Centuries back, in the height of the Japanese autumn, in one of Kyoto’s majestic gardens, a tea master asked his disciple to prepare for tea ceremony. The young man trimmed the hedges, raked the gravel, picked the dried leaves from the stones, cleared the moss path of twigs. The garden looked immaculate: not a blade of grass out of place.
The master inspected the garden quietly. Then, he reached up at a branch of a maple tree and shook it, watching the auburn leaves fall with haphazard grace on tidied earth. There it was now, the magic of imperfection. There it was, the order of nature, never far from the hands of humans. There it was, wabi-sabi, thought master Rikyu — the father of Japanese tea ceremony.
700 years ago, to understand imperfection was to be on the path to enlightenment. Tea masters, Buddhist monks, and others from the Japanese nobility embraced wabi-sabi through tea ceremony, calligraphy, and other cultural traditions. Thanks to Rikyu’s teachings, tea ceremony became a place and time when people could step outside their daily cares and find solace in the simple things. The single flower in a bamboo vase, the minimalist scroll, the unassuming patina — all serving as reminders of the wisdom of rustic, flawed beauty. And that nothing was ever perfect. Nor permanent.
Yet, something that appears as distinctly traditional and archaic has its place in our modern lives. Despite the Greco-Roman odes to symmetry and perfection, the notion of beauty residing in flaws has also been a part of western philosophy, literature, and aesthetics. Poets have written about life’s inevitable orders to break us all and the resulting strengths that calcify at our broken places (Ernest Hemingway). How the light comes through our cracks (Leonard Cohen). How imperfection inspires the spark of creation and imagination (Jhumpa Lahiri). Even the imperfect physical objects surrounding us can become symbols of our diligence to find meaning. Thinkers such as Kant, for instance, spoke of virtue-centric qualities of objects (or even buildings) — how their beauty can be a reflection of the human virtues of those who made them or own them. Perhaps this is why the shabby vest knitted by grandma or the scribbled love letters from our children or the broken seashell from an old friend, can turn into our dearest treasures. Because despite their imperfections, these objects become beacons of our humanity: our ability to feel, to empathize, to connect, to love.
The relentless pursuit of perfection — in possessions, relationships, achievements – often fosters hasty judgments. This is where wabi-sabi invites a pause. It opens space. For acceptance and forgiveness. For mindfulness. For seeing the beauty of things flawed, including ourselves and our fellow human beings. For appreciating time’s passage. To acknowledge the impermanence of the world around us comes with tinges of melancholy. Most things of meaning do. Even happiness, at close inspection, has its wrinkles and rough edges. But there is also a relief. A release from the hostage of perfection. A resilience and a commitment to keep finding beauty in the most unexpected places.
Ultimately, wabi-sabi opens space for love. Love for others, and no less for ourselves. Love for our virtues and our scars, our strengths and our vulnerabilities. It is this love, according to Ryotaro Matsumura, that can lead to a deeper satisfaction with life. If we could feel it even once a day, it is this love, he notes, together with “humility and gratitude for the sun, for water, for nature, for humans — despite all our imperfections — that can infuse our days with more meaning and fulfillment.” After all, in a lifetime of fleeting moments, one after another, what bigger gift than to stare in the eyes of beauty — whatever form it may take — and to revel in its reflection of love.