Wabi-Sabi: How To Embrace This Ancient Japanese Philosophy At Home And Life?

Does your to-do list look like never ending? Do you feel the constant need to keep refreshing your wardrobe and improving your home to be “within trends”? Are you always buying new things, only for the shine to eventually wear off? Then you need to learn from ancient Japanese philosophy of Wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi offers a refuge from the modern world’s obsession with perfection, and accepts imperfections as all the more meaningful – and, in their own way, beautiful. Wabi-sabi lets you embrace imperfection and unpredictability of life. This Japanese concept can help you create a happier home and feel more content with life as it is, rather than always wishing for more.

Wabi-sabi is a cracked and glued together ceramic bowl (check concept of kintsugi), a funnily shaped, home-grown tomato; a dinner created from leftovers; falling cherry blossom; a worn wooden hallway and an elbow patch on your favourite jumper. It’s an appreciation of all that is simple, modest and imperfect. Yet, loved deeply.

Authenticity is a big part of Wabi-sabi, so cracks and imperfections are cherished for symbolising the passage of time and loving use. Embracing Wabi-sabi in the home teaches us to be content with our current lot without constantly yearning for more. Learning to be selective over what we want and what we really need. It’s the perfect antidote to a throwaway society built on disposable goods and mass-produced, homogeneous items.

wabi sabi japanese nature

It’s hard to define Wabi-sabi, but its simplified meaning can be translated to “rustic simplicity” or “understated elegance” with a focus on a less-is-more mentality, while “taking pleasure in the imperfect”. The concept can easily be applied simply to moments of everyday life. The relentless pursuit of perfection — in possessions, relationships, achievements — often leads to stress, anxiety, depression and hasty judgement.
This is where Wabi-sabi invites a pause. The Japanese philosophy encourages us to focus on the blessings shining in our daily lives, and celebrating the way things are rather than craving how they should be.

“Wabi-Sabi is a way of life that appreciates and accepts complexity while at the same time values simplicity. […] Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

writes Richard Powell in his book, Wabi Sabi Simple.

By embracing Wabi-sabi we realise that nothing is permanent — even fixed objects are subject to change and taint. A great example of Wabi-sabi in creativity is, as we mentioned in the beginning, the art of kintsugi, where cracked pottery is filled with gold dusted lacquer as a way to showcase the beauty of its age and damage rather than hiding it. The fault is not hidden but highlighted and praised.

Seven principles of Zen

Wabi-Sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, which was brought from China to Japan by Eisai, a twelfth-century monk. Zen stresses austerity, communion with nature, and above all, reverence for everyday life as the real path to enlightenment. To reach enlightenment, Zen monks lived ascetic, often isolated lives, and sat for long periods of concentrated meditation.

Until the fourteenth century, when Japanese society came to admire monks and hermits for their spiritual asceticism, wabi was a pejorative term used to describe cheerless, miserable outcasts, desolation and abandonment.

Starting with the 15th century, as a reaction to the prevailing aesthetic of lavishness, ornamentation, and rich materials, Wabi-sabi became the art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in earthiness, of revering authenticity above all.

In Zen philosophy, there are seven aesthetic principles in achieving Wabi-sabi:

  • Kanso — simplicity
  • Fukinsei — asymmetry or irregularity
  • Shibumi — beauty in the understated
  • Shizen — naturalness without pretension
  • Yugen — subtle grace
  • Datsuzoku — freeness
  • Seijaku — tranquility

 

 

Down to the roots… of tea

wabi sabi tea ceremony

The timeless wisdom of wabi-sabi is more relevant now than ever for modern life, as we search for meaning and fulfilment beyond materialism. Wabi-sabi is like minimalism with a conscious choice. The concept has its roots in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, where one of its defining principles developed; “By learning to serve so well that you no longer need to think about what you are doing, you are free to focus on your guests.”

In Shukō’s time, the consumption of tea mostly involved the ruling class and detailed Chinese utensils (called karamono). While the ruling classes liked to show off their wealth, and drink tea looking at the full moon, Shukō consciously used simple, Japanese-made goods like Shigaraki and Bizen pottery. He wanted students to appreciate the half moon, or one covered by clouds.

He didn’t use simple utensils exclusively though. And his attitude was more of coexistence than replacement of extravagant ceramics. Nevertheless, he is sometimes credited as the originator of the wabi-cha style of tea ceremony, which is marked by the use of these simple utensils.

 

What does it take to embrace Wabi-sabi in your surroundings?

rust wabi sabi concept japanese

You don’t need to be an expert on Japanese philosophy, live in seclusion like a Buddhist monk or have a big budget to adopt Wabi-sabi principles in your home. There is no ‘wrong’ way to go about it; you simply need to shift your perspective from one of chasing for perfection to one of appreciating.

Embracing Wabi-sabi will do more than create a pleasant environment at home. By falling in love with our imperfect selves like things that surround us, we reduce the need to buy as many new things. This will reduce consumption which will save money and put less strain on our planet.

Before you know it, your mindset will change too and you will become at ease with your life. Wabi-sabi puts the focus on gratitude for what we already have rather than always yearning from something new and shiny. This powerful shift in perspective will help us to feel more peaceful and content in the current moment, and by doing so, allow us to embrace serenity and tranquility in our day-to-day lives.

Beyond our homes, Wabi-sabi offers a useful framework for modern life in general. Finding beauty in the imperfect, appreciating nature and striving for contentment are not flashy new ideas, but they are well worth remembering next time you fall down a Pinterest rabbit hole of wishing and .

 

wabi sabi interior design japanese concept art

Image Source

Robyn explains that you don’t money, or special skills to appreciate your imperfections and make the most of life.

Bringing wabi-sabi into your life doesn’t require money, training, or special skills. It takes a mind quiet enough to appreciate muted beauty, courage not to fear bareness, willingness to accept things as they are — without ornamentation. It depends on the ability to slow down, to shift the balance from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting.

Perhaps you have a rusty kitchen knife which has been passed through the generations. It’s been well used and it’s a bit rusty and chipped. Instead of being embarrassed by its less than pristine condition, you should value it because of its imperfect nature (and sharpen it :). Those signs of use are a story and mark the passage of time; such meaning wouldn’t be found in a brand new boxed knife.

Of course sometimes buying new things is necessary. Circumstances change, children come and go, we move houses (and loose things in transit), get new hobbies and so on. But when faced with the need to shop, consider a Wabi-sabi approach and opt for sustainable, high quality, handmade or vintage over those which have been produced in their thousands with planned obsolescence in mind.

Wabi-sabi is about appreciating nature, so pay attention to the materials you bring into your home and go for natural options like wood, steel and stone where possible. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, but they age well too. Take linen sheets for example, they get better with every wash (and you don’t need to iron them :).

When choosing colours, you can also look to nature for inspiration. This leaves a lot of room for personal choice as blushing cherry blossom pink is just as natural as cool and calming sea foam. Likewise stormy grey is as natural as pine forest green. In physical objects you can expect the use of natural materials in a rustic style. Imperfections are not from sloppiness but the nature of the materials and process, or the use of the object itself. Objects will be personal, humble, and functional. As a worldview, attention is paid to transience, harmony with nature, and attention to the tiniest of details.

It can be tempting to constantly add and change things to your home – in the end this is what society wants us to do. Remember that Wabi-sabi is all about decluttering and stripping back the unnecessary to allow yourself to live well. Consider Japanese take on minimalist lifestyle by getting rid of superfluous clutter by ridding yourself of pointless items. By doing this you allow the things that really matter to stand out and shine.

Connections by Finsa wabi sabi imperfect concept of art

Source: Connections by Finsa

Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.

-Andrew Juniper

 

An active aesthetical appreciation of poverty … To be satisfied with a little hut, a room of two or three tatami mats, like the log cabin of Thoreau, and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighboring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.

-D. T. Suzuki

rust wabi sabi concept japanese

Today, appreciation of the things we have, people we love, and the experiences we have the opportunity to weave into our lives is losing value. Wabi-sabi represents a precious cache of wisdom that values tranquillity, harmony, beauty and imperfection, and can strengthen your resilience in the face of materialism.

 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There’s a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

— Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”.

 

Embrace the perfection of being imperfectly you.

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