeking the handmade and the unprocessed.

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The principles also extend to fashion. Before we throw away that sweater with the hole in the sleeve, or those torn jeans, we should consider their wear and tear as a sign of something well loved. Mend them rather than getting rid of them, and take pride in their patches, frayed edges, absent buttons and faded fabric. Buy things as investments rather than as part of disposable, fleeting trends, and—most importantly—appreciate where, and how, things are made.

But wabi-sabi is not simply limited to the external, the visible. So often we utter the phrase “Well, nobody’s perfect” as a defense in response to someone’s weakness or failure. But why can’t it be something said in celebration? After all, a willingness to learn from our mistakes, and rise when we have fallen, is what makes us human. We are imperfect, and that’s where our beauty truly lies.

Like beauty, wabi-sabi can be found everywhere, if we just take the time to shift our perspective. And above all, tread lightly on the planet, live slowly and simply, and revel wholeheartedly in this moment—for it, too, will pass.

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