Wabi-Sabi is a beauty of humble and modest things. Love for the impermanent and imperfect. Wabi-Sabi’s roots lie in Zen Buddhism, brought from China to Japan by 12th-century traveling monk Esai, who also picked up a few tea seeds introducing tea in Japan.
Wabi-Sabi is the communion of two words: Wabi and Sabi. They both share the same aesthetical appreciation of poverty. They are interchangeable for many Japanese. But even if most often people simply say 'wabi-sabi', I want to dive into the meaning of the two words.
Wabi: a spiritual path
The Zencharoku (Zen Tea Record, 1828) contains a well-known section on the topic of wabi:
"Wabi means that even in straitened circumstances no thought of hardship arises. Even amid insufficiency, one is moved by no feeling of want. Even when faced with failure, one does not brood over injustice. If you find being in straitened circumstances to be confining, if you lament insufficiency as privation, if you complain that things have been ill - disposed — this is not wabi” (Hirota, 275).
Wabi refers to something subjective and it is about a way of life or a spiritual path.
Sabi: the beautiful patina
First sabi had a connotation of desolateness (sabireru means “to become desolate”), and later on it developed to acquire the meaning of something that has aged well, something that has acquired a patina that makes it beautiful. Nowadays, Sabi applies more to individual objects and environment generally while wabi applies more to living of a life ordinarily associated with poverty.
The importance of sabi for the way of tea was affirmed by the great fifteenth-century tea master Shukō, founder of one of the first schools of tea ceremony. As a distinguished commentator puts it:
“The concept sabi carries not only the meaning ‘aged’—in the sense of ‘ripe with experience and insight’ as well as ‘infused with the patina that lends old things their beauty’—but also that of tranquility, aloneness, deep solitude” (Hammitzsch, 46).