We were introduced to wabi-sabi years ago when we had the great good fortune to spend a night at Kyoto's oldest and most famous inn, the 300-year-old Tawaraya. The rooms were simple, elegant, and beautiful with objects showing the wear of time but still exuding a sturdy presence that demanded respect. One of the principles of this establishment is that no one object or element should stand out above any other. According to Leonard Koren, creator of an avant garde magazine and an inveterate chronicler of Japanese culture, this approach fits right in with wabi-sabi, which he calls "a beauty of all things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional."
Taoism and Zen Buddhism have provided most of the inspiration for this quintessential Japanese aesthetic that emphasizes simplicity, naturalness, and acceptance of reality. Two of the pioneers of wabi-sabi were tea masters Murata Shuko (1423 - 1502) and Sen no Rikyu (1522 - 1591). Three lessons gleaned from the careful study and appreciation of nature were incorporated into the wisdom of this tradition: (1) All things are impermanent. (2) All things are imperfect. (3) All things are incomplete.
Wabi-sabi is light years away from the Western concepts of beauty which usually salute things lasting or spectacular. Instead, it emphasizes “the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes."
Think of the the handle of the rake you have used for years to gather fall leaves. There is beauty in this well-used object which may also display the nicks and discoloration of time. Or how about the teapot given to you by your mother that has been passed down through the generations. It is faded and chipped but its innate beauty still shines through in ways that touch the heart and reveal our intimacy with it. These old things also compel us to look at our mortality. We bear in our bodies the wear and tear of time. The wabi-sabi objects in our lives are spiritual teachers opening our eyes to beauty in unexpected places.
Koren is convinced that wabi-sabi also enables us to come to terms with what we consider ugly: "Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any given moment given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace." Read this slender and unpretentious volume, and you'll find yourself coming to a deeper and richer appreciation of the little wonders you are taking for granted in your daily existence.