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WABI-SABI
Sometimes we all need to slow down, take a moment to look around, and be at peace that not everything needs to be ‘perfect’ – including ourselves.
(Photograph: Esther Driehaus. Words: Betty Beard)

This spring, we’ve taken inspiration from Japanese culture and its mindful approach to life (see page 106 for our trip of a lifetime to Japan), and how the Japanese outlook can guide us to live a rich, joyful and thoughtful life. A concept that jumped out to us from the book The Art of Japanese Living by Jo Peters was wabi-sabi, a way of viewing the world that sees beauty in imperfection and helps you to accept that life is transient.

What is wabi-sabi?

Wabi-sabi is an enigma of Japanese culture. It’s not something people learn or discuss, and there is no absolute definition for the term: it is, essentially, undefinable. Wabi-sabi is a concept that’s simply understood, and it is ubiquitous, underpinning many aspects of Japanese culture, from art to architecture to everyday life.

In broad terms, wabi-sabi is an aesthetic principle – a way of seeing and understanding beauty in the world – which embraces imperfection and transience. Perhaps one way to explain it is in contrast: whereas Western ideals of beauty emphasise perfection and longevity, wabi-sabi favours incompleteness and impermanence.

We can gain an understanding of the concept through each individual word. Over time, wabi has come to denote simple, rustic beauty, quietude and stillness. For instance, wabi qualities can be found in minimal interiors, in frugality and in periods of solitude in nature. Sabi is about finding beauty and character in objects that show marks of age and experience – it can be seen in the spine of a book cracked from being opened many times, or in a tree gnarled with old age.

‘Because life is full of uncertainty, one must engrave in his heart the events of the day as if there is no tomorrow’
Sen no Riky?

When the words are combined, the term wabi-sabi is about how you personally perceive and understand the kinds of beauty connoted by each word. Although there is no specific definition, at its core wabi-sabi is about finding beauty in imperfection; about accepting that all things in life are transient and always changing. It’s about the very act of feeling these things and the peace and contentment it can bring.

Every person’s experience of wabi-sabi will be unique to them, because we all find beauty in different things. But what is universal is that wabi-sabi is a moment of deep appreciation – a way of experiencing the world from your heart. And it’s this deep appreciation that can give us a sense of tranquillity and contentment.

Wabi-sabi and Buddhism

The philosophy of wabi-sabi is deeply connected to Buddhism. Buddhism teaches that there are three characteristics of existence: impermanence, suffering and the idea that there is no permanent and unchanging self. Wisdom lies in being able to accept these three things.

Wabi-sabi is said to be a way of embodying these teachings. By understanding that transience is the world’s natural state, and finding beauty within this, we can begin to accept impermanence. Finding beauty in objects that show age and marks of use is a way to accept suffering. By coming to terms with the fact that we ourselves are also fluid and changing – always incomplete and always imperfect – we can begin to accept that there is no such thing as a definitive or tangible ‘self’. Therefore, wabi-sabi not only helps us to understand the way we exist in the world – it also allows us to find a sense of truth and peace within it.