Posted on in On Our Radar by Leonard Koren

Beauty at the Edge
of Nothingness


Like many of my contemporaries, I first learned of wabi-sabi during my youthful spiritual quest in the late 1960s. At that time, the traditional culture of Japan beckoned with profound “answers” to life’s toughest questions. Wabi-sabi seemed to me a nature-based aesthetic paradigm that restored a measure of sanity and proportion to the art of living.

Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty, and can, in its fullest expression, be a way of life. At the very least, it is a particular type of beauty. The closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably ‘rustic,’ which represents only a limited dimension of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Webster’s defines ‘rustic’ as “simple, artless, or unsophisticated . . . [with] surfaces rough or irregular.”

Originally, the Japanese words wabi and sabi had quite different meanings. Sabi originally meant “chill,” “lean,” or withered.” Wabi originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state. Around the 14th century, the meanings of both words began to evolve in the direction of more positive aesthetic values. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the poetically inclined, this kind of life fostered an artistic appreciation of the minor details of everyday life, and insights into the beauty of the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature.

In turn, unprepossessing simplicity took on new meaning as the basis for a new, pure beauty.

The Metaphysical Basis of Wabi-Sabi

Things are either devolving toward, or evolving from, nothingness. As dusk approaches in the hinterlands, a traveler ponders shelter for the night. He notices tall rushes growing everywhere, so he bundles an armful together, from where they stand in the field, and knots them at the top. Presto, a living grass hut. The next morning, before embarking on another day’s journey, he unknots the rushes, and presto, the hut deconstructs, disappears, and becomes a virtually indistinguishable part of the larger field of rushes once again. The original wilderness seems to be restored, but minute traces of the shelter remain; a slight twist or bend in a reed here and there. There is also the memory of the hut in the mind of the traveler—and in the mind of the reader reading this description. Wabi-sabi, in its purest, most idealized form, is precisely about these delicate traces, this faint evidence at the borders of nothingness.

While the universe destructs, it also constructs. New things emerge out of nothingness. But we can’t really determine by cursory observation whether something is in the evolving or devolving mode. If we didn’t know differently, we might mistake the newborn baby boy—small, wrinkled, bent, a little grotesque-looking—for the very old man on the brink of death. In representations of wabi-sabi, arbitrarily perhaps, the devolving dynamic generally tends to manifest itself in things a little darker, more obscure, and quiet. Things evolving tend to be a little lighter and brighter, a bit clearer, and slightly more eye arresting. And nothingness itself—instead of being empty space, as viewed in the West—is alive with possibility. In metaphysical terms, wabi-sabi suggests that the universe is in constant motion toward—or away—from potential.

“Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details. Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring. Wabi-sabi is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness but at moments of inception or subsiding. Wabisabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes, but about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral—things so subtle and evanescent, they are invisible to vulgar eyes.

The closer things get to nonexistence, the more exquisite and evocative they become. Consequently, to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow way down, be patient, and look very closely.

In the wabi-sabi view, beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness. Wabi-sabi is ambivalent about separating beauty from non-beauty or ugliness. The beauty of wabi-sabi is, in one respect, the condition of coming to terms with what you consider ugly. Wabi-sabi suggests that beauty is a dynamic event that occurs between you and something else. Beauty can spontaneously occur at any moment, given the proper circumstances, context, or point of view. Beauty is thus an altered state of consciousness, an extraordinary moment of poetry and grace.

The Wabi-Sabi State of Mind

Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic appreciation of the evanescence of life, and acceptance of the inevitable. The luxuriant tree of summer is now only withered branches under a winter sky. All that remains of a splendid mansion is a crumbled foundation overgrown with weeds and moss. Wabi-sabi images force us to contemplate our own mortality, and they evoke an existential loneliness and tender sadness. They also stir a mingled bittersweet comfort, since we know all existence shares the same fate.

Wabi-sabi means treading lightly on the planet and knowing how to appreciate whatever is encountered, no matter how trifling, whenever it is encountered. “Material poverty, spiritual richness” are wabi-sabi bywords. In other words, wabi-sabi tells us to stop our preoccupation with success—wealth, status, power, and luxury—and enjoy the unencumbered life.

Obviously, leading the simple wabi-sabi life requires some effort and will, and also making some tough decisions. Wabi-sabi acknowledges that just as it is important to know when to make choices, it is also important to know when not to make choices—to let things be. Even at the most austere level of material existence, we still live in a world of things. Wabisabi is exactly about the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things and the pleasure we get from freedom of things.

Leonard Koren is the author of Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, an excerpt of which was adapted for this article. LeonardKoren.com

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