Core Values: Wabi Sabi

by Alan Reinstein, English teacher

When I was working in Japan not long after I finished college, I came across the Zen philosophy of “wabi-sabi,” an approach to art and life that sees beauty in the imperfect nature of the world and in human fallibility. Things that are broken or scratched are “wabi”; things that are old and dying are “sabi.” Zen artists celebrate this unevenness and impermanence of physical and human nature by making bowls and cups and gardens that are asymmetrical; they like things with cracks or smudges.

I worked for three years as an assistant English teacher in a Japanese junior high school, and my mentor-teacher, Daisuke Tazawa, taught me about “wabi-sabi” while we were hiking on a path in the Japanese Alps where candy wrappers from careless hikers were strewn alongside supple wildflowers. This must have been “wabi-sabi” for him: breathing the fresh fall air, hiking with a new friend up to the peak of Mount Jigatake, and picking up trash.

Tazawa-sensei was among the most respected and charismatic teachers in our junior high school. He was a confident English speaker and he was funny with both me and his students. We went to Tokyo Disneyland together during spring recess. He was also a volatile girls volleyball coach who was notorious for verbally abusing the ninth graders during a time in Japan when this behavior, although tolerated in the past, was no longer acceptable.

I like the idea that the world is beautiful in its imperfection and that this applies to the people in it, and that I am one of these people — imperfect and beautiful, too, not despite my clumsiness but strangely because of it. Whenever I remember to figure “wabi-sabi” into my own actions or responses — and it’s not often enough — I’m more ready to accept the mistakes I make and to forgive myself for them. This is what I want for our Newton South community, too: a more welcome readiness for self-generosity and self-acceptance. And yet, what about Tazawa-sensei, whose imperfections, according to “wabi-sabi,” may also be part of the world’s uneven beauty?

You can see how this principle of “wabi-sabi” is tricky, because the idea of acceptance for the way things are seems to lead to complacency about them. How can you reconcile the two opposing virtues that you should (1) love yourself and the world just as it is and (2) change yourself and the world as it is? When should you be tolerant? When intolerant? When do you sigh? When do you scream?

I don’t have an answer for this one. My impulse is to say that finding balance between these two poles is the key to sane living during times when things can seem insane. People who are screamers may benefit from occasional spaces for moments of quiet acceptance; those who sigh with passive consent may find exhilarating purpose in pushing themselves to demand integrity and justice when they see crookedness. “Wabi-sabi” would seem to be okay with this. 

The urge to judge an action or a person with praise or condemnation is a natural yearning that comes from wanting to make order out of chaos. My own yearning is to use the principle of “wabi-sabi” to soften the starkness with which good and bad, and right and wrong, are construed. Perhaps this means condemning harmful actions while attempting to have compassion for those actors who behave badly — to both scream and sigh at the same moment. I didn’t scream at Tazawa-sensei, my friend, more than thirty years ago, when I should have. I’m thinking of him now, and I don’t know where he is.