by Tony Ardiansyah
When we speak of beauty, we always refer to the idea of perfection, youth, and symmetry. We perceive a beautiful woman as someone with perfect shape of nose and smooth baby-like skin for instance, and then of course it is unlikely that we see a woman who has asymmetrical eyes as beautiful. These beauty criteria apply to whatever we perceive in this world.
Those criteria, that we realize it or not, actually come from the western persepective, and it has influenced us so that we may never think of or accept a different criteria of beauty. We may have not heard of it, but there is another view. A term called Wabi Sabi.
It is a Japanese traditional values on beauty that may have been forgotten in the modern Japan, yet it is the core of many Japanese tradition and culture. It appears in the famous japanese tea ceremony; it becomes the spirit of japanese art of repairing broken pottery, and it has inspired the famous Japanese haiku master, Matsuo Basho. In this short essay, I will introduce the meaning of this term, and the philosophical ideas behind it briefly. Then, I will point out what we can learn from it and use it as an alternative view in which we perceive our modern world.
The term Wabi Sabi has no equivalent meaning in English, but we can say that, according to Alain de Botton*, it refers to the beauty of impermanent, the rustic, and the melancholic. It means the respect of passing, fragility, mark of age, and individuality. This concept suggests that a rusty, old, and scratched motorcycle is not necessarily worse than a new one, as we usually perceive. On the contrary, Wabi Sabi suggests that, in fact, the rusty, old and scratched one is more beautiful than the new one because it bears the mark of ages, fragility and impermanent.
We can trace the root of Wabi Sabi to the teaching of Zen Buddhism that was brought from China to Japan in 1191. The Zen Buddhism suggests that wisdom and happiness only come from making peace with our transitory and imperfect nature, so expecting perfection and immortal youth is the source of sadness; therefore, beauty should not be perceived that way. Thus, Zen is the philosophical bedrock of Wabi Sabi.
The concept of Wabi Sabi is applied in some famous Japanese culture, for example tea ceremony. Murata Juko and Sen No Rikkyu, two important figures in tea ceremony, designed the tea ceremony with Wabi Sabi principle; for example, they prefer using simple, cheap, and slightly broken pottery to luxurious and perfect-look one imported from China. Another example is the art of repairing broken pottery or Kintsugi. Instead of eliminating and making the scratch disappear, kintsugi highlights the broken part in a pottery with its own technique, so it will stand out more than before. The idea is that the scratch is a mark of age and imperfection that must be appreciated rather than overlooked. The last is Haiku of Master Matsuo Basho. Haiku is a Japanese poetry that consist of three lines, and all Haiku created by Matsuo Basho reflected the principle of Wabi Sabi. He often create a haiku based on a rustic nature condition he experienced during his hourney around Japan, yet it contains a deep meaning of appreciation of the rustic that is often overlooked.
Wabi Sabi suggests us to perceive beauty by embracing transitory and imperfect nature of the world we live in. In modern perspective, being old is feared because one lose his/her beauty; being perfect is dreamt because it is the peak of beauty. We are often ungrateful, stressed, and sad with our houses, with the place we live in because it is not beautiful or it is too rustic. We are not satisfied and not happy because what we have, see, and feel is too simple. However, With the view of Wabi Sabi, the rustic, the old, the broken is more beautiful than ever because it is our true selves. We are only a transitory and imperfect being, and embracing our very nature is the best way to calm our hearts in this modern life.
*Alain de Botton is a British-based author, the founder The School of Life, an educational company focuses on how to live wisely and well.