Wabi-sabi

A few weeks ago I blogged about Yugen, a Japanese concept that is difficult to define. Its related to a number of things i’m very interested in; Japanese culture in general, and the idea of concepts and ideals that cannot be easily explained with words.

Yesterday I stumbled upon the grand-daddy of Japanese aesthetics that are hard to define; wabi-sabi.

Wabi-sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”.

according to Wikipedia:

Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of traditional Japanese beauty and it “occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West. If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi. [Wabi-sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”

It combines a number of ideas, including decay, rustic aesthetic, simplicity and impermanence. Just like Yugen it proves difficult to put into words and has its origins in Zen Buddhism.

The Green Lantern
Photo owned by Orin Zebest (cc)

As I was trying to find descriptions and definitions to help explain this concept, I came across “In Search of Wabi-Sabi”, a BBC documentary by Marcel Theroux, in which he attempted the very same thing.

Theroux had been interested in wabi-sabi for 10 years and went to Japan in search of its true meaning. On his journey he talks to all walks of Japanese life who all instantly recognise the phrase, but who have different ways of trying to explain it (all with great difficulty)

At one stage, after talking to a Buddhist monk, Theroux says:

“The monks reluctance to define wabi-sabi is an expression of a very Buddhist notion, that language is inadequate when it comes to trying to understand the world. What he is saying is that in a sense I need to stop looking for wabi-sabi definitions and let myself be open instead to wabi-sabi feelings”

The documentary, which is housed in its entirety here, is well worth watching.

Of course, the irony is not lost on me that I am filling up this post with words trying to describe something essentially indescribable (again!) so all i’ll say is, watch the documentary!

Maybe when I get to Japan I too will be able to find some flavour of wabi-sabi. For now, I think I may find it in the rain lightly falling on Smithfield this evening.