Brain Pickings

Wabi Sabi: An Unusual Children’s Book Based on the Japanese Philosophy of Finding Beauty in Imperfection and Impermanence

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What a lost cat has to do with the evolution of the tea ceremony as an existential philosophy.

Wabi sabi is a beautiful Japanese concept that has no direct translation in English. Both an aesthetic and a worldview, it connotes a way of living that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay. Wabi Sabi is also the title of a fantastic 2008 picture-book by Mark Reibstein, with original artwork by acclaimed Chinese children’s book illustrator Ed Young, exploring this wonderful sensibility through the story of a cat who gets lost in her hometown of Kyoto only to find herself in the process. (For, lest we forget, we only find ourselves by getting lost.)

The book reads like a scroll, from top to bottom, and features a haiku and a Japanese verse on each spread, adorned with Young’s beautifully textured artwork.

Reibstein paints a historical backdrop:

Wabi sabi’s origins are in ancient Chinese ways of understanding and living, known as Taoism and Zen Buddhism, but wabi sabi began to shape Japanese culture when the Zen priest Murata Shuko of Nara (1423–1502) changed the tea ceremony. He discarded the fancy gold, jade, and porcelain of the popular Chinese tea service, and simple, rough, wooden and clay instruments. About a hundred years later, the famous tea master Sen no Rikyu of Kyoto (1522–1591) brought wabi sabi into the homes of the powerful. He constructed a teahouse with a door so low that even the emperor would have to bow in order to enter, reminding everyone of the importance of humility before tradition, mystery, and spirit.

A true wabi sabi story lies behind the book: When Young first received the assignment, he created a series of beautifully simple images. As he went to drop them off with his editor, he left them for a moment on the front porch of the house. But when he returned to retrieve them, they were gone. Rather than agonizing over the loss, Young resolved to recreate the images from scratch and make them better — finding growth in loss.

While technically a children’s book, Wabi Sabi is the kind of subtle existential meditation in which adults, with our relentless aspiration for more and our chronic anxiety about imperfection, can take solace. Complement it with a beautiful grownup read about the philosophy of ancient Japanese aesthetics.

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