Wabi Sabi Book Summary - Wabi Sabi Book explained in key points
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Wabi Sabi summary

Beth Kempton

Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life

4.7 (796 ratings)
25 mins
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    Wabi Sabi
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    The concept of wabi sabi is best understood by considering the two words separately.

    You could live in Japan your whole life and never hear the words wabi sabi spoken aloud. The most authoritative Japanese dictionary, Kōjien, doesn’t have an entry for it. It includes the individual words, wabi and sabi, but not the combined term.

    Instead, wabi sabi is something that exists as an underlying philosophy, running like an invisible thread through Japanese life and culture. But what does it mean?

    The key message here is: The concept of wabi sabi is best understood by considering the two words separately.

    Let’s start with wabi. In modern Japanese, it means something like “subdued taste.” However, the word was originally associated with poverty, insufficiency, and despair, coming from the verb wabiru, meaning “to worry.”

    To get at the full meaning, though, we need to go back to the ancient tea ceremonies that have played a significant part in shaping Japanese culture and life. During the mid-sixteenth century, although Japan had an emperor in place, the country was really ruled by feudal lords known as daimyo. The samurai warriors who protected the daimyo’s castles and estates had begun drinking tea to keep themselves awake on their night watches. The ceremony that came with tea drinking was also a chance to enjoy a moment of tranquility in their violent lives.

    Soon, though, drinking tea became part of the lavish courtly life of the ruling classes, with ornate tearooms and utensils. Rather than a tranquil ceremony reflecting its Zen origins, it became another luxury pastime.

    Then, a tea master for the famous daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi named Sen no Rikyū decided to revolutionize the tea ceremony. He rejected the opulence of the courtly tea ceremonies, favoring a more austere version, with simple utensils and smaller tearooms. Rather than signify wealth, it should celebrate simplicity and natural beauty. Rikyū’s style of tea ceremony became known as wabi tea, or “wabi-cha.” Wabi, then, implies a mindset that appreciates simplicity, humility and frugality.

    Now, let’s turn to sabi. Translated into English it would be something like “patina, antique look,” or “elegant simplicity.” Over time, the word has come to communicate a beauty that comes with the passage of time – an appreciation of weathering, tarnishing and the marks of antiquity. In his classic work, In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki explains it best when he says of the Japanese people: “We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance…”

    Taken together, the combined term wabi sabi implies a worldview that appreciates simple beauty, imperfection and the transience of all things. It is most accentuated when it is compared to certain tendencies in the West – materialism, perfectionism and the fear of confronting the passage of time. In our fast-paced consumer culture, there is much wisdom we can take from the way of wabi sabi.

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    What is Wabi Sabi about?

    Wabi Sabi (2018) sets out the different ways that the Japanese concept of wabi sabi can shape our lives for the better. Based on simplicity, impermanence and imperfection, wabi sabi acts as an antidote to the consumerism and fast pace of modern living.

    Best quote from Wabi Sabi

    Wabi sabi teaches us that dynamic transience is the natural state of all things.

    —Beth Kempton
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    Who should read Wabi Sabi?

    • Anyone looking to get their priorities right in life
    • People interested in Japanese wisdom
    • Those seeking insight from the natural world

    About the Author

    Beth Kempton is the founder of Do What You Love, a company that provides life-changing courses for those looking to change direction. She is also an award-winning entrepreneur and self-help author, whose work has been translated into 24 languages. She lives in southern England with her husband and two daughters.

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