Wabi-sabi is a concept that does not have a direct translation in English. It is a quintessential Japanese aesthetic, rooted in Taoism and Zen Buddhism. At its core, it tells us that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect — yet there is a vast, deep-rooted beauty in all impermanent, incomplete, and imperfect things.
Wabi-sabi brings to light the beauty of unconventionality, modesty, humbleness, asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, austerity…intimacy. It means an appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes, including the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.
As you may notice, such a view contrasts with the ancient Greek ideals of beauty and perfection, which are based on symmetry, radiance, majesty, grandness, immutability, eternity, and broadness — and which shape the worldview of most Westerners.
Since I was a youngster, through chance encounters and some deliberate interactions, I have come across the concept of wabi-sabi many times. However, I must confess that it took me a long while to genuinely start processing how it goes beyond aesthetics, beyond artistic and engineering perspectives. It also encompasses a humanistic view and a very pragmatic way of thinking. Since I have started embracing its principles in my day-to-day life, into my personal perspective, new and fulfilling values have emerged.
Life is pure entropy, and the world is full of fissures. Yet, it is incredibly beautiful like so. Often, though, we walk into the trap of creating false expectations about how the world, people, and everyday things should look and behave; we fall for the Greek fallacy of an immaculate world — and getting trapped into such misconception can make us miserable. These distorted expectations often lead to anxiety, disappointment, sadness, depression, and other dysfunctions; we always want something we cannot have, and we’re never fully satisfied; we condemn ourselves to self-depreciative thoughts and end up feeling inadequate — all because we’re rooting our values and believes on principles that do not even exist.
This is where wabi-sabi comes into play. It reminds us about what is real and essential, the uniqueness of each imperfect thing, and that, ultimately, nothing is finished or lasts forever. It repeatedly reminds us about the temporal nature of us and the world around us.
Rather than interpreting matters disapprovingly and developing an incomplete, simplistic, and artificial understanding of the world around us, we start to become aware of the depth and the genuine value of all things, every person, and every circumstance. As a result, we gradually feel more and more empathetic and grateful, and we are reminded to enjoy the moment and its outcomes, whatever they are.
We should not only be conscious of the cracks and marks that time, weather, and love leave behind in anything and anyone, including ourselves — we should also be willing to celebrate the beauty of those imperfections. It is not an easy challenge, but we must learn to value simplicity, comprehend flaws and complexities, and appreciate each other and ourselves as we all are: impermanent, incomplete, and imperfect — without ornamentation. After all, as Leonard Cohen used to sing, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Wabi-sabi is a very complex subject, and this short article is not where you will find any practical answers. But I hope it arouses your interest in the concept and makes you delve deeper into it, as I continue to do. The book Wabi-Sabi: The Wisdom in Imperfection may be a good start.