Wabi Sabi

     Move over Feng Shui, here comes Wabi Sabi; and I, for one, am relieved. Feng Shui is the Chinese theory of proper placement in your surroundings. Proper placement creates energy flow and a sense of harmony. It’s a practical theory that produces amazing results in everyday home, garden and business experiences. Mirrors, bells, the sound of water, furniture arrangement and room placements all play major parts in creating a sense of peace. Strict rules, if followed, promise to make life less stressful, happier and more prosperous. What could be better? Who doesn’t want to be relaxed, cheerful and out of debt? After a little reading I found out that Feng Shui has an enormous learning curve. It takes endless study. It is complicated and exacting. The bells, the water, the correct placement of plants in the garden and furniture in the home seemed fairly easy to accomplish and understand. These were minor changes. Some changes were a little shocking. With further reading I discovered that not only was my kitchen in the wrong end of my house, but according to the laws of Feng Shui, my entire house was facing in the wrong direction…so much for harmony. Then along came Wabi-Sabi and I found my philosophy.

    Wabi-Sabi is the appreciation of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. It is seeing beauty in things modest, humble and unconventional. It is a spirit and a feeling. The literal translation of Japanese Wabi-Sabi is “decay-rust” but hidden in the slightly “dark” translation is a world of appreciation for the small, the simple and the meaningful.  Wabi-Sabi is earthy and unpretentious. It praises things natural. Modern is its opposite.

     Wabi-Sabi was originally a source of rebellion and began with the Japanese Tea Ceremony. In the middle of the fifteenth century “tea” was considered a privileged pastime. Beautiful architecture and garden design, elaborate food preparation and elegant foreign-made tea sets all contributed to the elaborate Tea Ceremony in Japan. But the ceremony was for the elite. As a revolt against the slick, perfect and “modern” culture arising in Japan, a tea master, Rikyu, went “back to basics”, trading the opulence of a grand tearoom for a small thatched hut. Misshapen and unmatched tea mugs replaced the Chinese porcelain tea sets. He sought beauty in simplicity.  The tea ceremony was no longer a grand display of status. It was a personal experience. Unfortunately, Rikyu’s employer, a high-ranking military officer, didn’t like the change and ordered Rikyu to commit ritual suicide. The Tea Ceremony was serious business.  A variation of Rikyu’s simple and beautiful tea ceremony is the one practiced today. Today’s Tea Ceremony is Wabi-Sabi because of its simplicity and attention to detail.

     Wabi-Sabi is in the garden, in the home and in the world of poets and artists.

      Moss covered terra cotta pots, aged broken statuary, rusty trowels and rakes and misshapen pottery are all Wabi-Sabi. It is the appreciation of time frozen, no matter how small, insignificant or downright ugly. It isn’t for everyone but for those who understand it, it speaks volumes.

     Puget Sound is ideal terrain for the art of Wabi-Sabi, especially where gardening is concerned. If moss and rust are the key ingredients of a Wabi-Sabi garden then we’ve got it made. Once you have lived and gardened here for a while, the running joke, “everything that stands still either rusts or gathers moss” gains new meaning because it happens to be true. While the rest of the country is painting buttermilk and yogurt all over everything from bricks to roofs to speed up the aging process, we just need a little patience, the usual amount of rain and we’re blessed with either green sheen or red rust. Here lies the difference between the Wabi-Sabi spirit and everybody else. Those that grab the high pressure hose to get rid of the moss and run for a wire brush to eliminate the rust are not of the Wabi-Sabi mind. The Wabi-Sabi mind sees beauty where others see work. It isn’t laziness or sloppiness; it’s genuine appreciation for the passage of time and how it affects our surroundings. 

     A broken pot is tipped on its side in a Wabi-Sabi garden and becomes a focal point filled with sedums or sempervivums. As it ages and mosses over, it becomes more beautiful. Lichen on stone is left alone to give the stone a past. Wood is allowed to weather and turn silver-gray. Wabi-Sabi people are the ones who gravitate to the potting benches and tables made from barn wood. It isn’t just the look of the object; it’s the feeling it evokes. Wabi-Sabi isn’t about sentimentality. It goes much deeper. Texture is more important than color in a Wabi-Sabi garden. If much color is used it is subdued. There are no “collections”. The individual plant, rock or pot takes can take on new importance. The paths are winding and not at angles. There is a comfort level. The focus is on the small and insignificant. Beauty is in the common. Greatness is in the inconspicuous.

     Now is the season for those wonderful Puget Sound garden tours. There is usually a Wabi-Sabi garden in every tour. It may not be the garden with the most unusual plant material or the most expensive garden ornaments but it will be one whose gardener sees beauty in the details.

      The Wabi-Sabi philosophy spills into every day. Imperfection, impermanence and incompleteness are implied in homes with simplicity. Wall colors tend to be murky. Instead of pictures, paintings and photographs on every wall, there are pieces that create balance. This is where the expression “less is more” makes a great leap. There is no symmetry. The most important things take on new meaning. Here again, there are no collections because the sight of many takes away from the importance of one. An old chest might be the most beautiful piece of furniture in the room because of its patina and its history. The look isn’t severe because texture replaces shine. Natural materials like wood, cotton and clay replace glass, steel and plastic. Flower arrangements are sparse. Single flowers replace billowy bouquets. The overall effect is one of calm.

     Wabi-Sabi is a thought process.

     Sometimes you get up in the morning and grab the worst looking mug in the cabinet for your coffee or tea.  You choose it because something about it just makes you feel good. Maybe it’s uneven and ugly, has a crack in it or a broken handle. It’s one of a kind and it has meaning for you.  Maybe you have an old table with dents and depressions that make others want to run for the Black and Decker; but you wouldn’t dream of refinishing it because you smile every time you look at it. The appreciation you feel for something so imperfect, impermanent and incomplete is Wabi-Sabi. It is faint and fragile and I, for one, am glad it has a name.

Reprinted with permission Premier Media Group, South Sound Magazine,

Tacoma, WA