In the book, Thomas Merton: Master of Attention, author Robert Waldron writes about Merton’s photographs and wabi-sabi. He quotes from the book, Six Names of Beauty by Crispin Sartwell.
Wabi-sabi refers to an elusive and elegant beauty. Wabi is translated as ‘poverty.’ It connotes the life of farmers (peasants) tilling the land; back-breaking, simple, austere work – often a lonely life. Its aesthetic meaning implies ordinary, inexpensive tools that have aged from long use, wares that have become cracked, bent and worn. Such poor, lowly items mimic natures declension: like falling leaves, soil erosion, grass in drought, decaying trees and fading blossoms. Wabi, therefore, suggests a beauty of elegant imperfection. Sabi means loneliness or rather aloneness. It also refers to sparseness and austerity. Together, wabi-sabi suggests the beauty of ‘the withered, weathered, tarnished, scarred, intimate, coarse, earthly, evanescent, tentative, ephemeral.’
I’ve written about wabi-sabi before, specifically in this article, Urban Decay (part 2) – Wabi-Sabi and Wood.
Recently, someone asked me what wabi-sabi meant to me, and I told them that for me, it often shows up through subjects that are overlooked.
I didn’t think that this was a true definition for the term, but a beautiful little book called “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers *” by Leonard Koren, has me thinking otherwise.
He says that “Wabi-sabi 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.”
Wabi-sabi originates from Zen Buddhism and Koren gives a very interesting history of the term, which I won’t go into detail here, but there is a connection to the Japanese tea ceremony.
Originally, the term had a negative connotation. Wabi meant “the misery of living alone in nature, away from society” and sabi meant “chill, lean, withered.”
In the 14th century, the hermit life began to be seen as a spiritually enriching experience and was associated with appreciating the minor details in life, where beauty could be found in the inconspicuous and overlooked aspects of nature.
I too enjoy my solitude and silence, which gives me the time and space to notice and appreciate these overlooked aspects of life.
This tiny book is chock full of information about wabi-sabi, as well as excellent photographic examples. Next week, I’ll delve into the qualities of wabi-sabi in greater detail, with my own examples.
* Credit goes to The Improvised Life for my discovering this book.
** My Flickr set on Wabi-sabi