Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, Lion’s Roar Special Projects editorial assistant Sandra Hannebohm looks at wabi-sabi and the perfection of imperfection. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
For several years, the furniture in my house has been picked up for free at curbside giveaways. There’s a special pride that comes with my “cheap” décor. Pride in the story. In the uniqueness. And in my resourcefulness.
There’s also shame in the fact that this “look” — this shoddy, worn-down furniture — is the result of not being able to afford something “better.”
All my lamp shades are crooked. You can tell this bookshelf is the wooden base of a construction sign, leant against the wall. That other bookshelf is an old bed frame with shelves added to it. There’s a beautiful tea table with a design that keeps chipping away.
Today wabi-sabi is known in the West as a popular trend in style and interior design, yet it originally drew on Chinese Confucianism and Japanese Taoism as a defiant response to elite materialism.
The Japanese elites of the 15th and 16th centuries loved ornate tea ceremonies. Delicate pottery was celebrated for the prestige of its foreign designers. That was the trend until Murata Shuko, a Zen monk, purposely opposed the materialism of the fashionable tea ceremony by using local, understated, and worn or cracked utensils in his ceremonies. Eventually, wabi-sabi tea houses became fashionable.
Wabi-sabi is now known as a design trend akin to hygge or minimalism. But the essence of its appeal lies in what cannot be bought or mass produced. These articles explore the origin and philosophy of what Leonard Koren called “the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty.” May they help you find beauty in the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
—Sandra Hannebohm, editorial assistant, Lion’s Roar Special Projects
An excerpt from Leonard Koren’s gem, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, considered a class statement on this Japanese aesthetic.
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.
Prizing newness with its sleek and perfect lines has some ugly consequences. An aesthetic alternative, offers author Elizabeth Farrelly, is wabi-sabi, a philosophy with roots in Zen tea ceremonies, which posits that beauty lies in what is flawed.
Where modernism employs a mechanistic view of utility — the house is a machine for living, the library a machine for storing books — wabi-sabi takes a more open-hearted view, where “use” means accommodating the whole human, body and dreaming soul. And where modernism imposes the perverse demand that form should both follow function and remain untouched by it, wabi-sabi values the wear, aging, and deterioration that attend use.
Grace Jill Schireson on the life, art, and poetic inspiration of the Zen nun Otagaki Rengetsu, a woman “humbled by life’s blows as well as its beauty.”
Rengetsu was ordained in the Pure Land Buddhist tradition, but she studied and integrated Zen and Shingon Buddhism into her practice. Her poetry especially leans into the Zen teachings of self-inquiry, ongoing effort, and enlightenment rather than visions of the “Western Paradise” usually associated with Pure Land practice. Her pottery expresses the Zen aesthetic of wabi-sabi, plain and lonely. My own Japanese Zen teacher, Fukushima Keido Roshi, described Kyoto tea cakes decorated with his calligraphy in this way: “Eat the cookie and taste my mind.” Drinking tea from one of Rengetsu’s cups inscribed with her poetry, one could say: “Drink the tea and feel her heart.”