“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.”
Wasabi in Japanese describes a way of looking at the world. It’s about accepting the transcience and imperfection of things. And thus, for the time we have left, seeing beauty in the things around us. For example, take a rough, cracked, asymmetrical, simple piece of pottery – seeing beauty in that is wabisabi.
The term is made up of two words. The first, wabi, signifies the kind of apparently paradoxical beauty caused by the imperfection of something, such as the wonderful example of kintsugi: the art of repairing cracks with gold resin to embellish the scars. The second word, sabi, refers to the kind of beauty that can only come with age, such as the rust in an ancient bronze statue. The two words combine to express a very specific aesthetic principle – and of course a metaphor. This text by Andrew Juniper sums it up well:
The term wabi-sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in the Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection.
Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things.
Perhaps precisely because the term suggests the opposite of our idea of beauty, wabi-sabi is so important on this side of the world. We need to forgive accident and anomaly, because we ourselves are made of that. We are finite and full of asymmetries.
How can an understanding of wabi sabi help us to better understand world around us? What effect might an appreciation for wabi sabi have on our lives?
All things are imperfect. Nothing that exists is without imperfections. When we look closely at things, we see the flaws. The sharp edge of a razor blade, when it is magnified, reveals pits, chips, and variegations. And as things begin to break down and approach the primordial state, they become even less perfect, more irregular, and perhaps more lovely.
All things are incomplete. All things, including the universe itself, are in a constant, never-ending state of becoming or dissolving. Often we arbitrarily designate moments, points along the way, as “finished.” But when is a plant complete? When it flowers? When it goes to seed? When the seeds sprout? When everything turns into compost?
Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring. Wabi-sabi is found in nature not at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are almost invisible at first glance.
At any given face walking by us are two eyes, two ears, one mouth and a strange thing called a nose. Hair is hair – – it rarely behaves. And there are eyebrows too! Some are imperfect from our perception, but each of them has significance and beauty.
Take a moment to read this statement by C. S. Lewis concerning the “Weight of Glory”:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you see them now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”