Wabi Sabi

Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, by Leonard Koren ISBN 1880656124

This page is also referred to for the Wabisabi Wiki http://wabisabi.notimetoplay.org/

Wabi-sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional...

It is also two separate words, with related but different meanings. "Wabi" is the kind of perfect beauty that is seemingly-paradoxically caused by just the right kind of imperfection, such as an asymmetry in a ceramic bowl which reflects the handmade craftsmanship, as opposed to another bowl which is perfect, but soul-less and machine-made.

"Sabi" is the kind of beauty that can come only with age, such as the patina on a very old bronze statue.

Wabi and Sabi are independent word stems in normal speech. They are brought together only to make a point about aesthetics. Sabi is most often applied to physical artistic objects, not writing. A well-known examplar of what one would call a "wabishii" object: black spit polish boots with dust on them from the parade ground. Many Japanese pots, the expensive ones, are dark and mottled -- wabi. "Sabishii" is the normal word for "sad", as in, that was a sad movie.

A related term in literature and the arts is "clinamen", the act of deliberately breaking a stylistic rule to enhance the beauty of an otherwise perfect whole. French writer GeorgesPerec , who also wrote the first book in that language on the GameOfGo, was a master of the technique. It's not obvious whether clinamen is exactly the same as Wabi, absolutely antinomic to it, or on the gripping hand something else altogether.

Compare the WikiNow.

I bought a broken 1997 Geo Metro hatchback, and in the process of repairing it, I got filthy, frustrated, elated, and more knowledgeable than I've ever been. The paint on the hood and roof is fading and chipped, and it has some hail damage. It also gets 46mpg on 87 octane gasoline, it has enough room for my musical equipment, and it's fun to drive :) Up until today, I thought I needed to paint it so other people would accept its beauty, but now I'm starting to think that the faded paint and hail damage are PART of its beauty. Is that WabiSabi?

It is the cracks in the bark of trees that lets us know it is a mature and healthy tree, harboring an ecosystem while protecting itself from many of the denizens of the ecosystem.

It is the lines in a persons face that lets us know how much they have laughed, considered carefully, grimaced in their lifetime.

Krishnamurti speaks of our souls each being of the same paper but that which makes us unique is the creases left in the paper from all the folding and unfolding of experience.

Seconded. A ditty that helps me thru the day is

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There's a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

-- LeonardCohen, "Anthem". Also found in Little Zen Companion ISBN 0836268148

LeonardCohen was himself a Zen monk for a while, in a monastery on Mt. Baldy in Los Angeles. He has since abandoned the life, and is now rumored to live in Canada, on Vancouver Island, with his daughter.

Related to Wabi-Sabi is the Buddhist word for suffering, duh-kha, which means PervasiveUnsatisfactoriness. A direct translation is more difficult: In Sanskrit duh means bad and kha means axle hole, so it means not holding your wheel of existence (Samsara) correctly for it to roll from the center. Put yourself in the eye of the storm or suffer.

Regarding Wabi-Sabi : For Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren ISBN 1-880656-12-4

This is an absolutely wabisabi book. Ward loaned it to me at a PLoP and I read it in an hour an a half. Great short description of a very difficult topic. Why are so many of my favorite books ShortBooks? -- KentBeck

[moved discussion about short books to ShortBooks]

WabiSabi reminds me of the first rule of AsciiArt - the bigger the ascii the easier the art.

This notion helps explain the ethos of ReFactoring, ExtremeProgramming, and wiki itself. Especially as far as accepting change and imperfection are concerned. This concept is especially unfamiliar to GoodCartesians? like myself. --

This page prompted me to get and read Wabi-Sabi. It's worthwhile reading for anyone interested in aesthetics, though I'm a little suspicious of Koren's treatment of the subject. He imposes a rather Western structure on an Eastern aesthetic, which might be necessary for a Westerner to have any idea of what he's talking about, but it leaves me wondering whether what he's talking about is still wabi sabi.

I'm not sure that wabi sabi says much that isn't superficial about ExtremeProgramming, though. 100% test success, OnceAndOnlyOnce, absolutely no code that isn't pair programmed -- these are not the stuff of a method that embraces the imperfect. If there were an aesthetic of ExtremeProgramming, it would probably need to pick up some tenets from elsewhere (modernism?) to counterbalance the wabi sabi parts, in the same way that it uses unit tests to enable merciless refactoring. -- TomKreitzberg

The book inspired me to not worry about the possibility that things could be lost from Wiki. Impermanent indeed. -- WardCunningham

Just reading this page stopped me worrying. --KeithBraithwaite Now that I've read the book I don't even think about worrying.

XP has the following wabi sabi properties:

There may be more...


I guess it's just me. I don't know what "intuitive worldview" and "artifacts are one-of-a-kind" mean to software development. (Or, frankly, what "intuitive worldview" means to aesthetics.) But again, wouldn't you say that XP is highly intolerant of imperfection in such things as unit tests and code repetition? -- TomKreitzberg

Tom, I see wabi-sabi in how we approach design: we never perfect the design, even though we generally seek to improve it. We maintain small messes everywhere, rather than risk a big mess anywhere. So it is with tests: we never achieve perfect coverage, and we know not to try, so we live with an imperfect set of tests. Insisting on 100% passing tests is no more perfection than insisting on clean hands to prepare food. -- JbRainsberger

I won't speak to "intuitive worldview"...but "artifacts are one-of-a-kind" means that things exist in the system in only one place: the code.

I think it corresponds with DontRepeatYourself. --

As far as "intuitive worldview", consider that with XP you spend almost no time trying to plan for the future. You tell yourself that you will deal with the present moment, and when the future becomes the present, you will deal with as well. Emphasis on constant movement and adjustment, as opposed to deliberation and conscious planning.

XP Wabi Sabi (Refactored)

All requested features delivered. Speculation avoided. Mindful of our tendency toward completeness, necessary code is added, unnecessary code is removed. Refactored. Implementations incomplete - shadows of the their real-world counterparts, yet precisely the functions and properties required. The desire to add more, tempered by the satisfaction of not doing so. Technique and knowledge are increased to decrease their application. Simplicity. -- BillCaputo

More specifically (as an example), XP directs you to implement only what's needed. Thus a vector class might have + and dot implemented, but not minus or cross-product because those weren't used in the project. The resulting vector class is incomplete, imperfect, unfinished; but yet delivers the functionality needed at the time.

It is left as an exercise for the reader not to get annoyed at the vector class for not having minus when the next project needs it. -- DerekWoolverton

IMHO, the annoyance is originated from a particular programming mind-set (non-WabiSabi?), not from the fact that in the long run the time implementing stuff tends to decrease. -- FabioCecin

WikiWiki makes TheSundayTimes (UK)

DannyObrien writing in TheSundayTimes Culture Magazine, April 9 2000:

The best explanation of Wabi Sabi as it applies to the design of the Net, is in Ward Cunningham's website at C2.com. This uses Cunningham's WikiWiki software, which allows web visitors to edit the site's text themselves. Unlike the polished prose of most net thinkers, C2 is anonymous, collaborative and often half-finished: the Net in a microcosm and a living depiction of the Wabi sabi philosophy

Looks like some great food for thought here - half-finished, collaborative... -- MartinNoutch

So, could we say that CollaborationLeadsToHalfFinishedWork?

I'm dying to know how that article got to talking about WabiSabi!

Article archive link not available as the Times' website is shafted and their RobotsDotTxt blocks archive.org from having a copy.

It offers WabiSabi as an aesthetic that better captures the net than seeing it as part of dynamics sweeping us toward a spiritual end-point or transition (a la TeilhardDeChardin's OmegaPoint? or TheSingularity). Interesting point, but he dismisses the latter too easily -- huge transitions have occurred in the past, so why not again?

I admit I can't remember what I wrote in that piece, but my current thinking is that even huge transitions can look like partial achievements when you're in the middle of them - how many unfulfilled dreams are there in every revolution? -- DannyObrien

How might this relate to the Stoic aesthetic expressed by MarcusAureliusCaesar? in his Meditations?

We ought to observe also that even the things which follow after the things which are produced according to nature contain something pleasing and attractive.
For instance, when bread is baked some parts are split at the surface, and these parts which thus open, and have a certain fashion contrary to the purpose of the baker's art, are beautiful in a manner, and in a peculiar way excite a desire for eating. And again, figs, when they are quite ripe, gape open; and in the ripe olives the very circumstance of their being near to rottenness adds a peculiar beauty to the fruit. And the ears of corn bending down, and the lion's eyebrows, and the foam which flows from the mouth of wild boars, and many other things- though they are far from being beautiful, if a man should examine them severally- still, because they are consequent upon the things which are formed by nature, help to adorn them, and they please the mind; so that if a man should have a feeling and deeper insight with respect to the things which are produced in the universe, there is hardly one of those which follow by way of consequence which will not seem to him to be in a manner disposed so as to give pleasure. -- Meditations, book 3 tr. George Long

See http://classics.mit.edu for this and other texts in the Western and Eastern "classical" traditions.

I do not know much about WabiSabi, but it sounds much like the aesthetic I've found in the poem/story about ThisTooShallPassAway, and the biblical BookOfEcclesiastes (especially the older authorised version, with the Elizabethan English). Or am I way off the mark? -- JonathanMarkLange

But ThisTooShallPassAway and Ecclesiastes makes impermanence seem a negative when in fact it is what makes things beautiful. -- AsimJalis

Something more like Keats' OdeOnaGrecianUrn then?

We are much beholden to Machiavel and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do. FrancisBacon, The Advancement of Learning, bk. 2, ch. 21, sct. 9 (1605).

A French poem about/using wabisabi: http://barbery.net/poemes/reflet/wabisabi1

Wabi-Sabi on a trip through western Kansas. Comparatively speaking rural living is Wabi-Sabi. It is dauntless and imperfect to most who inhabit the cityscape. Somehow, perhaps due to the fact I am getting more mature I've begun to notice the subtle beauty that exists in the furrowed fields of corn, in how the yellow line on the side of the highway is never straight but winds like a slithering snake as you move faster down the road. This whole notion of Wabi-Sabi has opened has brought a new aspect to self awareness. Try it --- Dwain Crispell

Random Observations Relative to Wabi-Sabi:

The tao of Zen is that our perception of reality is imperfect, because reality isn't.

The tao of Zen is equally that our perception of reality is perfect, because reality is.

Perfection and imperfection are both mirrors of our minds; as aspects of Yin and Yang, neither can exist without the other.

In response to master Wu the student replied, 'So, basically, Zen is a crock?' At that moment the master was enlightened. (...And got a job as director of programming at that well-known US television network.)

HaHaOnlySerious? You think perfection and imperfection exist objectively in physical reality, rather than in our minds?No, I think that US television programming directors will have achieved enlightenment when their programs have no redeeming content whatsoever. The big three are way behind the little independants in this respect, and will have to accelerate jettison of meaningful material in order to grab some of the remaining dollars before they and the networks themselves disappear into the ultimate black hole and become one with the singularity/event horizon. (Or whatever.)

(I'm getting waaay out of my depth, here.) I think perfection is transient--what serves today may be inadequate tomorrow, and yet, perfect again the day after. (Ala SpiralModel.) I.E. perfection is not inheirent in any thing, it is an attribution of man. Furthermore, our perceptual equipment, being imperfect itself, we wouldn't recognize something absolutely perfect if it whacked us with a two-by-four. (Another poke at Zen, sorry.) On the other hand, one could say that everything fulfills its purpose, and is therefore perfect. (I.E. Fatalism. One could be wrong, too.)

I'm sorry if my attempt at cynical humor offended anyone. I have not studied Zen, just encountered references to it and sometimes some brief examples of its teachings. (e.g. GoedelEscherBach) From these encounters I have deduced a general idea of what its central principles might be. I find more value in the path than in the destination. I haven't studied philosophy either, so I know I'm bound to fall in a tiger-trap if I go far enough.

That's correct, especially when Eastern philosophy is the topic, because it is about some things that are simply not part of the Western traditions (unless one studies Western philosophy deeply, then one finds traces of similarities in places, e.g. with Gnostics). "Far enough" is basically one step. :-)

BTW to be a little more specific, some core things in Zen and Taoism concern things of an experiential nature, rather than of an intellectual nature as is more common in Western philosophy; that's a very deep divergence, and one that must be explored in part experientially rather than solely by pondering and deducing, else the point is missed. Making fun of these traditions as nothing but a bunch of foolishness is a sign of missing the point. It could also be a sign of getting the point. It all depends.

It all depends seems to be a reoccuring theme in Zen. That's what probably trips up us western thinkers. (I think I think, but I could be wrong. KantReadKant) I really don't have any trouble with that, because it brings us back on topic. If the undecidable nature of Zen is a fault to westerners, it is its beauty to easterners.

The gripping hand reference brought to mind a speculative story (WikiGnomes: I dare you to find it! It sounds a little Vonnegut-ish to me) where imperfection was mandated. Every instance of a manufactured product was required to have an obvious, unique, but benign blemish. -- BobBockholt

Are you thinking of Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron", in which those with above-average qualities must wear artificial handicaps?

I remember reading that Islamic rug makers introduce a slight imperfection into each rug, so as not to affront Allah, the only true perfection.

There is also a Persian proverb about rugs that says "A Persian Rug is Perfectly Imperfect, and Precisely Imprecise"

The same is said about things made by the Shakers. In both cases, though, isn't it a tiny bit arrogant to believe that the only imperfection is the one you introduce?

Not nearly as arrogant as to believe that, unless you have introduced an imperfection there are none.

True, however introducing intentional faults does take the pressure off.

How about *amplifying* the imperfection? Who knows who 'introduced' it? But once spotted, as natural to the processed, could be embraced.

As JustaProgrammer, there's nothing quite so attractive to me as some (deliberately) unfinished/crooked code whose time has come to be polished/shifted. After I'm done the code is better, but still a little unfinished/crooked. A novice would tweak and refactor until doomsday, but the RealProgrammer knows this is good, this is as it should be. After all, he writes for the one that comes after, as well as for his boss.

Just before coming here I read WikiGnomePoem. Synchronicity? Fate? Beauty! -- BobBockholt

Wabi-Sabi: a Rousseauvian ideal of primitivism, and childlike spontaneity, derived from Japan's Oedipal fascination with Korea.

Another thing about "Eastern" vs "Western", who decides where this demarcation occurs? Presumably living in North America as I do, I am therefore a "Western", but I prefer to consider myself a "Northern" so as to differentiate myself from those crazy whackos "down under" in the Southern Hemisphere. For perfection in imperfect things, regard the halfbakery.com.

Ahh! Maybe chaos and uncertainty is beauty too? -- BobBockholt

"Eastern" vs "Western" is not a geographical devide - it's a cultural divide, between european-like cultures and asian cultures. Of course it's a FalseDichotomy - there are many other cultures around the world that don't fit in either box.

While both of them are potent, look similar in print, and are often taken in small amounts, WabiSabi is not to be confused with Wasabi, an extremely hot green, horseradish-like paste, commonly served with sushi, though perhaps Wabi-Sabi might be used to describe the tantalizing taste of Wasabi (hon-wasabi). Truly a culinary delight!

Wabi-Sabi seems to me to be the absolute worst possible design aesthetic for a programming language. Wabi, the subtle imperfection, is one of the most damaging aesthetics a programming language can attempt to achieve. In a programming language every subtle imperfection acts as a thorn in your side and makes it harder to actually do things in your programs. Sabi, the beauty of age, is also damaging to programming languages. The changing tides of technology make the tradeoffs of the past less valuable and rate of BitRot is not proportional to quality like rate of physical rot is for physical objects. Attempting to WabiSabi a programming language would get you something inconsistent and kludged together like COBOL or C++.

I'm not sure that this is an aesthetic that can be applied on purpose. And even if it can, programming-language design is indeed probably not the place to do it... Are there any counter-examples out there, any cases of WabiSabi programming languages that aren't also insufficiently expressive or obstructively complex?

See also WhoDefinesTheBeauty

CategoryBook, CategoryEasternThought, CategoryIdealism

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