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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Wabi Sabi

You may not be familiar with the meaning of Wabi Sabi, although its origins are ancient and as central to the Japanese sense of aesthetics as the Grecian ideal of beauty is to Western culture. Though it defies easy translation, Wabi Sabi conveys a sensibility that reflects three themes of Buddhist existence: selflessness, impermanence and spiritual longing. In a modern context we might have heard the expression used to describe works of art or natural objects that display a rustic or flawed beauty, imperfect but strangely compelling.

But Wabi Sabi is more than a voguish cultural idiom, despite contemporary attempts to appropriate it for such purposes. It reveals a fundamental truth about us and our relationship with the universe that goes far beyond such facile explanation. Although it is an ambitious undertaking for a post, I wanted to see if I could explore that idea just a bit.

Let us imagine two artisans, one possessed of great experience and skill, devoted to the creation of aesthetic perfection; while the other is imbued with a melancholic sense of transience, a humbling awareness that the works of men are subject to the laws of entropy. We might expect the former to create something of exquisite beauty. We are unlikely to see the same in the other’s work, it may be almost utilitarian. But what is it we feel when we look at the works of these two?

Physical beauty typically fills us with a sense of awe and admiration, but too often it also feels aloof and unobtainable. The ancients believed that the pursuit of perfection was divinely inspired, an attempt to equal what the gods alone reserved to themselves. They also shared unease about man’s attempts at perfection, conveying in their stories inevitable retribution for such hubris.

In contrast, those works we regard as enduring display a hint of imperfection, a very human trait. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, what compels us to return again and again to these works is an emotional engagement, arguably a glimpse into the struggles of creation. In the twisted limbs of a Juniper tree standing starkly against a desert sky, we see a different kind of beauty. In the tree’s tortured asymmetry, we see evidence of life wrestling with its surroundings, and it moves us in a way that the perfectly manicured topiaries of an English garden can never convey. To be human is to struggle, to act and be acted upon by the universe and to be shaped by its generosity and pain. What I feel when I come upon this kind of beauty is an acute awareness of my connection with that universe, and in the dignity of the tree’s gnarled existence I am reminded of both my mortality and human persistence.

For me this is the truth of Wabi Sabi. To be human is to long for what we will never attain. We are transformed for better or worse by the events of our lives; we shape and are shaped by the universe, and the lives of those with whom we are in relationship. In the limbs of the Juniper, the unrefined flaws of an ancient tea bowl, and in the works that have endured through the ages this essential truth is revealed to us. It is in the act of living, of struggling and searching for our meaning that we are defined. Keats said this better than I could: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.

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