In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" in nature. It is prevalent in many forms of Japanese art.
Wabi-sabi is a composite of two interrelated aesthetic concepts, wabi (侘) and sabi (寂). According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, wabi may be translated as "subdued, austere beauty," while sabi means "rustic patina." Wabi-sabi is derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印, sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常, mujō), suffering (苦, ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (空, kū), however, the two were originally seen as distinct concepts.
Characteristics of wabi-sabi aesthetics and principles include asymmetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and the appreciation of both natural objects and the forces of nature.
According to Leonard Koren, wabi-sabi can be described as "the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty. It occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West." Another description of wabi-sabi by Andrew Juniper notes that, "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." For Richard Powell, "Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."
The words wabi and sabi do not translate directly into English; wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; sabi meant "chill", "lean" or "withered". Around the 14th century, these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations.
After centuries of incorporating artistic and Buddhist influences from China, wabi-sabi eventually evolved into a distinctly Japanese ideal. Over time, the meanings of wabi and sabi changed to be more lighthearted and hopeful. Around 700 years ago, particularly among the Japanese nobility, understanding emptiness and imperfection was honored as tantamount to the first step to satori, or enlightenment. In today's Japan, the meaning of wabi-sabi is often condensed to "wisdom in natural simplicity". In art books, it is typically defined as "flawed beauty". Wabi-sabi artworks often emphasize the process of making the piece and that is ultimately incomplete.
From an engineering or design point of view, wabi may be interpreted as the imperfect quality of any object, due to inevitable limitations in design and construction/manufacture especially with respect to unpredictable or changing usage conditions; in this instance, sabi could be interpreted as the aspect of imperfect reliability, or the limited mortality of any object, hence the phonological and etymological connection with the Japanese word sabi (錆, lit. 'to rust'). Although the kanji characters for "rust" are not the same as sabi (寂) in wabi-sabi, the original spoken word (pre-kanji, yamato-kotoba) are believed to be one and the same.
Wabi and sabi both suggest sentiments of desolation and solitude. In the Mahayana Buddhist view of the universe, these may be viewed as positive characteristics, representing liberation from a material world and transcendence to a simpler life. Mahayana philosophy itself, however, warns that genuine understanding cannot be achieved through words or language, so accepting wabi-sabi on nonverbal terms may be the most appropriate approach.
In one sense wabi-sabi is a training whereby the student of wabi-sabi learns to find the most basic, natural objects interesting, fascinating and beautiful. Fading autumn leaves would be an example. Wabi-sabi can change the student's perception of the world to the extent that a chip or crack in a vase makes it more interesting and gives the object greater meditative value. Similarly materials that age such as bare wood, paper and fabric become more interesting as they exhibit changes that can be observed over time.
The wabi and sabi concepts are religious in origin, but actual usage of the words in Japanese is often quite casual because of the syncretic nature of Japanese belief.
Many forms of Japanese art have been influenced by Zen and Mahayana philosophy over the past thousand years, with the concepts of the acceptance and contemplation of imperfection, and constant flux and impermanence of all things being particularly important to Japanese arts and culture.
As a result, many of these artforms contain and exemplify the ideals of wabi-sabi, and several display the concept's aesthetical senses particularly well. Examples include:
A contemporary Japanese exploration of the concept of wabi-sabi can be found in the influential essay In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki.
Wabi-sabi has been employed in the Western world in a variety of contexts, including in the arts, technology, media, and mental health, among others.
Many Western designers, writers, poets and artists have utilised wabi-sabi ideals within their work to varying degrees, with some considering the concept a key component of their art, and others using it only minimally.
Designer Leonard Koren (born 1948) published Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994) as an examination of wabi-sabi, contrasting it with Western ideals of beauty. According to Penelope Green, Koren's book subsequently "became a talking point for a wasteful culture intent on penitence and a touchstone for designers of all stripes."
Wabi-sabi concepts historically had extreme importance in the development of Western studio pottery; Bernard Leach (1887–1979) was deeply influenced by Japanese aesthetics and techniques, which is evident in his foundational book A Potter's Book.
The work of American artist John Connell (1940–2009) is also considered to be centered on the idea of wabi-sabi; other artists who have employed the idea include former Stuckist artist and remodernist filmmaker Jesse Richards (born 1975), who employs it in nearly all of his work, along with the concept of mono no aware.
Some haiku in English also adopt the wabi-sabi aesthetic in written style, creating spare, minimalist poems that evoke loneliness and transience, such as Nick Virgilio's "autumn twilight:/ the wreath on the door/ lifts in the wind".
During the 1990s, the concept was borrowed by computer software developers and employed in agile programming and wiki, used to describe acceptance of the ongoing imperfection of computer programming produced through these methods.
On 16 March 2009, Marcel Theroux presented "In Search of Wabi Sabi" on BBC Four, as part of the channel's Hidden Japan season of programming, travelling throughout Japan trying to understand the aesthetic tastes of its people. Theroux began by comically enacting a challenge from the book Living Wabi Sabi by Taro Gold, asking members of the public on a street in Tokyo to describe wabi-sabi – the results of which showed that, just as Gold predicted, "they will likely give you a polite shrug and explain that Wabi Sabi is simply unexplainable."
Wabi-sabi has been evoked in a mental health context as a helpful concept for reducing perfectionist thinking.