What is wabi sabi?

Google "wabi sabi" and you'll find many links leading back to mentions or reviews of the book Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren.

And I (Steve) have a concern with that. I like the Koren book but I suspect it is a rather individual take on wabi-sabi. In particular, almost everyone quotes from the inroduction: wabi-sabi is "the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete." What follows is my understanding of Wabi Sabi — more specifically, the way I want to understand wabi-sabi. This exposition is most certainly imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Therefore, its beauty is wabi-sabi if you take Koren's meaning.

I'll start with the Japanese. Wabi (侘) has several meanings list in the wonderful online Japenese dictionary. All of these refer to sadness and sobriety. One particularly nice example uses the kanji-佗 (subdued taste).

Sabi (さび) is translated as either 寂 (patina, antique look) or 錆 (rust color). Koren does say that these words have drifted from the introduction of wabi-sabi in the fifteenth century, but these definitions don't mention imperfection, incompleteness or impermanence (impermanence is however, certainly central to zen thinking).

Let's leave our rust colored sober refinement (わびさび) aside for the minute and read a little further in Koren. In the section on the history of wabi-sabi (page 32), he says
The first recorded wabi-sabi tea master was Murata Shuko (a.k.a. Murata Juko, 1423-1502), a Zen monk from Nara. Around this time in secular society, tea had become an elite pastime indulged in, in no small part because of the prestige associated with ownership of elegant foreign-made tea-related objects. Shuko, in opposition to this fashion, used intentionally understated, locally produced utensils whenever possible. This was the beginning of the wabi-sabi aesthetic in tea.

Here we see an individual reacting to a stultifying fashion. The wiki idea was developed by Ward Cunningham with explicit reference to the wabi-sabi design principal. Notice Cunningham is also a leader in the XP software development movement, which is a reaction to the overplanning of software projects and the dangers of paralysis of analysis.

So perhaps, wabi-sabi should be a sober look back and beyond over-refined and over-controlled current fashion to things with the patina of age which reflect underlying values. I think a good example of this kind of movement today is the SlowFood movement whose goal is the protection of the right to taste. And, which is a reaction to the over-comercialized and industrialized fast food culture we have developed.

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Created by kristin. Last Modification: Wednesday 02 of December, 2020 17:24:00 EST by steve.