HISTORY OF IDEAS – Wabi-sabi

HISTORY OF IDEAS – Wabi-sabi


When it comes to what things look like, the Western world is obsessed by perfection, by symmetry, and ideal proportion. This is a taste for beauty shaped by reverence for universal laws, mathematics, and an appetite for the perfect and the eternal. Japanese aesthetics are, however, very different indeed, and the core of the difference is captured in a term for which Western languages have no direct equivalent: a term known as Wabi-Sabi [pronounced: Wah-bi-sah-bi]. Wabi-Sabi refers to the beauty of the impermanent, the imperfect, the rustic, and the melancholy. It derives not from the love of invincibility, youth and flawlessness, but from a respect for what is passing, fragile, slightly broken and modest. Wabi-sabi believes the things are always more beautiful forbearing the marks of age and individuality; A trickle of glaze or a beautifully repaired crack on a piece of pottery are to be appreciated rather than made invisible. Wabi-sabi’s history is intimately linked with Buddhism and its suggestion that wisdom comes from making peace without transitory, imperfect and unheroic natures Kyushu, Japan. 1191. A monk known as Eisai returns to Japan from China, with plans to create Japan’s first Zen Buddhist temple. Zen presents a challenge to Japan’s indigenous religion; Shinto. Zen offers a complex philosophical system which presents nature with its constant cycles of life and imperfect patterns as a focus of meditation and a lens through which to understand our own transients and emptiness. Zen will go on to be the philosophical bedrock of Wabi-sabi. 14th Century, Japan. The meaning of two words: Wabi (侘 )and Sabi ( 寂) begin to evolve and become more positive than they had been. Wabi had originally meant the misery and loneliness of living in nature, away from human consolation, but, its meaning now shifts to refer to an almost exquisite bitter sweet melancholy a being on ones’ own. Sabi, meanwhile, which had originally meant chill, lean, or withered, started to denote the marks of aging and wear, which can enhance an object. It refers to a positive impermanence and the welcome and noble signs of time. The ancient pattern of a pot or a crack beautifully mended are now called Sabi. Kyoto, 1488. Murata Shukō sits down to write a letter to his student, Furuichi Chōin. This document will come to be known as the Letter of the Heart (Kokoro no fumi) And will define the ideal way that one should drink tea – the tea ceremony – and lays out the aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi. The tea ceremony had originated as a way for monks to stay awake in order to practice long periods of Zen meditation, but recently it’s been overtaken by the ruling class of warlord, or shoguns. They used it as a way of showing off expensive vessels and utensils imported from China. The tea ceremony has become flashy, often in elaborate and gaudy surroundings, and slipped a long way from its spiritual roots. Now, Shuko redesign the tea ceremony wth the ideals of Wabi-Sabi in mind. The fashion at the time was to enjoy tea on a balcony while looking at the full moon, but Shuko claims that he has no taste for the full moon. Instead, he urges his student to appreciate the more subtle interplay of shadows on half of the moon, or the partially clouded moon. He also stresses that one should abandon the perfect and lustrous tea drinking cups of the Chinese, which seem to evoke the flawlessness of the full moon, and instead to commission more rustic ware from Japanese artisans, who will make little errors in the glaze, and let these be a deliberate part of their work. Kyoto, 1582. Sen no Rikyu is someone to the service of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful warlord who unites the warring factions of Feudal Japan. He commissions Rikyu to create a tea ceremony, that can help to foster peace. Along with Shuko, Sen no Rikyu is revered in Japan as the father of the modern tea ceremony, and the most perfect practicioner of Wabi-Sabi – a story that is most often used to illustrate the spirit of Wabi-Sabi is taken from his life. One day, Rikyu asked a disciple to clean his tea house, and the young boy worked all day to scrub and sweep every inch of the house and garden. When Rikyu came to inspect it, he reached up and shook a maple tree overhanging the path. The sprinkling of leaves that fell brought Wabi-Sabi to the scene, thus the manmade and the natural, artifice and random chance were united in a perfect expression of beauty and wisdom. Rikyu goes further than Shuko in undermining the high taste of the shoguns, and strips everything non-essential from his tea ceremony. The pots he uses are often directly taken from peasant environments, or are modeled after a particularily rustic roof tile that he spots while walking through a local village. Rikyu also codifies the movements of the tea ceremony, creating the perfectly economical and graceful notions of creating tea with a minimum fuss – thereby adding Wabi-Sabi to the very core of the ritual. Unfortunately for Rikyu, his boss, the warlord Hideyoshi, comes from a peasant background, and begins to fear that the whole process is maybe an elaborate joke at his expense. This causes him to order Rikyu to commit harakiri. In an eerie parallel to Socrates’ demise, Rikyu holds a final tea ceremony among his closest friends before obediently stabbing himself through the stomach. Today, all the great schools of tea trace their lineage back to Rikyu, and all follow the motions and traditions that he set out. The maker of the humble tile that he so admired was known as Raku, and Raku pots are still made today, and appreciated as the greatest embodiment of Wabi-Sabi. If you take tea in the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto – the birthplace of the formal tea ceremony in Japan, you can drink from the same cup as the troublesome Hideyoshi once sipped from. Edo, 1684. Matsuo Basho, the father of the Haiku, and Japan’s most revered poet, sets off on the first of his great pilgrimages. These aimless wanderings will take him to the heart of solitude and nature, and help him capture the spirit of Wabi-Sabi in words. A depressive with a great talent, Basho takes great joy in wandering the dangerous roads around Edo disguised as a beggar. Here he distills the fragile beauty of the sights around him into poetry that tries to spot the eternal. Through the fleeting moment, we can hear the beautiful desolation in one of his most famous haiku, Solitary now – Standing Amidst the blossoms- Is a cypress tree. GInza district, Tokyo, 2013. An enormous new outlet of Louis Vuitton opens built by the Japanese architect Jun Aoki. Fourty-five percent of all Japanese women are now estimated to own a bag by the french luxury goods firm: featuring Western ideals, shininess, perfection and symmetry. Wabi-Sabi is, like many traditional Japanese ideas, under enormous threat from the consumerist values of the west. Wabi-Sabi is, at one level, an idea that relates to pottery, drinking tea, and the history of Japan, but another, it’s a lesson for all of us, for all times, because the place we really have to come to terms with imperfection, melancholy and age, is in ourselves. Wabi-Sabi is a giant marketing effort which urges us to take a second look at what we might otherwise dismiss or treat with disdain. It recognises that our tastes are not fixed, and that if someone with talent and artistic grace urges us to look more sympathetically at some moss, a slightly wonky teacup, or indeed, the wise, wrinkled face of a friend or relative, we will be able to find charm and beauty here too. Our notions of beauty and interests are relative and open to change and improvement. With the ideals of Wabi-Sabi in mind, we may learn to find greater satisfaction in the humbler moments; In a walk down a slightly crooked path, or an overcast autumn day, or a less than blemish free house, face or soul.


100 thoughts on “HISTORY OF IDEAS – Wabi-sabi

  1. "wabi sabi is under threat from the consumerist ideas of the west…if you like our films, take a look at our shop, you'll find lots of thoughtful books, games, stationery, and more…"

  2. It's like seeing the over saturation of high fashion shimmer and introducing streetwear, vintage tees, and distressed denim

  3. Perfection is one word. If you kiss someone, you want to do it roght. Not perfect. That's jus a word. Nothin – or everything – is perfect. The word "perfect" is actually a meaningless "box" outside of which everybody is thinking of anything but perfection. I really think "oerfection" is less than relevant.

    The western world is obsessed with power. Nothing else.

  4. Ohhhh if only all the world would embrace wabi sabi however the subtle control mechanisms would fail and then economic chaos could begin ugh what to do…..

  5. Had a Aunt who was the most giving person you could ever meet. She was over energetic to say the least, so most of her cups where cracked, broken and my uncle would glue them back together. After she passed many family members where at odds with each other over the money she left, I am so grateful I got the cups, I am enjoying a tea out of one right now.
    Thank you for giving me a name for what I feel when I use these cups.

  6. Ugh, the way he says Japanese words is awful. It would be better for a Japanese person to present their own culture, say things properly, and give the best interpretation. We should speak from our own culture.

  7. The perfection of imperfection is just another gimmick and gaudiness.
    This whole measurement of perceived perfection in a nonsensical tea ceremony is just another made up social fashion trend like hot yoga, the grand central station of camel toes.

  8. The whole initial premise of this video is flawed, if not flat false.
    There very much is a Western equivalent for Wabi Sabi, as described here:
    it's called "VANITAS" and was an integral part of BAROQUE aesthetics.

  9. That's really interesting.
    Did you notice that man-made gardens, (which tend to be very simetrical, carefully prunned, exhibiting selected plant species) generally don't look as beautiful as a natural landscape?
    Certainly there is some beauty in imperfection and randomness. Or maybe it is just some more elaborated type of perfection.

  10. ''wabi-sabi'' is the same as the french ''je ne sais quoi''.. the early French impressionist painter knew about the Japanese concept of Wabi-Sabi.. which they incorporate into their work.. as for your so call western notion of symmetrical perfection.. the east knew about that too a few thousand years go.. Nara and Kyoto were build on the concept of symmetrical grit so were the buildings.. which they had copied from china.. you really should do your homework a bit more

  11. Without wabi sabi there is no beauty, we might not have a word for it ..but it is a universal truth …that the imperfection is what makes beauty…just look at models they are the best example of almost perfect features…but without wabi sabi they would just be boring and symetric.. a lot of them are but not the beautifull ones

  12. What total horseshit. Japan doesn't care about symetrical perfection and looks over substance? Try going there.

  13. Bollox.

    You mean English doesn't have the concept or something akin to it, but Dutch definitely has and that's a very West Germanic language and Western culture m8.

  14. Well you'll be happy to know that Louis Vitton bags are now trashy.
    Maybe an enterprising fashionista can now wabi-sabi the now forlorn bags.

  15. Man hideyoshi has no chill, but all that tea ceremony are truly hassle… I guess all peasant think alike…

  16. I like this video. Similar ideas of imperfection in artistic creations can be found in Navajo rugs, Indian embroidery in the Punjab region, the ceilings of mosques, and some European cathedrals.

  17. 5:05 key word: "codified"…. even wabisabi is a codification, every bit as much as the 'western aesthetics' you mention at the beginning. very nicely produced video, but bears no relation to how Japanese people live and think of course…. just more 'Mythological Japan'.

  18. So.  Rustic patina.  Rusteration. Shabby chic.  We got the terms, we got the concept and the context.

  19. Wabi-Sabi, to the pimples on my face 🙂

    Obsessive imperfection as a way of life. It's like striving for the perfection in reverse.

    Just chill and do as good as you can in the moment.

  20. @4:10: "… the most perfect practitioner of wabi-sabi." Ironic.

    Also, "most perfect"? Perfection is already superlative. Words have meanings.

  21. “Mistake” where child’s voice cuts off at the end… I see what use oh did there! Nice.
    Now to remember that all of life’s imperfections are to be accepted and even appreciated. Well done, School of Life.

  22. Socrates didn't kill himself you moron. He was murdered by the Group of 30 who still exist. Only a coward doesn't understand the story. Socrates was given a death sentence for trying to explain what gods and the One God is. The only other option Socrates had was to give up the location of his fellow teachers and unless you are a coward and that isn't an option. The same order who murdered Socrates tried to murder all the teachers all over the world. Confucius warned the emperor when they came bribing him with women but the emperor didn't listen so Confucius fled. No one actually knows if they killed him or he fled. All we know is that the First emperor of China murdered the Confucius scholars and burned all the books because he was in that international conglomerate that were greedy back stabbers from all nation's who tried to alter the path of humanity by destroying libraries and murdering teachers to alter history and so the first emperor isn't actually the first emperor because he failed to destroy the history of all the other emperor's so we would think he was the first emperor. We are still under the rule of the orders those cowardly backstabbers installed into our education which is why no one knows the One God is the power of your mind.

  23. Wabi-sabi, appreciation of imperfection, might save the thousands of men and women who torture themselves with cosmetic treatments to look perfect outwardly, but do nothing to improve themselves in the core.

  24. So, basically wabi sabi is a Japanese art of choosing proper biscuits to eat with evening tea. Am I right? 😉

  25. 1:10 "wisdom comes from making peace WITH (not without) transitory, imperfect and unheroic nature"

    i realized you probably said "with our" but the subtitle is showing "without" lol

  26. YOUR Ancestries Currently Curse This Presentation As British Royale High Quality Dogshit Pretending to Share While Allowing the Contrary… #Hypocrisy 👑

  27. You make a new tea ceremony and your boss tells you to go kill yourself!?!? And to think thought my boss was a jerk!

  28. * Actually Pronounced "wobby sobby." Also of note, the technique of repairing cracked ceramics with gold is called kintsugi.

  29. I do not agree with your young, sweeping claims that perfection, newness and symmetry are those of old England (even if they are now considered to be, somehow, the aesthetic of the West by the young who seem keen to push such cliches)… Properly construed, for those of us raised by old, true, real English people – gentle old souls of the beautiful kind – there are clearly enormous comparisons to find between the real 'crooked' line leading into and out of the deep heart of our England's historic sense of aesthetic appreciation (as compared, say, to Continental or American 'brash' sense of 'newness', and immaculate perfectionism) and Wabi Sabi.
    I loved Wabi Sabi all my life instinctively as an Englishman.
    It was in my natural soul as an English boy hiding in the potting shed, drinking black tea out of a beaten old tin mug – collecting broken things – many decades before ever hearing of the Japanese words or seeing beautiful Japanese tea cups, etc…
    The (true) old Englishman's love of the patch of unruly moss on the garden wall, the perfectly ancient chipped paint on the window cill. The favoured chair with the string holding the arm on… The preference for the umbrella with the old hole in it.. The adoration of these cherished things is deep, deep – powerfully deep – inside the poetic English soul of our true national character. I believe it is linked to Christianity, or Protestantism, perhaps, as well. Eccentric, peculiar… different.
    That's it, I have said my piece!
    God bless old Japan.

  30. I don't think that I agree that  Wabi-sabi is present in Japan but NOT in the West……What comes to mind is the esteem felt for the patina on antigues and old motor vehicles, on family heirlooms and old buildings……..I think Wabi-sabi is universal.

  31. The closest English words to wabi-sabi probably "rustic" or "patina". But it's not like westerners don't appreciate those things. There has long been that aesthetic here, such as Marie Antoinette's "Hameau de la Reine," or the arts and crafts, country, shabby chic, or farmhouse modern aesthetics. It's a thing in the West.

  32. Excellent video! My only other comment would be, please pay more attention to the Japanese pronunciation, it sounds a bit off for such a high quality video. Or is this an attempt at wabi-sabi itself?

  33. I don't believe it is only a Japan's philosophy. Romans in their conquers, the Renaissance, the Napoleonic troops and even today the brocantes sell the nostalgia of the past to a select group of collectors just like the wabi-sabi only practice a select group of melancolic and lovers of Japanese history. Socially, there is nothing more than go to Europe and see how in all places there are people trying to preserve the past as it was, but with that old touch that takes the passage of time.

  34. Thanks for sharing the details. I'm ur great supporter from Philippines hope you will visit my place Nam myoho renge kyo

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