Wabi What? by Richard Powell

August 5th, 2011

Like Feng Shui, wabi sabi is an Eastern idea gaining popularity in the West. Unlike Feng Shui, wabi sabi is not a technique for increasing wealth, or tapping into some unseen mystical power. It is quite the opposite. It is an intuitive way of living that involves noticing the moments that make life rich and paying attention to the simple pleasures that can be over-shadowed by the bustle and excess of our consumer society.

It started with tea. In Japan, in the Middle Ages, nobles and military leaders strengthened political alliances by throwing elaborate tea parties in which expensive teapots and tea-making utensils were displayed and given as gifts. These ostentatious events focused on expensive Chinese art and tea objects and were the exclusive territory of the rich. Zen monks, who had brought tea to Japan in the first place, continued to develop a tea ceremony called wabi tea, which emphasized a different kind of wealth. Their ceremony used rustic Japanese pottery and focused on the natural elements used in making tea. It allowed participants to connect with the pleasure of drinking tea and provided a tranquil space in which to appreciate natural beauty.

The tea masters who preformed these ceremonies situated their tea huts in the middle of gardens and crafted their ceremonies to be rich in symbolic meaning. They practiced making tea until they could do it without thinking about it. Then, when they served tea to others, they were free to focus their attention entirely on their guests without being distracted by the preparation process. The most famous tea master was Sen no Rikyu who took wabi tea to a new level of subtlety thanks to the patronage of the Shogun Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga used both forms of tea ceremony to unify Japan. Three of Rikyu’s principle students were devout Christians: Furuta Oribe, Takayama Ukon, and Gamou Ujisato. They discovered that the way of tea enriched their own faith because it provided a concrete example of selfless attention to others. By learning to serve so well that you no longer need to think about what you are doing, you are free to focus on your guests.

Sabi is a word that originated in Japanese poetry. It expresses the feeling you get in the autumn when the geese are flying south and the leaves are falling. It is a sort of somber longing that is felt in the muted colors and earthy aroma of a forest preparing for winter. This melancholy ache is a sort of hopeful sadness that recognizes that nothing is perfect, nothing lasts, and nothing is finished, but that even so, life is full of meaning. The complete term ‘wabi sabi’ describes a way of life practiced by those who notice and appreciate the significant moments of each day, live fully in each change of season, and connect with nature and those around them in meaningful and gentle ways.

This article and others can be found on Richard’s site.

  1. justinstoned says:

    I’d love to see some actual historical references to Wabi-Sabi.
    I can’t seem to find anything before 1990 & my Japanese teacher explained it is a Western invention using an ancient concept.

    Is this true?

  2. Richard (and Ian) — Thank you for this instructive post. I’d never heard of Wabi Sabi, and am excited to learn more about a way of life that rings so true with what I have been trying to articulate on One Man’s Wonder. Most compelling for me is the sense of a sort of vague yearning, something that’s haunted me for much of my life and which is very hard to describe.

  3. ian says:

    Great question- I will give Richard time to answer. If not, I will write to see if he can help with your question.

  4. shereen says:

    could you please send me more about wabi sabi.

  5. ian says:

    hi Shereen, I will see if Richard will write some more on Wabi Sabi

  6. Richard says:

    Hi Justin,
    Your Japanese teacher is partly right, wabi sabi has taken off in the west as a result of those of us outside of Japanese culture who see things in the aesthetic heritage of Japan we like and identify with — as Jeffrey has indicated above.  To say it is an “invention” however, is a little unfair. I had a highly respected  haijin tell me the western fascination with wabi sabi would be like Japanese people fixating on one the poetic qualities of Shakespeare as the epitome of western culture.  The point, I think, is that there is much more to Japanese art and literature than wabi sabi, and in fact few contemporary Japanese artists are even interested in wabi sabi these days. This is a point well taken, but does not diminish the importance of it to our culture. We have not celebrated impermanence and imperfection to the same degree or with the same sophistication, so wabi sabi has been a creative spark for many in the west.
    In my book Wabi Sabi for Writers I go into some of the origins of wabi sabi in the historic development of haiku. For scholarly work on the subject see Peipei Qiu’s Basho and the Dao, Sartwell Crispin’s Six Names of Beauty, Daisetz T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, and the book I first discovered wabi sabi in, Sukey Hughes’ Washi, World of Japanese Paper. In Taro Gold’s book Living Wabi Sabi Taro describes finding wabi sabi through his grandmother.
    It may be that a formal conceptualization of wabi sabi does not exist in Japan, but I think a fairly strong case can be made that a non-conceptual understanding does exist. The seeds of wabi sabi are scattered liberally in Japanese literature and art.
    Shereen,  have a look at the material on my website and check out the following articles by others. If you have specific questions, please feel free to e-mail them to me.
    My current work on the subject is a deeper exploration of sabi and will eventually be published in a forthcoming book.

  7. ian says:

    thank for this (and the article) Richard. I’ve had several requests for more articles on wabi sabi. Please let me know if you would like to submit another article for the Seed Exchange. Ian

  8. Anonymous says:

    I absolutely love your description in the last paragraph.  I have never read anything quite like it.  It is all so beautifully written. Thank you!  Julie B.

  9. gescoman says:

    thank you for this interesting post 

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