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Lions Roar : January 2003
LIKE MANY OF MY CONTEMPORARIES,Ifirstlearnedofwabi-sabiduring myyouthful spiritual quest in the late 1960’s. At that time, the traditional culture of Japan beckoned with profound “answers” to life’s toughest questions. Wabi-sabi seemed to me a nature-based aes- thetic paradigm that restored a measure of sanity and proportion to the art of living. Wabi-sabi resolved my artistic dilemma about how to create beautiful things without getting caught up in the dispiriting materialism that usually surrounds such creative acts. Wabi-sabi— deep, multidimensional, elusive—appeared the perfect antidote to the pervasively slick, saccha- rine, corporate style of beauty that I felt was desensitizing American society. I have since come to believe that wabi-sabi is related to many of the more emphatic anti-aesthetics that invariably spring from the young, modern, creative soul: beat, punk, grunge, or whatever it’s called next. Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as tradi- tional Japanese beauty. It occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aes- thetic values as do the Greek ideas of beauty and perfection in the West. Wabi-sabi can in its fullest expression be a way of life. At the very least, it is a particular type of beauty. The closest English word to wabi-sabi is probably “rustic.” Webster’s defines “rustic” as “simple, artless, or unsophisticated... [with] surfaces rough or irregular.” While “rustic” represents only a limited dimension of the wabi-sabi aesthetic, it is the initial impression many people have when they first see a wabi-sabi expression. Wabi-sabi does share some characteristics with what we com- monly call “primitive art,” that is, objects that are earthy, simple, unpretentious and fashioned out of natural materials. Unlike primitive art, though, wabi-sabi almost never is used representation- ally or symbolically. Originally, the Japanese words “wabi” and “sabi” had quite different meanings. “Sabi” origi- nally meant “chill,” “lean,” or “withered.” “Wabi” originally meant the misery of living alone in nature, away from society, and suggested a discouraged, dispirited, cheerless emotional state. Around the fourteenth century, the meanings of both words began to evolve in the direction of more positive aesthetic values. The self-imposed isolation and voluntary poverty of the hermit and ascetic came to be considered opportunities for spiritual richness. For the poetically 62 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2003 for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers Wabi-Sabi BY LEONARD KOREN LEONARD KOREN is founder of the 1970’s avant-garde publica- tion Wet: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing, and the author of several books, including Gardens of Gravel and Sand and Undesigning the Bath. The Shambhala Sun is pleased to have the chance to present an excerpt from Koren’s gem, Wabi- Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, considered a classic statement on this Japanese aes- PHOTOS BY LIZA MATTHEWS