There is a famous Japanese tea story of a monk, who after he spent several hours preparing the tearoom and tea garden for the newly expected guests with meticulous cleansing, purifying, and refining, went out into the garden. Here he swept and made the stone paths free of debris. Then he stood still and surveyed his wondrous garden space. After he took it all in, he took hold of one tree and shook it until the leaves scattered on the ground. Then he took a deep breath and said “Now it is ready”. This perfect imperfection is the essence of wabi-sabi and of the practice of letting go.

Today wabi-sabi is known in the West as a contemporary tool and it has even become a trendy style for interior design. But originally, it drew on Chinese Taoism and Confucianism and was a radical response to the materialism of the elites.

The Japanese war lords and wealthy merchants of the 15th and 16th centuries loved ornate Chinese inspired tea ceremonies. Fancy designed pottery was sought after for the prestige of its Chinese originators. This changed when Murata Shuko, a Zen monk, intentionally opposed the materialism of the ornate tea ceremony by choosing to use local, understated, and worn or cracked utensils in his ceremonies. 

I was first introduced to the concept of wabi-sabi through my study and practice of Chado, The Japanese Way of Tea. As I began to practice this both elegant and simple choreography of memorized ritual movement in service of honoring life through tea, I paid attention to details, and paused to observe all of life around me. This practice is known as “Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku”; literally harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.

The ritual utensils we used were handmade based on forms from nature. Lay for ceramics. Stones for the dewy path we walk on. Wooden bamboo limbs to shape into tea whisks and tea scoops. Iron for the Furp Gama or tea kettle. Purified water.  All that took the shape of tea bowls, tea and water containers, and high quality matcha tea. I became enamored with the earthiness and ruggedness inherent in these vessels and my perspective of the beautiful was transformed in the process. This rare beauty became a form of imperfection that was perfect.

It is during this time of year when the weather cools, leaves turn colors and crumple as they fall from trees, and all animate and inanimate forms let go, that the presence of wabi-sabi is in brilliant display. It beckons us to remember the meaning of impermanence and the preciousness of the temporary.

Per Wikipedia “wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is ‘imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’’. It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin), specifically impermanence (無常 mujō), suffering (苦 ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature (空 kū)”. 

The English word that best expresses wabi-sabi is probably “rustic.” Wabi-sabi also shares some characteristics with what we commonly call “primitive art,” that is, objects that are earthy, simple, unpretentious, and fashioned out of natural materials. 

This October-November take some time in nature to refresh your connection to the intrinsic mystery of life as it peaks in the colorful panorama of yellows, oranges, reds and greens all complimenting mother earth. Come partake in the flavor of wabi-sabi manifest by remembering our need for the climate to be preserved.