Wabi-sabi 101: what does “Japanese aesthetics of imperfection” really mean?
Wabi-sabi is a traditional Japanese aesthetic concept that is often considered one of the oldest manifestations of minimalism in art. But what is it exactly? Even the Japanese are not so sure because there has never been an explicit wabi-sabi art movement, in the same way as impressionism or pop art: people bundled certain types of art a posteriori and dubbed them wabi-sabi, a term which is actually made up of two ancient verbs “侘び (wabi)” and “寂び (sabi.)” People today have only a vague idea of what wabi and sabi literally means, since the meanings kept evolving over hundreds of years. While wabi-sabi remains a vague/elusive notion, there are a couple elements that will help you understand – or rather feel – what it is.
- Wabi-sabi emerged sometime around the 14~15th century, during which time Japan was going through drastic economic/social changes. First came an unprecedented accumulation of wealth. This was followed by devastating civil wars caused by regional military leaders who sought to seize the wealth.
- Wabi-sabi was strongly influenced by Zen, a then-new school of Buddhism in Japan, which was being embraced by military elites and soldiers.
- 茶道 (Sado, tea ceremony) is the most prominent wabi-sabi art, which is a unique art of behavior or attitude.
Literal meanings of wabi and sabi: it’s Japanese version of “distressed” or “shabby chic”
As described earlier, wabi and sabi are two different ancient verbs that have common qualities. Wabi (wabu) means to feel disappointed, distressed or abandoned. You may “wabu” if you are forced to live all alone, away from home and family. Sabi (sabu) meant to degrade, decay or rust. A solitary rock in a shady area covered by old moss may look “sabu.” If you are into design or aesthetics, you may already have made connections to the Western aesthetic quality of “distressed” or “shabby chic.” Yes, just like shabby chic, wabi-sabi found beauty in the expressions brew by wear and tear or depreciation. But there is more to it. More than the physical appearance of age, wabi-sabi also embraced philosophical imperfection and the sense of loss as a source of beauty. And this has to do with the social background that allowed wabi-sabi culture to emerge.
Historical backdrops of wabi-sabi
It is commonly believed that the culture of wabi-sabi was born out of the 東山文化 (Higashiyama culture) during the 室町 (Muromach) era (1336-1573). The biggest patron of the Higashiyama culture was the then-shogun 足利義政 (Ashikaga Yoshimasa, 1436-1490), who, much like Ludwig II of Bavaria, squandered his power and public money to create an isolated aesthetic utopia. But unlike Ludwig II, Yoshimasa’s art wonderland focused on simple, no-frills, subdued and subtle beauty.
But why did he do this? He was overwhelmed, lacking the leadership skills to handle the unprecedented scale of the wealth-generating system created by his grandfather Yoshimitsu, a strong, forceful shogun who aggressively promoted the international trade with China that drastically boosted the Japanese economy. With money came an unprecedented power struggle, and unable to keep the administration united, Yoshimasa escaped into aesthetic oblivion and as a result left a political vacuum. Regional military leaders took advantage of it and started fighting each other, causing the Onin-war (1467-1478), the largest civil war up to that time, that lasted for a decade, turning Kyoto from a “flourishing capital,” into a wasteland. As the Higashiyama culture blossomed side-by-side with this devastation, it inevitably embraced the sense of loss and the realization that power, beauty and celebration were only temporary. Indeed, people learned the hard lesson that the more money there was, the more devastating its loss became.
Zen and wabi-sabi
The realization that everything created eventually goes away, and that nothing is permanent and absolute, is indeed the core tenet of Buddhism called 無常 (mujo). What’s extraordinary about Buddhism is that it considered mujo as the source of boundless potential, not despair. Everything in this universe comes and goes. People, power, money, beauty are born, grow and eventually die. But death or decline is also about the next birth/growth, and every one of us who is part of this birth-decay loop plays a small but integral part in the infinite whole/universe that continues to grow into something boundlessly large. Nothingness is infinite potential, although it could feel painful. Even before the Muromachi era, traditional Japanese culture embraced mujo and found beauty (mono no aware) in elusive moments: people saw undefinable potential as seasons, natural phenomena or relationships kept changing, or growth became maturity, and then turned into a decline.
Then, Zen pushed mujo-influenced aesthetics to the next level. Zen is a unique school of Buddhism that focuses on meditation, not intellectual endeavors (Buddhism had tens of thousands of textbooks due to its highly philosophical nature), to pursue a religious goal, or Nirvana, which is to completely “empty” your body and soul, dissolve into the vast universe of “nothingness” where you are finally free from any sorrow or pain. Zen expanded its influence as emerging military leaders overpowered reigning aristocrats after the 12th century, and they chose physical and stoic Zen as their school of Buddhism. The fact that Zen relied on stoic conduct/behavior, not intellectual efforts to pursue truth, had a significant impact in elevating Middle Age philosophy and art to a high level of abstraction, in which elements were reduced to ultimate essentials only. Words and meanings were stripped off and objects were disassembled into pure elements. Wabi-sabi was born to reveal the truth of this world, after all kinds of good and bad came and go.
Wabi-sabi is an attitude toward life
So far, we have talked about how military leaders in the Muromachi era boosted the Japanese economy and triggered large-scale social unrest, and how Zen emerged as an emotional shelter to survive the tragedy and embrace the reality. Wabi-sabi was born as a result of the physical/emotional/metaphysical conflicts surrounding wealth. And indeed, wealth was also behind the birth of 茶道 (sado, traditional Japanese tea ceremony), an art of behavior and attitude that best represents the wabi-sabi spirit. As discussed earlier, the affluence during the Muromachi era was accumulated thanks to international trade with China. Whenever there is trade, there are wealthy merchants. In Muromachi Japan, those emerging merchants invested their newly-made money in the arts and entertainment, especially in tea parties. In a curious twist, those extravagant tea parties transformed into what we know as 茶道 (sado, traditional Japanese tea ceremony) today, which represent the essence of wabi-sabi. By the way, it’s a bit misleading to translate 茶道 (sado) as the “traditional Japanese tea ceremony.” Sado is really the quest for true beauty – no frills, no exaggerations but honest and blunt wabi-sabi beauty – through a tea ceremony. The emphasis was on a “quest for beauty/truth,” for which tea ceremony served as a vehicle or medium.
Tea parties developed into influential social salons as merchants increased their power and it didn’t take long for these rich people to start racing to own the hottest artifacts (mostly rare and expensive imports from China) used for the event, such as tea bowls, kakejiku (hanging scrolls) or flower vases. As the parties became more prodigal and speculative, prominent Tea Masters moved in the extreme opposite direction and started pursuing a “wabi-cha (wabi-tea)” style that embraced the Zen spirit (it was called “茶禅一味 (cha zen ichi mi), meaning that tea ceremony and Zen were the one).
It was a drastic shift, but was in line with how Yoshimasa built Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion with no real silver) to counter his grandfather’s luxurious Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion). An extremely rapid economic growth brought unprecedented affluence. People in power, especially emerging merchants, basked in dazzling luxury, but then the aesthetic influencers/mentors, many of them Zen priests, began to demonstrate that real beauty didn’t exist in material objects. They denounced people’s snobbish desire to become richer, more powerful and pretentious, but not because it was morally wrong but rather to show that it was aesthetically empty.
It takes pages to explain sado, and who the Tea Masters were (read more about sado), but in short, sado is not so much about drinking tea. It’s about discovering the subtle beauty that surrounds our daily life, using a tea gathering as a set stage.
As we’ve seen, wabi-sabi is metaphysical. It’s about finding the essential truth of our existence, which is nothing but elusive and transitional. That’s the reason why sado is wabi-sabi. A tea gathering occupies a period of time which can never be recaptured. The combination of the specific season, the weather, the type of flowers blooming (or not) in the garden, the chosen theme, the invited guests and the conversation that took place, all part of a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence and will never happen again. Sado let people appreciate each and every moment by enforcing strict behavioral protocols (e.g. how to sit, walk, drink tea or engage in conversations) so that the inner senses are all mobilized and keenly concentrated. When you concentrate on your own senses, you start becoming keenly aware of what’s going around you and start connecting your inner self with the surrounding environment. When that happens, you no longer need anything excessive or extravagant. Through your body, you are directly connected to the true beauty that resides in the vast universe. That physicality makes sado Zen, and the essence of wabi-sabi.
Find one interesting fact about sado. It’s been held in a 茶室 (chashitsu) –tea room or tea hut.
Chashitsu is probably the only type of architecture in the world that grew smaller as it evolved. You may now understand why. In order for people to connect directly with the beauty around them through tea ceremony, Tea Masters sought a location that would almost feel like clothing or skin; A space that was smaller, lighter, more natural/unrefined…so that the boundaries between the participants and the outer universe could become almost non-existent. They especially looked to 草庵 (so-an, a bucolic hut often in remote areas) style, both in terms of size and design.
First came wabi-cha Tea Master Murata Juko (1422-1502), who denounced the trend of people competing each other to become the coolest/hottest tea practitioner. He also argued that the gist of the tea ceremony wasn’t to collect best Chinese ceramics: local products were just fine since it was more important that participants knew how to appreciate them. It is believed that he started using 四畳半 (4 1/2 tatami mattress, about 8m2) as a chashitu format. 4 1/2 is still the smallest standard room size in Japan, not just chashitsu.
Jujo’s beliefs were passed on to another Tea Master, Takeno Joo (1502-1555), and wabi-cha saw its culmination with the emergence of Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), the greatest Tea Master of all time. Sen no Rikyu was an exceptional director in setting up a wabi-style tea gathering, from choosing a place, taking care of the garden, collecting tools and artworks to picking flowers for display. Everything he chose was extremely simple, with no-frills and leveraged what was available in his surrounding environment. But there was coherent beauty in what he chose, so people later called it 利休好み (Rikyu-taste) and tried to mimic his style.
Rikyu is also known for his almost impossibly small chashitsu called Tai-an, which was only 2 jo (about 3.6 m2 – less than half of Juko’s 4 1/2 jo format). It was just large enough to house two people (one host and a guest) sitting face-to-face. Not only that, Rikyu eliminated many architectural details that would otherwise have given the space substantial aesthetic order, a sense of stability and protection. For example, structural details (which were intentionally made light and thin) were buried inside the mud walls, and the low small windows allowed only a very little dim light to enter.
Japanese architects including Arata Isozaki and Kengo Kuma recalled that the Tai-an felt like “clothing” when they sat inside it. Kuma wrote that “When I was closely surrounded by the earthy, frail materials with dim light, I felt as if Tai-an as was part of my body.” It must have felt like a cockpit that integrated the body with the outside world, inviting you on a journey to explore your inner self – a vast universe. Maybe Rikyu was in search of his own Nirvana when he created the Tai-an. Or maybe Tai-an was a spaceship that carried Major Tom in David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity,” a lone astronaut in his one-man spaceship sailing into a vast universe. What if Rikyu was seeing what Major Tom was seeing, who, at some point in the song says: “I sitting in a tin can, far above the world. Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do…” Major Tom eventually steps out of his spaceship, leaving people on Earth behind.
Maybe the gist of wabi-sabi is about the moment when you are finally embraced by the overwhelmingly large universe by leaving everything behind, and becoming as fundamental as you can. It may feel scary to feel that “there’s nothing I can do,” but such realization is exactly what Nirvana is about. By stepping out of his spaceship, maybe Major Tom was freeing himself from all kinds of sorrow and pain to be completely embraced by the vast universe. “Space Oddity” is a painfully beautiful song.
One interesting fact: Rikyu tried to strip away every excess to pursue his sado, but he also kept the then-shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598) as his boss/patron. Hideyoshi was born in a peasant family to become a national ruler, and was hungry for power and money. As he spent a lot of money for luxury, he even commissioned a golden chashitsu, and some believe that Rikyu created it for Hideyoshi.
No one knows for sure if Rikyu actually designed the golden chashitsu. If so, it’s the extreme opposite of what wabi-sabi represents. But then, greed and the race for money were always close neighbors of wabi-sabi. Or rather, wabi-sabi emerged as the shadow where wealth and power were the light. Maybe Rikyu was ready to accept the conflicts, duality, and inconsistency that humans expressed. Eventually Rikyu took his own life – in the same way that Major Tom stepped out of his spaceship – because of Hideyoshi ordered him to commit seppuku.
Wabi-sabi appreciates the whole cycle that makes this universe – from birth to death, to good and and bad. After absorbing all kinds of conflicting duality, what’s left is a quiet, calm and boundless space that embraces and accepts all of us. Whether we were good and bad. That’s wabi-sabi. That’s Zen and that’s Nirvana.