wabi sabi, the perfection of imperfection

Wabi sabi is a Japanese way of appreciating the beauty of impermanence and imperfection. Plum blossoms, the theme of many great Japanese poems and paintings, are a perfect expression of wabi sabi: they are beautiful, fragrant and hardy, but they only last for a few days. When you focus your heart on plum blossoms you feel wistful and serene at the same time: wabi sabi.

The Japanese tea ceremony originally strove for utter perfection, using only the most exquisite Chinese porcelain and being performed only in the most elegant surroundings. But then a Zen monk named Rikyu made the ceremony wabi-sabi, holding it in a small farmer’s mud hut, using roughly-made utensils. Since then, the “perfect” Japanese teacup always has an intentional nick or flaw in it somewhere, to remind us of wabi-sabi.

We found wabi-sabi summed up wonderfully on Wikipedia (which has some essential qualities of wabi sabi): “Wabi-sabi…nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Its principles are derived from the natural world, and as such, traditional norms of beauty don’t apply; what many consider to be rough, or ugly or unkempt can be wabi sabi. “We do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot and weather, and we love colors and sheen that call to mind the past that made them.” wrote Tanizaki Junichiro.

Recognizing that we live in a world where perfection is impossible, wabi sabi is a way to engage the world as we find it. It also happens to be at the heart of the improvisational spirit, many improvisational activities, and of ‘the improvised life’.

traditional Japanese tea hut

For example, Tobias Wong, who we wrote about a few months ago, is an artist whose work has wabi sabi qualities. Like Rikyu’s tea houses, Wong re-imagines common living spaces we take for granted. Wong’s bed made from file cabinets or a door stoop made of loose shifting river pebbles make us aware of alternate ways to build humble objects. We become more aware of what a bed truly is and how we experience doorways.

Typically, wabi sabi has specific qualities you can recognize: simple, irregular in form, small and intimate, unpretentious, earthy, imperfect, modest, unfinished, in process, bearing the marks of the process that made it, and of use. Less-is-definitely-more in wabi sabi. These qualities combined in an object or a moment, transform our sense of life and what is possible.

Even ticket stubs can be wabi sabi. While they are humble, fragile, and easily discarded, tickets provide an unexpectedly powerful recall of an experience: a concert with friends…parking by the beach one summer weekday morning. Tickets are evidence of a moment that existed. The ticket gave access to the experience – and the fragile artifact we might find years later recalls it in solitude. Wabi sabi.

We invite you to tell us some things in your life that are “wabi sabi.”

Here are some examples from past posts organized by essential qualities of wabi sabi:

…we can learn about wabi sabi from the natural world, and vice versa…

thomas ashcraft artist as electroreceptor
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2009/11/17/thomas-ashcraft-artist-as-electroreceptor/

fabulous bird house in new guinea
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2009/09/07/fabulous-bird-house-in-new-guinea/

mud pies and other recipes
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2009/12/07/perfect-bookgift-for-a-kid-mud-pies-and-other-recipes/

…traditional norms of beauty don’t apply; what many consider to be rough, or ugly or unkempt can be beautiful

metal washer and attic insulation dress
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/05/18/metal-washer-and-attic-insulation-dress/

m&m wrapper dress garbage is opportunity
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/04/18/mm-wrapper-dress-garbage-is-opportunity/

duct tape and phone book dress
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/03/23/duct-tape-and-phone-book-dress/

coffee can pot as reminder
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2009/11/24/coffee-can-pot-as-reminder/

…life is about process, unfinished, in flux…

working at the kitchen table (importance of place in wabi sabi)
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/07/20/working-at-the-kitchen-table-andrea-zittel/

working big for kids
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/01/11/working-big-for-kids-and-grown-ups/

….less is more, edit out the unnecessary, be aware of the richness of what is around you

a mind game for cultivating resourcefulness
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2009/10/18/a-mind-game-for-cultivating-resourcefulness

1,000 awesome things
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2009/07/16/1000-awesome-things/

tool for improvising: defer judgment
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2009/10/28/idea-makers-principle-defer-judgment/

12 rules for making almost anything
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2009/09/01/12-rules-for-making-almost-anything/

materials as opportunities
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2009/08/24/tapio-wirkkala-materials-as-opportunities-2/

inspired makeshift a year of personal fashion
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/05/10/inspired-makeshift-a-year-of-personal-fashion/

breaks “norms”, viewing everyday things in fresh ways….

al fresco music lessons (how to use park as a space)
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/06/15/al-fresco-music-lessons-and-practice/

cars as paintbrushes
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/05/26/cars-as-paint-brushes-and-other-guerrilla-activities/

why doesn’t everybody paint their own shoes?
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/04/30/why-doesnt-everybody-paint-their-own-shoes/

snow as art material
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/03/03/post-script-snow-as-art-material/

moon games
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2010/02/15/moon-games/

architecture of the poor
http://www.improvisedlife.com/2009/05/16/architecture-of-the-poor/

If you want to learn more about wabi sabi, there are many resources available both digital and online.

What is Wabi-Sabi? from the Noble Harbor tea site is a particularly potent short read.

The seminal book is Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren.

There are books about how to incorporate these ideas into your writing and life such as Wabi Sabi For Writers: Find Inspiration. Respect Imperfection. Create Peerless Beauty and Wabi Sabi Simple: Create beauty. Value imperfection. Live deeply. both written by Richard R. Powell.

Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life has some wonderful examples of poetry that describe wabi-sabi.

–Tim Slavin

3 Responses to wabi sabi, the perfection of imperfection

  1. Ren McMahon 11.08.2010 at 3:04am #

    Great post!
    I liked how you gave an example at the end as it helps us better understand the idea.

    In the age we are living in, we are caught up with things and we are trapped in time wishing every moment never lasts.
    I guess it is important to have an objective view on time, and to cherish the flow of time.

  2. monica 11.08.2010 at 5:28pm #

    I liked this very much, thank you. For me wabi sabi are hands of manual laborers. I find rugged, worn out, weathered hands one of the most beautiful, comforting, moving even, things. Farmers, fishermen, carpenters, painters, gardeners, factory workers, printers, artists… they all have hands that have decades and decades of “diamond in a rough”, untold beauty in them…

  3. William Milberry 06.03.2013 at 12:14am #

    Excellent article and way of explaining it. I lived in Japan for a long time and really developed an appreciation for wabisabi. So much in Japan is beautiful because it’s allowed to be beautiful, not because it’s forced to look nice. I really miss that.

    -William Milberry

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