Wabi Sabi, a Philosophy in a Teacup

When I first took a course on chado (the way of tea or Japanese tea ceremony) I was introduced to the concept of wabi-sabi (侘寂), a Japanese aesthetic or world view. The core of wabi-sabi are the concepts of imperfection and impermanence, derived from the Buddhist three marks of existence, but it is harder to describe than experience. It is a very beautiful aesthetic, with a great amount of philosophical and spiritual thought and meaning in physical expressions.

I say it’s difficult to describe mostly because it is a uniquely Japanese aesthetic with little homologous to it in American culture. While there are certainly items we appreciate with a wabi-sabi element, we tend to describe them as “rustic”, “reclaimed”, or “natural” and they lack a lot of the deeper meaning (or hold a different one altogether). The philosophy of wabi-sabi, in contrast, carries into a way of looking at the world and experiencing life, or at least contemplating or appreciating it, which I have not found in Western thought (although would welcome knowing about, if it exists). This philosophy has had a profound effect for my appreciation of the world as well as my relationship for the things in it.

Most notably the element of imperfection has brought richness to my life, as well as a calm serenity and way of not only accepting the small flaws that occur even in mass-made things, but appreciating and celebrating them. The natural unevenness that is so appealing in things like wood grain, the swirl of pottery glaze, unevenly dyed thread in a sweater, or the varied colors on an apple skin are nigh unattainable by force, but allowed to be imperfect become their own kind of beauty that cannot be made, so much as embraced. Still, they do not last, which can cause a kind of melancholy. Each will at the very least change over time, and eventually will break or cease to be functional in some way.

But before something is irreparable, there are often small repairs being made. A stitch here, a glued piece there. Often these repairs are praised for being invisible. If it doesn’t look like it ever broke it must be better, right? Wabi-sabi has a related philosophy, kintsugi, which embraces these things as history and pulls in an imperfection into a unique and irreplicable beauty.

Still, impermanence is part of all things, and acceptance of this is another part of wabi-sabi. The flowers will wither, eventually a favorite sweater cannot be worn, or a favorite cup is shattered beyond repair. The objects go on to their next state, something we can’t stop, but when accepted can sometimes lead us to other things to appreciate. Beautiful mosaics made with shattered pottery, quilts from old fabric, each unique with their own flaws, and each replaced by something else with its own element of wabi-sabi to remind us of the cycle and how to appreciate the flaws in our lives instead of dread and hide them.

Wabi-sabi not only taught me how to accept and embrace these things in the world around me, but also myself. I’m imperfect, changing, and my history is written on my body and in my mind. My scars aren’t something to hide, but something unique, my body’s own version of kintsugi in a way. Something unpredictable, imperfect, and changing, that will not last, but is all the more beautiful and enjoyable when I accept these things instead of ignore or hide them. A state of calm that comes with aesthetic appreciation that is more, a real philosophy in a teacup.

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