What does wabi sabi mean?

Wabi sabi bowl - photo by moriza - cc-by

Wabi sabi bowl - photo by moriza - cc-by

Wabi sabi is a Japanese world view which embraces the beauty of things that are modest, humble, unconventional, even imperfect or incomplete, and celebrates those things for their positive values.

Perhaps the closest that westerners can come to this idea is to admire “rustic simplicity”. It’s also the concept behind the western admiration of “hand made” with its connotations of irregularity or imperfection yet quality and attention to detail.

Also central to wabi sabi is the notion of impermanence; the idea that things are temporary. The candle flame that burns brightest and clearest just before it goes out illustrates this notion.

Fruit can have its wabi sabi moment, just as it ripens to perfection. For a very short time, the fruit is at its most delicious and its most aromatic. Even though it may have some blemishes or other imperfections, we can celebrate its peak. Of course the fruit is impermanent like everything in nature, and if we do not eat it at its peak, it will rot into a putrid mass.

Some fruits take this to extreme. A traditional astringent persimmon has a highly unpleasant bitter taste and repulsive mouthfeel until it is so ripe that it is becoming over-ripe. At this point the astringency disappears and, for an hour or two, it is one of the most delectable foods on the planet. An hour after that, it’s truly rotten.

(Selective breeding has produced the sharon fruit, a non-astringent persimmon that stays sweet and delicious for a month or more with proper storage, but is never quite as good as a traditional persimmon at its peak. The sharon fruit is almost the antithesis of wabi sabi.)

The ripening fruit serves as a good analogy for other things that have their wabi sabi moments. A software system becomes more functional and usable, and is at its peak just before it becomes cumbersome and unmaintainable due to the accumulation of features and programming cruft. A hand-crafted clay pot which has served a family for generations, and whose form has incorporated the chinks and dents and hairline cracks that tell its history – is at its most wonderful just before it finally cracks apart.

Even a whole society follows the pattern of wabi sabi – an ascendancy marked by good and great things together with imperfections, which reaches its peak just before it collapses.

The opposite of wabi sabi is the clinical, the sterile, the artificial, the standardised and the bland.

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