Imagine two bowls. The first, made of immaculately white ceramic, embedded with intricate gold patterns. Clearly expensive. The second is wooden, old, lines of woodgrain and a few visible scratches being its only notable features. It’s safe to say most would prefer to own the first.
We’ve learned to view perfection and anything close to it as the ideal standard of beauty. We’re attracted to things that are new, precise, spotless, sophisticated, and defect-free. Anything less risks earning a second-rate status.
But beauty can be found even in the humblest of wooden bowls. The various chips, scars, and blemishes on its worn surface are seen not as unattractive flaws, but as signs of personal history and a simple, understated kind of beauty. This appreciation of a thing’s imperfections is what the humble Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi can teach us.
Wabi-sabi is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, which makes it especially difficult for many non-Japanese to grasp right away. It not only lacks a direct English translation, but is difficult to encapsulate in just a few words. Yet, it is a worldview that practically anyone can learn.
In essence, wabi-sabi is the acceptance of the temporary nature of things. It’s an awareness that nothing, especially physical beauty, lasts. It’s a bittersweet appreciation of impermanence that, as a result, embraces the imperfections brought about by time, wear, age, and use. At its core, wabi-sabi values authenticity and the natural world.
These imperfections are celebrated because they depict a more honest vision of the world. Small cracks, frayed edges, faded colors, faint blemishes—these bring to mind the fleeting nature and eventual decay of the physical world. They contain a measure of beauty that appeals to us for their lack of pretense.
A newly printed book is wonderful to look at. Its pages are crisp and neat, the cover in pristine condition, a new-book-smell wafting up as you open it for the first time. But an old hardbound book, printed long before you or your grandparents were even born, its pages now musty and yellowed, possesses an elegance that only age can bring.
Simplicity and modesty are also highly valued. A room doesn’t need to be large and filled with lavish detail and polished surfaces to be beautiful. Old, well-cared-for furniture and a few simple decorations are sometimes all we really need. A sturdy wooden table with a rough and unvarnished surface becomes beautiful for both its naturalness and dependability.
But that doesn’t mean we’re called to live in poverty. Wabi-sabi merely wishes that we do our best to unburden ourselves of excessive material concerns. It encourages us to distance ourselves from the relentless (and futile) pursuit of perfection, needless luxury, and wasteful spending. It doesn’t romanticize a modest life, but finds appreciation in it.
Wabi-sabi isn’t the same as being careless and sloppy. In fact, wabi-sabi values cleanliness. A room may contain very little furniture, but keeping it clean and orderly is probably the secret to bringing out the beauty of its simplicity.
Nor does it encourage leaving things in a state of disrepair on purpose. Wabi-sabi finds beauty in imperfections that arise not because of neglect, but from the natural and continuous weathering that results from age, use, and mindful care.
Many tend to interpret wabi-sabi as primarily a visual aesthetic, but to do so leaves a greater part of the philosophy out of the picture. While certain visual elements are consistent (earthy, rustic, minimalistic), wabi-sabi isn’t a style of interior design per se, but a mindset that guides our tastes.
Beneath the aesthetic appeal of wabi-sabi is a worldview that teaches us to accept impermanence as an unavoidable reality. In this way, we learn to appreciate beautiful things more deeply for their transience. We learn never to take things for granted.
We aren’t exempt from this reality. Our lives are, in a sense, inherently flawed. Nobody stays young and beautiful (at least in the conventional sense) forever. Learning to love the imperfections we see around us in our daily lives helps us to embrace our own personal imperfections and, eventually, the fact of our own impermanence.
We must welcome these flaws that have been both present and inevitable since the start. But rather than feeling a sense of hopelessness and resignation, we should instead seek consolation in knowing that the beautiful things we sometimes envy and desire, like everything else, are no less exempt from the natural cycle of growth and decay.
Wabi-sabi is a valuable tool to help us live better lives.