08.12.19 | Wabi Sabi

Wabi-sabi is most evident in simple aesthetics. Notice the warmth of the Highland facility. Maybe begin with the small nicks and tiny cracks in the long, antique oak table in the library. Now go to the framed portraits of the hundred "Icons of Boulder" mounted throughout the building. These are not your typical soft-focus glamour shots. The photographs feature every wrinkle and every blemish on every face. The beauty of the faces in the images is in the utter lack of pretension i.e. each facial line tells the story of a life well lived. And so it is with every item you see. Each has its own story and each is part of the rich narrative we call Highland.

Wabi-sabi is the confluence and refinement of two ancient Asian concepts. Wabi originally referred to a (sometimes melancholy) life spent in the solitude of nature, a concept we had touched on in our discussion of mid-nineteenth century American transcendentalism (Nature (Solitude), MM 4/1/19); Sabi, roughly speaking, describes the beauty or serenity that comes with age. In today's Japan, wabi-sabi has conflated two words and evolved in meaning to describe a more positive aesthetic value i.e. "wisdom in natural simplicity."

Wabi-sabi, though, is more than simple aesthetics. "Wabi-sabi is a different kind of looking, a different kind of mindset . . . . It's the true acceptance of finding beauty in things as they are." Those are the words of Robyn Gibbs Lawrence, our lead participant for the upcoming session and author of our focus piece (click here) along with her book Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House. To be sure, Robyn's book applies to architecture, furnishings, and pottery; the art of finding beauty in the simple, the rustic and, yes, the flawed. Her work evokes the sublime comfort in all that. One hears in her delightful prose the happy sigh as one sinks into a hot bath.

Yet this "different kind of mindset" suggests wabi-sabi to be something more than a simple Japanese aesthetic. The philosophical bedrock of wabi-sabi is Zen Buddhism (introduced to Japan in the late twelfth century as a challenge to the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion) and with it the sense of impermanence and a view of life seen in terms of cycles (MM 10/29/18, It's About Time). Wisdom comes from making peace with our transitory, imperfect, and unheroic nature (for an eight-minute overview, click here).

Our discussion, however, will be centered on the spirit rather than the history and details of wabi-sabi. We might start with one famous Haiku (Basho), "Solitary now --/Standing amidst the blossoms/Is a cypress tree." One wonders whether that resonates whatsoever in the Western mind with its own ideas of beauty and consumerist values. Still, one also senses a certain longing to reach beyond mass-produced sameness and a throw-away culture. Wabi-sabi might address a certain perceived void i.e. the place we really must come to terms with imperfection, melancholy and age is in ourselves.

Sometimes that void enables connection to and through the deepest, darkest recesses of the soul. Click here for a glimpse of the skull.

Steve SmithComment