In working with my mother’s and grandfather’s writings, I contemplated the cycle of life and the ego. Our world is so beautiful, then it decays and eventually dies only to be reborn in another form. In doing this work I began to see that one of my greatest concerns is that the cycle of life, not death, could be lost (for instance, in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster). In wanting so much from the world, in pushing the boundaries, we may have succeeded in finding the edge. I find it somewhat ironic that this disaster happened in Japan.
Why? Because in Japanese culture there is a term called wabi sabi. We don’t really have an adequate English word to translate its meaning. Sometimes it is referred to as rustic, but that’s not quite complete. From what I have come to understand, wabi sabi is something that touches the essence of beauty within nature and the cycle of life and decay. I love it because it doesn’t need a lot of money, a lot of things to be spectacular—it takes a deep connection to nature and a humble understanding of nature’s inherent cycle.
One of my favorite passages about wabi sabi is from a book “Wabi Sabi Style” by James and Sandra Crowley; “A fourteenth-century priest named Kenko wrote of the importance of appreciating imperfection. In his writings he asked, “Is it only when the flowers are in full bloom and when the moon is shining in spotless perfection that we ought to gaze at them?” Do photographers ever photograph the last blossom on the bush? The acknowledgment of the perfection of imperfection is at the very core of wabi sabi. Perfection is a concept, not a reality in a finite world. Within this concept lies the appreciation of the processes of regeneration, which are, in fact, the process of decay.”
One of my favorite examples of the wabi sabi aesthetic is a cherished, yet broken, vase. Instead of discarding the vase it would be repaired in a way that adds beauty to its imperfection, by (for instance) using gold leaf to repair the crack—thereby imparting a story and history to the object.
To me, though, it’s become quite a bit more than this. I can now see elements of wabi sabi in great art, architecture, and design. This post, What Zen Taught Silicon Valley (And Steve Jobs) About Innovation, is very insightful, although it doesn’t touch on wabi sabi‘s connection to Zen Buddism. I think Steve Jobs got wabi sabi. I don’t think this aesthetic is exclusive to Japanese culture though, when I look at Sandro Botticelli’s painting “The Birth of Venus,” I feel Botticelli touched this essence. Our lack of a suitable term for this aesthetic belies our collective cultural lack of awareness—it’s a term not exclusive to great art but for all of life.
For more information about wabi sabi here is a great link in Beyond Words – Language Blog