Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Wabi Sabi (and the Manure of Experience)

In a few weeks I’ll be giving a sermon at my local Unitarian Universalist Church called “Wabi Sabi  Universalism and the Beauty of Brokenness.”  A lot of it is based on a book called Wabi Sabi by Agneta Winqvist, along with general ideas I’ve been learning from the works of Pema Chodron on the subject of Buddhism and the nature of suffering.  These are the books that are on my mind these days.

Wabi Sabi is a distinctly Japanese idea of beauty based on three principles:
         Nothing is perfect
2     Nothing Lasts Forever
3     Nothing is ever finished.

These are three principles we as writers know all to well, when we look back at our work with a sigh.  We might have a moment in the sun or too, but it doesn’t last.  But this impermance is also our blessing, because it means no feeling is final.  Joy is something we have for a little while, but no matter how much we want it to last, it will pass away.  Suffering a fact fo life that will come to us, sorrow or grief, but these feelings also are impermanent.  We can’t avoid them.  But what do we do with them?

Experiencing joy doesn’t seem to require anything creativiely from us.  You just enjoy what’s in front of it while you have it.  Suffering is different.  In the Wabi Sabi notion of life, it is suffering in way that counts more, because when we suffer we experience our humanity and vulnerability most vividly.  No one tries to avoid joy, but we try to avoid suffering and hardship if we can, we want to protect that tender inmost part of ourselves from pain if we can.

There is a great deal of suffering in nature.  As Tennyson said “nature is red in tooth and claw”.  Charles Darwin’s faith in a loving god was deeply shaken when he saw the horrors imposed on caterpillars by parasitic wasps.  Ideas of good and evil, right and wrong are distinctly human qualities.  These ideas don’t exist in nature as we find it.  What we find is an element of chaos and randomness in existence that nature incorporates into the creative process, which is also what a good artist does.  The philosophy in Agneta Winqvist's and Pema Chodron’s books is to gradually over time discipline ourselves not to avoid suffering or the feelings that suffering creates but to use them as an aspirational  platform to develop compassion and connection.

These concepts make me rethink my ideas of what it means to seek a relationship with God, or for theists who imagine God as a God of love, but see the world as wicked and doomed to a cleansing apocalypse.  What is Heaven?  Heaven can’t be that place in which there is only one side of experience, which is eternal bliss.  There can be no depth of soul in that place.  Heaven in the end must be that place where we love what there is to love about someone or something, where we don’t fear what we see coming towards us, and where we honor God by loving what God has made in the way that it has been made, including ultimately ourselves.


  1. A good friend of mine collects ancient Japanese pottery. He explained to me the aesthetic of the imperfect, where a sag in the firing or incomplete glaze is what separates the ordinary from the unique. If we could only extrapolate that to our assessments of humankind.

  2. In hobbies like coin or stamp collecting, imperfection in the printing or imprinting (like the upside-down airplane on a famous stamp) do make things more valuable as long as they're rare. But the value isn't a an aesthetic one. I saw a documentary long ago about an elderly Japanese potter recognized as a national treasure, and the subject of Wabi Sabi was illustrated by his broken pots mended with seams of gold, which did make them more beautiful on multiple levels. I'd like to think that the scars experience brings as we age are made of gold, too.

    1. There is a phenomenon antiques dealers depend on. The idea of time as the second artist.

  3. Wabi Sabi sounds like a useful philosophy, and very non-Western.

  4. I could push Wabi Sabi a bit, rephrasing as follows:

    Nothing lasts forever
    Nothing is ever finished.
    Everything is perfect.

    When I add that final twist, it better captures how I see the cosmos. Infinitely creative, constantly changing, and each moment holding beauty, if you can still yourself enough to find it. Yes, even the moments of suffering or violence have a pure core of -- I'm not sure how to put it, maybe insight?

    I wish I could hear one of your sermons.

  5. Wow, I love that Tennyson quote. That's really lovely.

    I have questions about some of the joy/sorrow stuff, though. You wrote, "Experiencing joy doesn’t seem to require anything creatively from us," but I wonder about that. Letting myself feel joy despite fear of its impermanence has always been quite difficult for me. I tend to downplay good feelings in a misguided effort to protect myself from their loss.

    I think the stuff being said about sorrow is interesting, but I notice all the time how reluctant people are to really admit to and embrace joy and happiness. It seems like there's a bit of an association with simplemindedness, or that it suggests you're not busy enough or working hard enough. Something like that.


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