Teachers of eastern philosophy delight in adding to their students’ confusion.
If you meet the Buddha, they say, kill him.
Why? No idea.
Perhaps that is why Japanese wabi sabi, often defined as “the beauty of imperfection,” is so difficult to understand.
In his song “All of Me,” John Legend praises his lover’s “perfect imperfections.” I hated that line at first. It made no sense to me. Perfect imperfections? What self-indulgent nonsense. But learning about wabi sabi has made me reconsider.
Wabi and sabi each have their own distinct meanings.
Wabi means: fresh, understated, simple, humble, spare, rustic.
One of my favorite fictional characters, Coll from The Prydain Chronicles, is the embodiment of wabi. Although Coll was a hero in his youth, he is content to be called a “grower of turnips.” Samwise Gamgee, Luna Lovegood, John the Baptist, and Clarisse from Fahrenheit 451 also strike me as wabi – people who like to listen to the rain and smile.
Robyn Griggs Lawrence in her book Simply Imperfect defines sabi as the “bloom of time.” Poetic, isn’t it? Sabi is anything that ages with elegance. I think of celebrities who, too old perhaps to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, still display natural beauty. Meredith Vieira, Sigourney Weaver, and Meryl Streep come to mind.
Wabi meets sabi and we have wabi sabi: simplicity turned “imperfect” by the passing of time. Perfectly imperfect, as John Legend would put it.
We like our writing to be a bit wabi sabi, don’t we? Squeaky clean characters don’t hold half the interest of flawed ones: a professional sharpshooter who goes blind, a nun with a drinking problem, a butler who maligns his master behind closed doors.
And life is most exciting when things go awry. I took secret pleasure as a child when storms cut off our electricity. Darkness shrouded the nonessentials. Votive candles illuminated our faces. We huddled in the den, writing ludicrous parodies of Dear Abby letters. I thought it was great fun, but it was unplannable.
“A luxurious house and the taste of delicacies are only pleasures of the mundane world,” wrote Sen no Rikyu in Nanporoku. “It is enough if the house does not leak and the food keeps the hunger away.” How wabi of him to say. He’s right, I think. Throw in some quirks, and you have wabi sabi.
My life is very wabi sabi, as I’m sure yours is, too. Flawed but perfect. I have a tiny room, I eat on a budget, and I don’t have a real job, but I feel like the luckiest person in the world. I live in the fabulously wealthy Manhattan and experience new and interesting things every day. I’m heavily introverted, but I have stellar roommates and I’ve loved every New Yorker I’ve ever met.
Keep a look out for wabi sabi. It might show up when you least expect it-