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Wabi Sabi: The Perfection of Imperfection

By Conscious Owl | Inner Peace

Oct 19
wabi sabi definition

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!


Today, everyone associates Japan with perfection, as in the Toyota Lexus, SONY laptops and Kurosawa movies. But it wasn’t always so. At one time, “Made in Japan” was a source, not of pride, but of derision. After WW II, the islands were in ruin with two major cities nuked.

In one generation, Japan rose to the top. It became an inspiration for Steve Jobs to beat the Japanese at their own game. Steve apprenticed for years under an American Zen master and maintained a meditation practice throughout his entire adult life. He was the only one to pull it off. Starting in the late 1990’s, Steve Jobs built Apple into the greatest company the world has ever known.

Japan invented perfection as a viable standard. It has irreversibly transformed our outer world and speaks profoundly to our inner world. What best embodies that perfection? Wabi sabi.

What Is Wabi Sabi?

Wabi sabi is a Japanese expression that connotes quiet isolation, poignant beauty, a contemplative celebration of the transitory nature of life. In the Zen tradition, all is ephemeral, like a fading rose all the more precious because it lasts only a few days, only a few hours.

Wabi sabi emerged with the tea house tradition in Japan, which offers, not dazzling, ornate china, but simple peasant pottery, called Raku. The ashes of burnt wood create an exquisite glaze that runs unevenly down the sides of a crude cup. It produces an intimate, homely mood in synch with the season.

Wabi Sabi opens up perfection as a living experience. When you can stop time and enter into the eternal NOW moment, everything is as it is, and you allow everything to be. Your life begins flowing. You discover stunning beauty in the most unlikely of places, such as a cluster of violets growing out of a granite cliff.

Is Art Life, or Life Art?

Japan, like France, is a culture and civilization wholly devoted to aesthetics and beauty. Art, music and poetry are never a waste of time. They are perfect vehicles for meditative practice. I have a longtime friend who went through their school system. He was required to take art and music all the way from Kindergarten through 12th Grade.

Japan is an enchanting cluster of islands that is 80% mountainous. Only 20% of the land is arable; yet the nation is 80% self-supporting. One out of three days is rainy, with two months saturated in mist. To flourish there, you must be extraordinarily industrious. Yet the Zen tradition, heavily influenced by Taoism and Shintoism, stresses perfect harmony with nature.

Life is art, and art is the ultimate expression of life. Just like form is emptiness and emptiness form. Creation is to be honored, yet enhanced. The trees and shrubs in a Zen garden are carefully groomed. The ideal always is to maintain a low carbon footprint. Sen no Rikyu, the supreme master of wabi sabi, would clean a temple and grounds until they were impeccable. Then he would stop and shake some leaves off a cherry tree to give the setting character.

wabi sabi life

Improving on Perfection

Perfection is not simply some abstract ideal or a silly concept. Perfection is the completion of that which is. It is easy to perfect the imperial palace. It is a far greater challenge to perfect a broken down hut in a remote forest with an aging couple eking out a living.

Wabi sabi takes a minute view of things, looking at them from all angles, ever seeing new possibilities. It may choose to depict a scene in black and white, as opposed to 32 million colors. It looks at fiber and grain, at infinite, irregular patterns. It takes special delight in all the transitory moments, the sound of a distinct bell and a delicious fragrance from invisible petals falling at dusk.

You finally begin to realize that the only place to look to find perfection is in the imperfect.

If you look close enough, you will find that every element of your life that you now consider imperfect is actually perfect. It may not seem to fit, but it actually belongs there. Altogether, the composition is irreplaceably beautiful. You can’t have up without down, light without shadow.

wabi sabi beauty

True Beauty Overlooked

A talent scout doesn’t go in search of the stars, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lawrence or Anne Hathaway. He goes to the suburbs and remote towns to discover new talent, the future Lady Gaga or Jennifer Lawrence or Anne Hathaway. He looks for star quality, that indefinable something that can launch an actress into the stratosphere.

So also, Japan has a long tradition of working with browns and greys, accented with black, red and gold. Its look and feel is unmistakable. No one can even approach it. For centuries, Japan was overshadowed by China and Korea, now Europe and America. Yet every time Japan goes within herself, she finds her sun goddess, Amaterasu.

No matter where you live, you will find little patches of beauty, even on city streets after pouring rain. A rainbow, even a double rainbow, can appear anywhere. Beauty is a major part of what makes life wonderful, and this is not entirely dependent upon your bank account. If you merely have eyes to see and ears to hear, you can relish beauty every day of your life.

wabi sabi art

Suchness, The Path to Perfection

Zen Buddhism has a word for all this, tathata, or suchness. As Werner Erhard once put it, “Perfection is a state in which things are the way they are and are not the way they are not.” Just allow something TO BE. It is never harder than that.

A good way to start is to allow that which you refuse to acknowledge to simply be. Many American bitterly oppose President Trump’s initiatives, and begrudge him any credit whatsoever. Yet, the simple fact is that he IS for now the American President. The question is not simply, “How can we get rid of him?” The question is, “How can we work with him at this time to make positive change?”

Not just politics, but many elements of your life might seem totally out of your control. It could be spiraling debt. You can curse it, or bless it. When you systematically bless everyone and everything in your life you will effect a transformation that has far reaching effects. Eventually, you will arrive at the place where you see that it was all necessary, that it is all perfect, just the way that it is.

Perfectly Human, Perfectly YOU

The greatest challenge of all is to see that you are perfect, no matter how human you seem to be. Somehow, you got it into your head that being human was the opposite of being divine. The truth is closer to your being divine to the extent that you are truly human. The world is waiting for you to be 100% YOU.

If you could just forgive yourself, you would discover that you can forgive everyone, even Donald Trump! If you are like me, you are too tall or too short, too fat or too thin, too stupid or too smart. You are not your own ideal, that’s for sure. You may be a stunningly gorgeous woman, yet you refuse that honor until you starve yourself to death trying to be a Twiggy. It is truly funny when you think about it!

Japan as a nation, like Apple as a company, has blessed the world with the direct experience of perfection. Perfection is an experience, if it is anything. It always lies in the moment.

Every day you encounter perfection, but almost never recognize it.

The next time you can, take a deep breath and go find a Japanese tea garden. When you lift up a Raku cup and smell the Jasmine tea, realize that you have stolen a moment in heaven and made it your own right here on earth!


About the Author

One conscious owl to another... sharing what we learned over the years, and from many wise owls before us.