I don’t know where I first heard of it but I’ve recently been intrigued with the idea of wabi sabi, which appears to be so deeply embedded in Japanese culture that native Japanese don’t, and possibly can’t, give a clear picture of what it is. For them it just is. I’ve read several books about it, all by Western authors. One of these authors says that he has found no book on wabi sabi written by a Japanese. Perhaps in one culture there is only a need to experience and not explain while in our culture there is a need to explain just about everything.
The description that, so far, I find most satisfying is given by Andrew Juniper:
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.
Perhaps it is better to illustrate the idea rather than talk too much about it. I am a novice concerning this concept and what I write will be the thoughts of a novice. Might be better to show what it could mean and write about it just a little bit.
One of the defining features of wabi sabi is impermanence. This morning I had seen the light falling on a leaf just so. It was perfect. I went into the house, got my camera and tripod, came out and the light had changed. That moment of perfection of light and leaf was gone. But there were others. This one didn’t look like much at first but then the light touched it.
Another defining feature is simplicity.
But there is more in this image than simplicity, there are also other key features of wabi sabi, imperfection and impermanence. This car from a train is rusting away and will be dust someday.
Impermanence operates on every time scale. The backwash of water in the lower left in this image from the White River was gone in under a second. I am sure the leaves moved on when the water rose again. The rock and concrete are wearing down.
Simplicity, imperfection, impermanence. All these are part of life. There is beauty in all of it, if we’ll just stop and look. But what beauty was there when my father was dying from cancer? Where I saw beauty was in his dignity and his newly formed relationships with the hospice nurses. There was much beauty there. If there can be be beauty there, there can be beauty just about anywhere. Melancholy? Yes. Serenity in awareness? Yes.