There is an ancient Japanese philosophy embodied in pottery that confused me when I first encountered it. The potter adds a dent, a wobble or even shifts the vessel’s opening from a perfect circle to one that is askew. Artists are tasked with nurturing beauty, by internalizing, expressing, and reflecting a vision of the world distilled through their perspective and medium. Why would an expert potter who had mastered the skills necessary to create something of beauty do this to a well-formed pot? It shook me.
Wabi Sabi emerged 700 years ago, connected to the practice of Zen Buddhism. The term wabi translates as “incomplete” or “imperfect” and sabi is derived from the verb sabu, “to wane,” referring to things whose beauty stems from age. Wabi Sabi is an ideal of beauty found in what is imperfect and aged by time. A broken rusted bicycle interwoven with climbing vines of blooming clematis exemplifies this aesthetic.
Wabi Sabi represented a huge shift from the pottery aesthetic I was trained in, one grounded primary in classical ideals of beauty: symmetry, harmony, and proportion. Having finally achieved the artisanship to make something of consistent form and function I was perplexed yet intrigued. The idea resonated inside of me: this was not something I was taught in art class, but something I experienced in life. It made me question, why did I feel the need to idealize the world?
If I wanted my art to be an authentic reflection of the world I experienced, and imperfection is the true nature of things, then nurturing idealized beauty was an impossible false pursuit. A toxic pursuit filled with frustration and failure. When charged with the goal of nurturing beauty in the world, a generous aesthetic that embraces imperfection and the patina of change is a generous and wise path. Nurturing beauty can be a pursuit of continuous growth, a joyful process of refinement with an always-imperfect outcome. For some Japanese people, mindfully embracing imperfection is also the first step to enlightenment.
Beauty comes from our experiences and memories, scars and bruises included, not trying to achieve the unattainable. Making peace with the nature of the world in one’s art and life creates space to appreciate and love what is all around us.
May we embrace the Wabi Sabi on our journey, offering grace to ourselves and others as we nurture what is good and true in this world.
Minister of Religious Education