Wabi Sabi Spirituality

Perfect in imperfection, bittersweet solitude--and an unexpected connection to Jesus' values

BY: Interview by Deborah Caldwell

If you're like most people, you haven't heard of wabi sabi. But you probably will. For the last few years, this quirky term has seeped into popular culture in the form of books, blog mentions, and the occasional article or mention in a design magazine. Some people call it the "new feng shui." But that doesn't give wabi sabi-and the spirituality that infuses it-nearly enough credit, since wabi sabi is its own ancient, yet very fresh, idea. It's one of those intuitive concepts that you probably have to "get" through experience rather than through reading (which is why we've included the photo gallery on the right). In a nutshell, wabi sabi is a Japanese philosophy that teaches that beauty and wisdom are not "out there" to be discovered, but are instead here in this moment. Many of its concepts correlate with ideas of Zen Buddhism, because the first Japanese involved with wabi sabi were tea masters, priests, and monks who practiced Zen.

Author Richard Powell recently explained his appreciation for wabi sabi spirituality in an interview with Beliefnet managing editor Deborah Caldwell.

Could you define wabi sabi?

The words are old--they go back to the beginning of the Japanese language. Originally, wabi just meant poverty, and sabi meant loneliness, or solitude. The word wabi was first used to describe hermits and other people who went out into remote areas to contemplate nature. That idea is very important to Japanese culture.

The idea of solitude?

The idea of being alone, of being mindful, noticing nature and patterns, and the beauty of the natural world. Sabi is the feeling that goes along with that. It's the simplicity, the appreciation of things that are fragile and changing--that is what wabi sabi means. It was used by the tea masters to perfect their alternative to fancy tea ceremonies in China. It was trying to capture the unique Japanese way of being in the world.

When did wabi sabi as a concept start in Japan?

The two words were put together by


, the haiku poet. They had been used separately and together up until that time, but he changed them. He changed the literary history of poetry. Prior to that, poetry had been in longer form. He took the very first part of the poem, the


, and he made that into a separate form. He said what he was trying to do was to capture wabi sabi. He helped people to see the importance of that beauty, and how it could be really moving.

So he invented the concept?

He didn't invent it, but he took the ideas that were already there in the culture. He put them together, he put wabi and sabi together, and that's really when it took off capturing the ethos of what it means to appreciate nature and the seasons, and just noticing them for what they are. He was influenced by zen ideas.

When did Basho live?

Basho was born in 1644 and died in 1694.

So the idea has been floating around in Japanese culture for a very long time.


How did it migrate here, and when?

The first popularization of it was with the

Beat poets



Because they picked up on some of those ideas, though not calling them wabi sabi, because that term hadn't been imported yet. But that's when haiku first arrived in American culture. And actually, the Beats were a lot like Basho. He wandered through the Japanese countryside looking for inspiration. That's what Jack Kerouac did too.

The term wabi sabi didn't actually become part of American culture until the publication of

Wabi Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers

by Leonard Koren, in 1994. I'd been introduced to the ideas early on by writing instructors, but they didn't have the words for it. I think what happened was the term "wabi sabi" helped us get a handle on it.

How is wabi sabi a spiritual path?

I've been thinking a lot about that, thinking about enlightenment and awakening, and what they mean in relation to wabi sabi. The idea of




of enlightenment, a sudden appreciation for the way things are, is pretty close to a haiku moment--those times when you see things and you have an awareness you didn't have before. And that's spiritual.

So is wabi sabi spirituality like enlightenment, because you're fully aware?

Right. I haven't studied Zen, so I'm not saying it's the same kind of enlightenment you would have after years of practice--but it is the


that momentary glimpse of something beyond yourself. The one word that often gets associated with wabi sabi is


which means the profound mystery of things.

One idea the Japanese had from early on was an appreciation of things' ability to touch you or to move you. That's the old idea, and I think that's what Basho was looking at that was so important to him--wandering in the natural world and being inspired by it. He took that idea of things being able to inspire you, combined that with ideas behind these two words, and created a new, more profound idea.

Are you still a Christian?


How do you combine wabi sabi spirituality with Christianity?

For me, truth is truth, no matter where you find it. Beauty is beautiful no matter where you find it. Part of wabi sabi spirituality is being open to that. The tea masters were the first ones to perfect the idea of being a wabi person-they believed someone who was wabi was not a poor person, but rather somebody who is free from attachment to wealth. And four of the first disciples of Rikyu, who created the tea ceremony, were themselves Christian. They recognized that being a wabi person had a lot in common with the gospels-Jesus' teaching that the poor are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

A lot of Christians would be surprised to learn that there's a connection.

A lot of my Christian friends have asked me about this, and they're leery at first. They think wabi sabi is some strange Eastern theory. But as soon as you talk to people about it they say, "Oh, I know exactly what you're talking about." It's just that we didn't have the words or the language to describe that.

I was also interested in what you've said about C.S. Lewis and his idea of longing and how that relates to wabi sabi.

The haiku moment is that moment where you perceive something that's beautiful, and you realize that it's just temporary, but you can appreciate it in that moment, and it doesn't have to be perfect, and it doesn't have to last, but you're there noticing it. Lewis had those experiences and wrote about them. He had the experience of seeing a bush in his yard and it reminded him of his childhood. He asked the question, "What's behind that?" What he said was behind it was a longing. And that really is sabi. It's receptivity and acceptance of the way things are.

Why is wabi sabi of such interest now in our culture?

I think it's probably a maturing of something that's been going on in our culture for a while. There's been a desire to have a simpler life--the voluntary simplicity movement and back to the land ideas. But people who tried that found it was difficult to do consistently. You have to make a living, and keep going on with your life. The reason wabi sabi has caught on is that it's something you can appreciate in everyday life. You don't have to go back to the country. You can look for wabi sabi all around you and change the environment right where you are to make it more wabi sabi.

_Related Features
  • Why Autumn Is the Most Wabi Sabi of Seasons
  • Discuss Eastern Spiritual Thought
  • Continued on page 2: »

    comments powered by Disqus