Wabi-sabi is a traditional Japanese aesthetic world view that focuses primarily on finding the beauty in transience and imperfection.
Though wabi-sabi evolved with centuries of direct influence from Chinese Buddhism, the world view eventually became distinctly Japanese. Derived mainly from the Buddhist three marks of existence—impermanence, suffering, and absence of self-nature—wabi-sabi is one of the most integral elements of traditional Japanese beauty and aesthetics and remains influential to this day.
Wabi-sabi can be a lifestyle, a mindset, an artistic practice, or many other things. If something stirs a feeling of longing, melancholy, or makes you think about the transience of natural existence, it can be considered wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi embraces roughness, modesty, simplicity, and a true appreciation for both the natural world and the various powerful forces of nature. It encourages an acceptance of the way things are and a rejection of futile attempts to shape the world to fit your needs. It fosters appreciation over perfection.
Though religious in its roots, wabi-sabi no longer carries much religious connotation — in modern Japan, wabi-sabi is simply known as “wisdom in natural simplicity,” and in modern art it is known as “flawed beauty.” Of course, there is a complicated depth to wabi-sabi that can’t merely be put into words. In fact, many Japanese people believe the term to be simply unexplainable.
But practicing wabi-sabi means first trying to live life through a simple and integral understanding of the senses, rather than being caught up in complicated unnecessary thoughts. Those who embrace wabi-sabi believe being surrounded by natural change and simple, unique, imperfect objects helps us to connect to our own experiences of transience and mortality.
The wabi-sabi mindset has been extremely influential on Japanese art and culture and around the world as well. Though Western culture is still often considered materialist and wasteful, there are signs of a growing interest in conservation, minimalism, reflection, and honesty that borrow many defining elements from wabi-sabi. There are many well-known examples of wabi-sabi in practice in Japan, like the growing and cultivation of bonsai trees, ikebana (flower arrangement), and Zen gardens.
A lesser-known but excellent example of wabi-sabi in practice is kintsugi, the traditional Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. With origins back to the 15th century, kintsugi foregrounds cracks, splits, and breakage as the key features of an object, indications of its rich history, beauty, and meditative value.
Kintsugi translates to “golden journey.” It is an art form of conservation, reuse, and reflection. The golden, silver, and platinum cracks are celebrations of the wounds of human life, physical manifestations of scars worn with open acceptance. Along with its close relationship with wabi-sabi, kintsugi also demonstrates elements of mottaini: regret at wasting, and mushin—the acceptance of change.
There are three main styles of kintsugi: crack, piece, and joint-call.
- Crack is the most common and recognizable style of kintsugi. Artists use lacquer to fill in cracks and chips or to reattach broken-off pieces, creating veins and rivers of sparkling beauty.
- Piece style is used when no broken-off pieces can be reattached. In this style, artists use the lacquer to completely replace the gaps left by fragments of a broken object.
- Lastly, joint-call style involves artists attaching a similarly-shaped piece from a different object onto a broken object, creating an aesthetically contrasting mix of textures, colors, and patterns.
The wabi-sabi focus on transience, imperfection, rebirth, and appreciation for the forces of nature applies pretty perfectly to something else we’re all familiar with: beachcombing!
We beachcombers often describe our hobby as something that relaxes us, grounds us, and helps us escape from the complications of modern life. Beachcombing connects us with nature and lets us see the beauty in simple, natural imperfection. It also helps us to understand and appreciate the imperfections within ourselves.
Whether you are just picking up wave-worn beach treasures or turning your discoveries into beautiful art, you’re engaging in wabi-sabi and finding beauty in the transience and imperfection of natural life.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2021 issue.