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 Basho

, 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 hoku

, 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 satori

or kensho

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.