Sabi - Wabi-Sabi

RELATED TERMS: Avant-garde movements; Everyday

The Zen Buddhist principles of emptiness, space, and tranquility may be relevant for, and could be deployed in, the design of particular kinds of narrative environment. As Ellen Pearlman (2012) shows, Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, was a significant source of inspiration for the arts in New York City from the early 1940s to the early 1960s.

The Zen Buddhist aesthetic of sabi is better known as wabi-sabi. Wabi is the yearning for simplicity, even ugliness. Sabi is an aching solitude coupled with imperfection and historical profundity. Sabi also means rust; and sabi-ya means loneliness. (Pearlman, 2012: 118)

Wabi and sabi being expressions of the Japanese virtues of selflessness, modesty and humility, Japanese art clearly reflects the philosophy of life of Zen, although, as N. Hasegawa proved in his 1938 book, Nihonteki Seikaku, while the profound influence of Zen on Japanese art is undeniable, Japanese artists’ love for the imperfect, the asymmetrical and the simple dates back to a period earlier than the arrival of Zen in Japan (Dumoulin, 1940: 324).

According to Nancy Moore Bess, “[s]abi refers to the natural wear that comes with aging and daily use, for instance the patina of a naturally aged bamboo ceiling in an old villa, where the once green bamboo has mellowed to a range of soft grays and golden browns. (p.74)” (Quoted by Doordan, 2002: 78).

Arthur Erickson (1973: 328) claims that the qualities of wabi and sabi and shibui are untranslatable into English because there are no equivalent words, and furthermore the feelings they express, the closest evocations being melancholy, sombreness and restraint, are not readily recognisable, and are certainly not highly valued, in an English-language-inflected sensibility. Inasmuch as the qualities can be defined, Kondo (1985) suggests, sabi is the beauty of the imperfect, the old, the lonely, while wabi is the beauty of simplicity and poverty.

The life of wabi, as practiced by the great master Sen no Rikyu, was in a sense a training based on original enlightenment, a “disclosure of the Buddha-mind” in the naturalness and commonness of everyday life. “There is no need to look for transcendental meanings behind ordinary forms, according to Rikyiu, nor is there any need to escape from ordinary life. Nirvanic realization in life, as in the tea ceremony, takes place in the austere simplicity and commonness of daily life.” (Ludwig, 1974: 49)

Thus, “ … the Buddha-reality which people seek is really nothing but the real world of our daily experience” (Ludwig, 1974: 49).


Bess, N. M. (2001). Bamboo in Japan. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Doordan, D. (2002).Bamboo in Japan by Nancy Moore Bess. Design Issues, 18 (2), 78-79 Available from [Accessed 31 May 2016].

Dumoulin, H. (1940). Zen Buddhism and its influence on Japanese culture by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki [Review]. Monumenta Nipponica, 3 (1), 323–325. Available from [Accessed 31 May 2016].

Erickson, . (1973). The Classical tradition in Japanese architecture. Modern versions of the Sukiya style. Pacific Affairs, 46, (2), 327-328.

Kondo, D. (1985). The Way of tea: a symbolic analysis. Man, 20 (2), 287–306. Available from [Accessed 1 June 2016].

Ludwig, T.M. (1974). The Way of tea: a religio-aesthetic mode of life. History of Religion, 14 (1), 28–50. Available from [Accessed 31 May 2016].

Pearlman, E. (2012). Nothing and everything: the influence of Buddhism on the American avant-garde, 1942-1962. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions.