There are two bowls. One looks flawlessly brand new. The other is a bit deformed with cracks and stains, and yet looks clean, well-used, and maintained.
Given these two options, which one we could call beautiful? The wabi-sabi aesthetics tells us the second bowl is “beautiful.”
There is another anecdote. One old Zen master instructed his apprentice to sweep the garden in the temple. Since this novice was a perfectionist, he tried his best to sweep everything out. The garden became so clean without any specks of dust and fallen leaves at all. He was so proud of what he has done.
He called his master. “Teacher, I’ve done what you instructed. Please kindly check it.”
The old Zen master glanced at the garden. And without saying anything, he held and shook a branch from the tree in the garden. A few leaves fell on the ground as if subtle waves emerged in the surface of the water. And this Zen master said. “This is better.”
The aesthetics of wabi-sabi dislikes anything perfect. There are no such things as complete shapes, colors, and compositions. Why is that so? It is on the following Buddhist worldview called “three marks of existence,” in Japanese and Chinese characters, 三法印. As long as we live in this world:
- Nothing is permanent (諸行無常)
- Nothing is satisfactory (一切皆苦)
- Nothing is self-controllable (諸法無我)
In this worldview, the universe we see is a mere shadow of what we see and want. It is Maya’s veil. In this state of flux, we can never achieve and grasp anything permanent. If we could say it is complete, then it is no longer things in this world unless we falsely believe so.
This world is illusory. If we think the world is permanent, satisfactory, and controllable, thinking this way, we are in the imaginary state of Maya’s veil. Perhaps there would be a glimpse of the eternal world. We can, however, never see it without our realization of these three marks of existence. Only by realizing the fact that this world is illusory, we could embrace and transcend it.
In Christianity, we can also see this worldview in various verses.
Don’t love the world or anything that belongs to the world. If you love the world, you cannot love the Father. Our foolish pride comes from this world, and so do our selfish desires and our desire to have everything we see. None of this comes from the Father. The world and the desires it causes are disappearing. But if we obey God, we will live forever.1 John 2:15-17
Perhaps we should not love this world. Maybe we should realize there would be the eternal life beyond this imaginary world. But then, it does not necessarily mean that we must deny the “beauty” of this illusion. Appreciating this illusion as our illusion, then such a subtle realization could lead us to a small step toward something beyond these three marks of existence.
Then, the aesthetics of wabi-sabi came in.
It is a beauty of contrast. If we falsely present a flawless bowl, then it could never represent something beyond but misleading to make us believe this perfectness is truly perfect. Ironically, however, an old cracked object could present its authenticity because of its imperfectness.
The novice was so proud of the perfectly clean garden he created. But the old Zen master knew how it was misleading. It was so deceitful in trying to be perfect as its own. Thus, this teacher added a bit of flaw to make it imperfect and realistic.
We must continuously strive to seek the perfectness. At the same time, we must also know the truth that we can never achieve it in this world by our efforts. The aesthetics of wabi-sabi is one of the modest attempts to remind us of this truth in the field of art.
While the three marks of existence were the basic Buddhist teachings, the traditions of Zen schools had articulated them further. Especially in the field of art around the 16-century practices of tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and gardening in Japan, they focused on those imperfectness, simplicity, and subtlety, and so on.
Wabi is from the Japanese adjective, wabishii (侘しい), which implies the loneliness of living in nature outside of society. We see a remote hut in the silent woods, then we would feel wabisii.
Sabi is also from the Japanese adjective, sabishii (寂しい), which more directly implies the sadness of one’s melancholic feeling. Or, sabi (錆) alone could be the meaning of rust and poorly imperfect.
Combining both terms, we can see how the aesthetic articulation of wabi-sabi could be. In this context, our illusory world is by its very nature wabi-sabi in the first place. And if we could see it, in tasting this imperfect beauty, as its contrast, we can sense a glimpse of the perfect beauty beyond it.