Wabi Sabi - cultivating the art of imperfection

by Sally Radnor, Cambridge, UK

 He asks her if she would like to watch the most beautiful thing he has ever filmed. She says yes. A white plastic bag is caught by the wind. Whirled upwards with the last of the autumn leaves, it dances against the backdrop of a brick wall. He films the bag dancing for fifteen minutes. To him, it's a little kid begging to play. And he has realised that there is an entire life behind things: an incredible, benevolent force wanting him to know there's no reason to be afraid - ever.

 You may know this scene from the film American Beauty (directed by Sam Mendes, 1999). At the time I first watched it, I still thought Wabi Sabi was a sachet of eye-watering green paste that comes with sushi. It wasn't until several years and many viewings later - with friends, with children in the classroom, and finally on a Wabi Sabi retreat with the FWBO at Tiratanaloka - that I realised that this bag scene is often an 'aha' moment for people. It's a Wabi Sabi moment, a moment celebrating the beauty of ordinary things.

 Wabi Sabi is 'the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.' It is a Japanese approach to life, a comprehensive world-view. It's about things which remind us of imperfection and impermanence.

 Reading this as a Buddhist, you'll probably believe that suffering, impermanence and insubstantiality are the hallmarks of everyday existence, although Wabi Sabi tends to focus on incompleteness rather than insubstantiality. Indeed, the roots of Wabi Sabi go back to Taoism and Chinese Zen Buddhism. With its origins in the minimalism of ninth century Chinese poetry and painting, the Wabi Sabi ideal began to enter Japanese society in the 14th century. This was partly due to the wandering hermits who were a feature of the landscape at that time. Initially pitied for their poverty and loneliness, people came to understand that these wanderers experienced a spiritual beauty in their lives - a beauty which led to contentment.

 The term Wabi Sabi is idiosyncratic and slippery to translate: 'wabi' is linked to 'poverty' and to the verb 'wabu', to languish. 'Sabi' means loneliness, solitude, and in modern Japanese, 'rust'. Perhaps a simple translation of Wabi Sabi might be 'sad beauty'.

 I asked a friend who lived and worked in Nagoya what Wabi Sabi means to the modern Japanese. She had heard them describe certain things as Wabi Sabi, but when she asked what was meant she never received a clear answer. I had just been on the Tiratanaloka retreat, and told her about a week of gazing at rotting vegetables and rain clouds, a dead shrew on the shrine, and an installation of litter suspended from a tree, pierced with holes and leaking water, all to evoke transience. My friend sighed: she's a mother of three young children. Patiently, she told me how much time she spends wiping noses and bottoms. But, we finally agreed, there is plenty of Wabi Sabi in the art of bringing up children. Her children are small beings: Wabi Sabi celebrates small things. The children have their moods and odd behaviours - Wabi Sabi celebrates the idiosyncratic. They are ambiguous in some ways, a source for her of both pleasure and pain. They are spontaneous and natural. As my friend mops up snot and vomit, she's reminded of the preciousness of things private, things natural, things of the earth. I wondered if she could appreciate the fleeting nature of this period of her children's lives, because soon they would be grown up and different. She laughed - no, the shorter the better, this intensive, exhausting parenting - and this reminded me of another principle: rather than objects or experiences 'having' Wabi Sabi, it's down to us to decide whether these things provoke in us a feeling of sad beauty, of Wabi Sabi.

 To return to the development of the aesthetic, it gradually attached itself to the Japanese tea ceremony. By the sixteenth century, the sado was a great artistic event. The garden design, tea-room architecture, flower arrangements and tea utensils were of great significance. The story is told that two men, one a saucy but devout monk, Ikkyu, and Rikyu, a tea-master of refined sensibilities, began to suspect that the ceremony no longer represented the simple spirit of tea. They transformed it to an event of plain rusticity. The tea room shrank, taking for its model the Japanese farmer's hut. Tea utensils became rustic, indigenous ceramics. They made the tea drinkers crawl through a small opening to the tea room, which brought everybody down to the same level. Rikyu's powerful employer, a man of peasant origins, was not impressed. He ordered Rikyu's ritual suicide. As a politically indiscreet trafficker in tea utensils, and now accused of poking fun at a Japanese shibboleth, Rikyu had no choice but to oblige.

 Does the mischievous spirit of Rikkyu and Ikkyu live on in Wabi Sabi? Leonard Koren is an American artist who struggles to resolve his dilemma about creating beautiful things without becoming too focused on the materialism which can surround creative acts for today's artist. He treats Wabi Sabi as an antidote to 'a pervasively slick, saccharine style of beauty' that he sees in American culture. For him, Wabi Sabi is related to the anti-aesthetics of Beat, punk and grunge, which originate in 'the young, creative soul.' Perhaps Koren is referring more to the spirit of the creative process than the finished result, more to the Beats' questioning of traditional values, rather than the druggy paranoia of some of their work, more to the isolation of the grunge bands, rather than the angst and heavy feedback of some of their music. Perhaps it's just difficult, in our twenty-first century culture, to find both purity of artistic process and purity of form.

 Some of the film scores of Thomas Newman, a commercially successful American composer, evoke a spacious, pared-down beauty which both soothes and disturbs. He uses un-tuned mandolins, animal calls and small sounds. If you listen to his soundtrack to American Beauty, perhaps the edgy strangeness will bother you - or perhaps the restricted sound palette will evoke the loveliness of the ephemeral and the insubstantial.

 For those of us who may be prone to perfectionism - relative, samsaric perfectionism - and I am one, would an exploration of Wabi Sabi be helpful? I wonder whether it can loosen attachments we may have to things logical and absolute, to technology; to things well-maintained, sharply focused, geometric, or slick. Recently, I rented a converted barn in Wales for a short holiday. After getting used to the odd combination of plasma widescreen (inside) and sheep (outside) I began to enjoy myself. How seductive: the smooth lines of the DVD/music centre, the deep leather sofa, the softly-gliding kitchen drawers, the lustrous bedlinen and neat asphalt farmyard. A week later, I arrived back home to a mash-up of tatty 80s TV, stereo and video (remember video?) a threadbare sofa, gaps between the kitchen work surfaces harbouring ante-diluvian meal fragments, and a shaggy, sullen garden. It was all unsatisfactory - every bit.

 It took time and recalling of the third positive precept, of stillness, simplicity and contentment, to start to straighten things out. The electrical stuff works. The sofa is an old friend. The kitchen has a secret life and the garden has a real history. My imperfect home holds a mirror to my superficiality. It reminds me that everything is either evolving from or devolving towards nothingness. No amount of newness, interior design or cleanliness can change this.

 So much for matters close to home. But isn't the most direct route to loving imperfection and impermanence through the traditional Japanese art forms? Through the poetry of Ryokan and Ikkyu, ikebana, the tea ceremony, the Zen garden, bonsai, and honkyuku, the traditional music of wandering Zen monks? Possibly - for the Japanese. For me, though, the challenge lies in remembering to take out my Western eyeballs and to look differently at the things in front of me. I look for things ordinary, off-centre and off-key. Things organic, incomplete and blurred. Things asymmetric and pared down, simple but not simplistic; things modest and humble, things in flow.

 Perhaps the most important thing about Wabi Sabi is that it's not a nihilistic philosophy. It's an antidote to consumerism, urbanity, intoxication, unthinking proliferation, instant gratification, and all things vulgar, obvious and pimped out.

 Wabi Sabi is an emotionally warm state of mind, and a state of grace. Like the plastic bag, if you're open to it, you'll see it and feel it.

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