What is Wabi-sabi?

by ziggy on April 23, 2010 -- 3 comments -- Follow

Wabi-sabi is the name I and my fellow sub-communitarians have adopted for our collective here at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Our small sub-community formed two winters ago, when several of us gathered to talk about forming a collective to share our interests and work on common projects together, including gardening and possibly building a kitchen to house a food co-op. Our community within a community would also be a tight network of support for each other.

In the spring, we began to more seriously discuss the prospect of building a kitchen, and over the summer we started eating with each other outdoors on Thomas’s warren (a.k.a. leasehold), using a simple rocket stove for cooking. The kitchen design began to take shape over those months. It would be a roughly bean-shaped structure with indoor cooking, dining, and social space, with a sheltered porch for outdoor cooking in the summer, and surrounded by gardens. Since we all have similar ecological ideals, it was not difficult to determine that we wanted to use mostly hand tools to build, and use as many local and natural materials as possible. (We even discussed the possibility of trying not to use any plastic in the construction at all — that would be quite a challenge, though… but it’s possible, I think.)

Anyway, back to Wabi-sabi. Why that name? It may seem kinda… what’s the word… bold, I guess, to adopt the name of an entire aesthetic/art/philosophy for our group. But I think it works, and we feel quite in line with with “wabi-sabi” entails:

Wabi-sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional… (source)

Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent. (source)

There you have it. Wabi-sabi is a broad term in that it can be any number of things, but it’s also pretty specific, and a beautiful concept, I think.

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  • I was told its also a kind of practical joke. The ethic came about when Kyoto was losing out to places like Edo (Tokyo) and Osaka in the 1600’s: previously Kyoto had all the grand buildings, but now Edo/Osaka were wealthier, and could afford far grander designs. Kyoto couldn’t compete, so they came up with this solution. The simpler, older, frayed and less ornate designs in Kyoto were held up as being ‘superior’ by the literati and nobles of Kyoto to the gold and shiny designs and rich colours of Edo/Osaka. When a merchant asked why a frayed matress was in that state, he’d be told “Ah, that is Wabi-Sabi: The beauty of imperfection. It is a value of Kyoto, not like the crass colours and glitz of Edo”. Rather like the Emperor’s suit of clothes, no-one dared to contradict them.

    I think the story is in ‘Lost Japan’ by Alex Kerr. I can dig around if you want to know.

    Of course, none of this is a reason to change the name: I presonally like imperfect and used materials for their own sake.

  • Haha… I wonder how much truth is in that story. I’d love to read the story if you can find it.

  • Buts

    I learned about Wabi-Sabi and Mono no Aware when I was taking Japanese courses in college. I always felt it was a very abstract term to signify the simplicity and natural beauty of things. All things have flaws and strengths and that’s the way it is. That’s the beauty of things natural and unnatural.

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