Wabi and Sabi: The Aesthetics of Solitude
Nearly all the arts in historical China and Japan derive their aesthetic principles from Taoism and Zen Buddhism. The two great philosophical traditions proved compatible specifically with the culture and psychology of Japan. The hallmark of a Chinese or Japanese masterpiece free of modern influence continues to be the naturalness and uncontrived, even “accidental” appearance of the work. The artist works with and harmonizes nature and its universal accidents. The guiding principles are wabi and sabi.
The two dominant principles of Chinese and Japanese art and culture are wabi and sabi. Wabi refers to a philosophical construct, a sense of space, direction, or path, while sabi is an aesthetic construct rooted in a given object and its features, plus the occupation of time, chronology, and objectivity. Though the terms are and should be referred to distinctly, they are usually combined as wabi-sabi, as both a working description and as a single aesthetic principle.
The original connotation of wabi is based on the aloneness or separation from society experienced by the hermit, suggesting to the popular mind a misery and sad forlornness. Only by the fourteenth century in Japan were positive attributes ascribed to wabi and cultivated. As Koren(1) puts it, the self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness.
Indeed, wabi is literally poverty, but it came to refer not to the absence of material possessions but to the non-dependence upon material possessions. Wabi is a divestment of the material that surpasses material wealth. Wabi is simplicity that has shaken off the material in order to relate directly with nature and reality. This absence of dependence also frees itself from indulgence, ornateness, and composity. Wabi is quiet contentment with simple things.
In short, wabi is a way of life or spiritual path. It precedes the application of aesthetic principles applied to objects and arts, the latter being sabi. The Zen principles informing wabi enjoyed a rich confluence of Confucian, Taoist, Buddhism, and Shinto traditions, but focused on the hermit’s insight and the reasons why the hermit came to pursue eremiticism. These philosophical insights are familiar: the recognition of duality as illusion, the clinging to ego and the material world as leading to suffering, the fear of death precluding a fulfilling life, the appreciation of life’s evanescence as a prompt to living in harmony with nature.
The life of the hermit came to be called wabizumai in Japan, essentially “the life of wabi,” a life of solitude and simplicity.
Although several fifteenth and sixteenth century figures in Japan stand out in making the transition from wabi to sabi (Shuko, Rikyu, Ikkyu), the process was an organic one already occurring among poets and artisans. The tea ceremony was the first “contrived” expression of sabi, meaning that the wabi principles would be embodied in specific objects and actions.
Sabi as the outward expression of aesthetic values is built upon the metaphysical and spiritual principles of Zen, but translates these values into artistic and material qualities. Sabi suggest natural processes resulting in objects that are irregular, unpretentious, and ambiguous. The objects reflect a universal flux of “coming from” and “returning to.” They reflect an impermanence that is nevertheless congenial and provocative, leading the viewer or listener to a reflectiveness and contemplation that returns to wabi and back again to sabi, an aesthetic experience intended to engender a holistic perspective that is peaceful and transcendent.
Sabi objects are irregular in being asymmetrical, unpretentious in being the holistic fruit of wabizumai, ambiguous in preferring insight and intuition, the engendering of refined spiritualized emotions rather than reason and logic. Ambiguity allows each viewer to proceed to their capacity for nuances without excluding anyone or exhausting the number and quality of experiences. The Japanese haiku poet Basho transformed the wabizumai he experienced into sabi poetry, and the melancholy of nature became a kind of longing for the absolute. But this longing never fulfilled — the “absolute” is not part of Zen vocabulary –makes the tension between wabi and sabi an enriching and inexhaustible experience.
Sabi is literally solitude or even loneliness. This is the atmosphere created by poetry and music, the sensibility provoked by art and drama, the reflectiveness provoked by a landscape. The design principles of sabi were applied to the spectrum of Japanese cultural expressions, including gardens (Zen and tea), poetry, ceramics, calligraphy, tea ceremony, flower arranging, bonsai, archery, music, and theater. The confluence of wabi and sabi led to using the two separate terms as one.
Here are two passages from Juniper(2) that summarize wabi-sabi:
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.
The contrast to Western principles of aesthetics is rooted in the contrast to Western philosophical premises of power, authority, dominance, engagement, and control, whether of others or of nature. The art produced by such a culture is a visual and tactile expression of its values. The two cannot be separated. Nor, on the other hand, are wabi and sabi usually separated in wabi-sabi art.
The design principles of wabi-sabi fall into several categories; of course fine arts like poetry, drama, and literature, have not physical objects, embody these principles in a different way:
The materials used are organic, not synthetic. They are further not to be polished or cleaned or adulterated to appear new or contrived. Hence wood, metal, paper, textiles, stone, and clay comprise acceptable materials which will express the passage of time and whose devolution is expressive and attractive.
The object is shaped naturally or organically, showing natural or intentional asymmetry or irregularity. Form is not imposed by human contrivance but subtly intervenes to make the object follow the capabilities and relevant physical characteristics, properties, and propensities of its own nature. This naturalness of form is probably the first and most striking characteristic of the object. Above all, the work is itself, not a symbol of anything.
In keeping with the material used, the texture remains rough, uneven, variegated, and random, with every appearance of pursuing an unimpeded natural process.
The Western standard of beauty referred to above does not find a place in wabi-sabi. Not even conventional standards of beauty in the popular mind unfamiliar with theory are necessarily wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi presses the absolute nature of permeability in the visual and sensual, so that the fragility and poignancy of conventional beauty lost in the passage of time is made real in the present space. The object reveals this different sense of beauty in subtle and even barely perceptible detail, but it is a holistic experience that is difficult for the viewer to abstract given details that convey the given sensibility.
Indeed, the wabi-sabi artist does not intend the viewer to “abstract” anything. Wabi-sabi is a holistic experience, and objects derive their beauty from the emotion conveyed, not from any particular detail of the work. In this latter sense, beauty is more easily conveyed in the experience of literature, theater, or ceremony than are some of the other principles.
The object conveys nothing harsh or unnatural, hence colors are muted. Light is diffused or subdued. Colors are derived from natural sources, lacking uniformity or harshness. Nor is color exclusively conveyed by visual art objects, as a poem by Jakuren (12th century) cited by Juniper shows:
1. To be alone
2. It is a color that cannot be named
3. This mountain where cedars rise
4. Into the autumn dusk
Simplicity conveys the spontaneity of natural materials that are not or cannot be embellished. Lack of adulteration and ostentation confirms the authenticity of the work and its conformity to the wabi-sabi spirit.
While sabi works are the objectification of wabi in space, here space refers to proportion and perspective. Nothing is wasted yet there is ample space around the object, conveying a holistic philosophy wherein all elements intertwine and are essential to the whole. Scale becomes an economy of space (the tea hut, bonsai), but empty space conveys the nature of the universe (the bowl or cup, archery, the Zen garden).
The work reflects the physical balances found in the natural world. Hence no preconceived formula for symmetry is tenable because nature defines itself by circumstances: a tree grows tall or short, thin or thick, leafy, crooked, etc., in the context of other trees, rocks, water, soil, hummus, etc. in the forest. This balance as circumstance is a design principle for the artist to infuse into a work. The work, like the tree, is unique. The regularity, uniformity, and prescriptions contrived by the artist are secondary to the requirement to reflect a natural and unforced appearance to the object and its context.
Sobriety is the simple principle that art is sometimes better defined by what is left out than by what is put in. Sobriety adds a sense of perspective to the experience of impermanence. The artist approaches creative work with humility, sincerity, and a clarification of motives. Bad motives poison art and inevitably reveal themselves in the work. The artist must proceed to create freely and intimately a personal and vulnerable work that is naturally infused with the spirit of wabi-sabi. Sobriety provides the element of ambiguity because the artist recognizes his/her limitations, and refrains from making bold or emphatic statements. Koren finds it especially useful to distinguish wabi-sabi principles from principles of modernist art, the minimalism of the latter being often confused with wabi-sabi. He comes to his subject from the discouraging experience of witnessing wabi-sabi increasingly abandoned in Japan for the headlong embrace of Western pop art and technology. Koren’s chart (here edited) makes useful distinctions between the minimalism of contemporary modernism and he principles of wabi-sabi that further elucidate the design principles of wabi-sabi.
But perhaps the best expression of the aesthetic principles of wabi-sabi come from a practitioner, in this case a practitioner of bonsai, Peter Chan(3), who distills several essential principles from the many theoretical considerations.
Seven Aesthetic Principles
Chan’s aesthetic principles are seven. The three core principles are simplicity, tranquility, and naturalness. Simplicity is application of the minimum and the appropriate. No more than these is ever needed, yet a profundity of aesthetic experience results. Tranquility suggests the quality of feeling refreshed and touched within, but with solace and calm, not excitement or over-stimulation. Naturalness is the avoidance of contrivance. The artist attempts to make the artwork appear to have always been part of nature, as if no human intervention ever took place. The object (a garden, a path, even a fence) seems to have been a propitious result of natural accidents.
From wabi come two core principles: non-attachment and subtle profundity.
Non-attachment gives the work its fresh and original feeling. The object is somehow familiar but does not depend on anything else. Subtle profundity is the notion of depth. Chan calls it the “intimation of inexhaustibility.” The term inexhaustibility is better than Wordsworth’s “immortality, ” for here the object resounds within us and itself with endless possibilities and nuances, at once hidden and successively revealed.
From sabi come two core principles: austere sublimity and asymmetry.
Asymmetry rejects symmetry in form and balance in order to conform to nature. It is a balance of object against space, of place and proportion. As noted, this is the opposite of historically Western aesthetics, where painting, music, and poetry all conform to an almost mathematical prescription for symmetry. Austere sublimity reduces the object and its context to the essential. All non-essentials burden the viewer and interfere with the aesthetic experience, so that the object, now bereft of the superfluous, conveys the sublime. This is minimalism of a sort but not modernism by any means. Austere sublimity maintains a strong emotive element.
Here is Chan’s graphic illustrating the relationships of the aesthetic principles:
Of course, aesthetic principles remain abstractions if not applied to our lives as much as to art. This application can be made in pursuing the various arts and crafts or creating the elements of our daily environment. While aesthetics may move us to change our relationships to material objects in our daily lives, they should provide essential insight into our culture. The principle of simplicity, organic sources and harmony with nature have practical application for a philosophy of life and for what may be called a philosophy of solitude, a politics of simplicity, or even a politics of eremitism. As Juniper concludes, Wabi-sabi, as a tool for contemplation and a philosophy of life, may now have an unforeseen relevance as an antidote to the rampant unraveling of the very social fabric which has held [us] together for so long.
Its tenets of modesty and simplicity encourage a disciplined unity while discouraging overindulgence in the physical world. It gently promotes a life of quiet contemplation and a gentle aesthetic principle that underscores a meditative approach. Wabi-sabi demotes the role of the intellect and promotes an intuitive feel for life where relationships between people and their environments should be harmonious. By embodying the spirit to remind itself of its own mortality, it can elevate the quality of human life in a world that is fast losing its spirituality.
1. Koren, Leonard. Wabi-sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1994.
2. Juniper, Andrew. Wabi-sabi: the Japanese Art of Impermanence. Boston: Tuttle, 2003.
3. Chan, Peter. Bonsai Master Class. New York: Sterling, 1988.
© 2004, the hermitary and Meng-hu