By Gitika K Kaji and Megha Bajaj
Have you heard of the intriguing Wabi Sabi philosophy –of seeing beauty in simplicity, in finding appeal in the natural imperfection of life?
A ceramic plate is Wabi Sabi the way porcelain one is not. A hut with a thatched roof is wabi sabi, but a concrete roof is not. The lined face of an old man has Wabi Sabi, but the contrived perfection of a retouched face does not.
Wabi Sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty. In contrast to the Greek ideal of finding beauty in proportion and symmetry, and paradoxical to the Western aesthetic sense that seeks perfection, Wabi Sabi is a celebration of the perfection imbibed within imperfection. Andrew Juniper, author of the book titled, Wabi Sabi, claims, “If an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then the object could be said to be wabi sabi.” Renowned American novelist, Richard Powell, summarises by saying, “It (Wabi Sabi) nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.”
The word wabi connotes rustic simplicity, freshness, or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age. It means “the bloom of time”. It connotes natural progression – tarnish, hoariness, and rust – the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It’s the understanding that beauty is fleeting. A very simple translation of the words would be “sad beauty”. This idea is beautifully captured in the words of William Wordsworth in his poem, Solitary Reaper:
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! For the Vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
Pared down to its barest essence, Wabi Sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in the flawed artistry of nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered, and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea-markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not chrome; earthen pots, not plastic bottles. It finds beauty in cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet that our bodies, as well as the material world around us, are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. For instance, instead of a new book, wabi sabi favours an old book, worn and yellow, passed down to you from your great grandmother that still contains her slanted handwriting with notes written almost 100 years ago to her daughter. The book has taken on the essence of all the people who came in touch with the book, and thereby is of much more value than a brand new book, hot from the press.
Wabi sabi is underplayed and modest, the kind of quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered. It’s a fragmentary glimpse: the branch representing the entire tree, straw screens filtering the sun, the sliver of a moon obscured behind a ribbon of cloud. It’s a richly mellowed beauty that’s striking but not obvious, graceful without being gaudy, the kind that you can imagine having around you for a long, long time. It’s the peace found in a moss garden, the musty smell of geraniums, the astringent taste of powdered green tea. Daisetz T Suzuki, Japan’s foremost English-speaking authority on Zen Buddhism and one of the first scholars to interpret Japanese culture for Westerners, described wabi sabi as “an active aesthetical appreciation of poverty”. He was referring to poverty not as it is interpreted in the West, but in the more romantic sense of removing the huge weight of material concerns from our lives. “Wabi is to be satisfied with a little hut, and with a dish of vegetables picked in the neighbouring fields, and perhaps to be listening to the pattering of a gentle spring rainfall.”
In Japan, there is a marked difference between wabibito (wabi person), who is free in his heart, and a makoto no hinjin, a more Dickensian character, whose poor circumstances make him desperate and pitiful. The ability to make do with less is revered. A wabibito is a person who could make something complete out of eight parts when most of us would use ten. This might mean choosing a smaller house, car, or a sparer lifestyle.
Wabi sabi finds several of its concepts similar to and arising from Zen Buddhism, which looks for “direct, intuitive insight into transcendental truth beyond all intellectual conception.” Because it arises out of a philosophy of inwardness, its aesthetics is sparse. Less is more is its cornerstone, for the inward eye sees the beauty in the ordinary, the small detail, the spaces between things. It is not seduced by magnificence or grandeur because it sees these everywhere. The wabi sabi approach is available to all inward looking cultures, such as India. Here in India, we live the wabi sabi aesthetic in so many ways.
Our villages with their rustic charm are the epitome of wabi sabi. No amount of make-up compares to the natural beauty of a young village girl, smiling shyly. Long walks besides a river, barefoot, can never be compared to a workout with cold, steel gym equipment. Fairs and festivals, with their colours and community fervour, have an innate charm that can never be obtained by the packaged thrills of Esselworld. The old man in a turban sitting outside his house enjoying the call of birds, the women laughing near the well, the tinkle of bells around the cows as they plough the field – the simple, beautiful, almost aching poetry of interior India, explains, and expands, wabi sabi in the most wonderful way.
Sudha Murthy, wife of Narayana Murthy, the dynamic head of Infosys, in her book titled, The Old Man and his God, narrates an instance which shows how we Indians have wabi sabi deeply etched into our souls. Caught in a storm in the remote Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, she was forced to take shelter in an old rundown Shiva temple run by an old man and his wife. Of her adventure, she writes, “As I wiped my face and head, I noticed that the man was blind. It was obvious from their surroundings that they were very poor. The Shiva temple, where I now stood, was simple with the minimum of ostentation in its decorations. The Shivalinga was bare except for a bilwa leaf on top. The only light came from a single oil lamp. In that flickering light, a sense of calm overcame me, and I felt myself closer to God than ever before. In halting Tamil, I asked the man to perform the evening mangalarati, which he did with love and dedication. When he finished, I placed a hundred-rupee note as the dakshina. He touched the note and pulled away his hand, looking uncomfortable. Politely he said, “Amma, I can make out that the note is not for ten rupees, the most we usually receive. Whoever you may be, in a temple, your devotion is important, not your money.”
She offers to put some money in the bank for their medical needs, but the man refuses, saying, “Why do I need money in this great old age? Lord Shiva is also known as Vaidyanathan. He is the Mahavaidya, or Great Doctor. This village we live in has many kind people. I perform the pooja, and they give me rice in return. If either of us is unwell, the local doctor gives us medicines. Our wants are very few. Why would I accept money from an unknown person? If I keep this money in the bank, like you are telling me to, someone will come to know and may harass us. Why should I take on these worries? You are a kind person to offer help to two unknown old people, but we are content; let us live as we always have. We don’t need anything more.” She ends the story by saying the couple were two of the most happy and peaceful people she had ever seen.
Look around. The choice of leading a wabi sabi life is everywhere. Consider a handloom sari – woven together thread by thread by women. How can synthetic cloth ever resonate with the feelings, the soul, that handloom possesses? Does the haute cuisine of a five-star have the same soul quality of your everyday fare of roti, daal and chawal, lovingly prepared and served steaming hot on a bright green banana leaf? Choose to decorate your house with green, breathing plants, rather than expensive bric-a-brac, choose to have only what you need, and free yourself of clutter. Take a holiday at a farmhouse instead of an expensive hotel and there, you have made the wabi sabi choice.
Wabi sabi is the spiritual choice that will take us from more to less, and from less to nothingness. And yet we resist it. We believe, foolishly so, that we can defy age. Anti-age creams vainly attempt to erase the lines that time so painstakingly drew over our faces. We allow the glitz and glamour of money to blind us to the bliss that a sunrise can bring. In picking material goods, so often unnecessary, we need to remind ourselves of the thrill that picking shells along a walk on the beach once brought us. Give up, give up, give up… only to go up, seems to be the call of wabi sabi.
Wabi sabi is also exploited in all sorts of ways, and one of the most tempting is to use it as an excuse to shrug off an unmade bed, an unswept floor, or a soiled sofa. How tempting it might be to let the split running down the sofa cushion seam continue on its merry way, calling it wabi sabi. To spend Saturday afternoon at the movies and let the dust settle into the rugs: wabi sabi. To buy five extra minutes of sleep every morning by not making the bed – as a wabi sabi statement, of course. And how do you know when you’ve gone too far – when you’ve crossed over from simple, serene, and rustic to messy, dusty, and distressful?
A solid line separates tattered and shabby, dust and dirt from something worthy of veneration. Wabi sabi is never messy or slovenly. Worn things take on their magic only in settings where it’s clear they don’t harbour bugs or grime. One senses that they’ve survived to bear the marks of time precisely because they’ve been so well cared for throughout the years. Spaces that have been thoroughly and lovingly cleaned are ultimately more welcoming. When the bed is neatly made, the romance of a frayed quilt blossoms, transforming it into an irresistible place to rest. The character imported by a wood floor’s knots and crevices shines through when the crumbs are swept away.
Let’s not misuse wabi sabi to cover up our shortcomings. Let it remain a concept that is simple, close to the heart, innate and wonderful. Look around you and you too will start seeing wabi sabi with its muted, natural beauty and hidden teachings all around. Imagine if every leaf were a deep green colour, none broken, withered, yellow – where would the excitement of individuality and charm of variety come from? How would one ever enjoy a rose in bloom if one had not experienced the sadness of its withering beauty?
A wabi sabi attitude leads to acceptance – as it comes with the understanding that the other is not perfect. If we can learn out of them, grow out of them and at times, simply enjoy them, how beautiful life would become.
In fact, isn’t life itself wabi sabi in its core? There is space for mistakes. Our greatest learnings arise from experiences gone wrong, from the ‘imperfect’ moments of our life. Life too will follow its own rule of aging, and will bloom and wither away with time. But there will be beauty in it too. A child can never boast of the experiences an old woman can. And if we free it of expectations and the impatient need to edit and reject, what is it but one experience after another, unravelled a moment at a time?
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