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Wabi-Sabi And The Japanese Tea Ceremony

Posted by Angelina Kurganska on

In this thatched hut there ought not to be a speck of dust of any kind; both master and visitors are expected to be on terms of absolute sincerity; no ordinary measures of proportion or etiquette or conventionalism are to be followed.

Sen no Rikyu


When thinking of Japanese culture, many of us have come across the term wabi-sabi. Although hard to define literally, wabi-sabi is a Japanese philosophy concept centered on the acceptance of transience and appreciation of beauty in imperfection. It is carried throughout many aspects of Japanese culture. From art to architecture, literature, poetry, nature, design, Japanese gardens and one of the places it’s seen the most… tea ceremony.


How do we define wabi-sabi?

Many terms used in tea ceremony are hard to define. It is often times a feeling or a knowing and must be experienced by the person rather than learned about.

In Japanese, the word wabi initially spoke of the loneliness experienced when living in nature, while sabi could mean chill, lean or withered.


Overall wabi-sabi can be described using three words: imperfection, impermanence, and incompletion.


This definition is tied together with the Buddhist teachings of the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and emptiness.

How Does Wabi-Sabi Relate To Japanese Tea Ceremony?

In the 16th century, a significant shift happened in the world of Japanese tea ceremony. Before this era, the tea ceremony was about lavish and luxury. Tea ceremony masters chose to change these ideals, in turn prizing items that had a used and rugged appearance, finding beauty in rustic simplicity. This change in belief is deeply tied into the concept of wabi-sabi that is still valued in Japanese ceremony to this day.

Instead of using abundant and luxurious decorations people started looking towards plain looking things found in nature. No more grand bouquets crowding the room. Instead, a simple ikebana arrangement consisting of one or two seasonal flowers is found. The teaware doesn’t boast bright colors but instead somewhat basic and faded colors found in nature: browns, greens, and grey.

The teaware isn’t perfectly sculpted and symmetrical. Instead, it is rugged, rough to the touch, sometimes chipped and repaired. The potter often deliberately makes the tea bowls this way, highlighting the perfection of imperfection.


Why The Rustic Simplicity?

The answer is simple. Without the extra distractions, we can enjoy tea in the purest way. Just us and the tea. Surrounded by simplicity in every form we are allowed to experience the tea freely. Communicate with the tea slowly admiring all of its subtleties. While having nothing but the minimal we can let ourselves appreciate to the fullest.

Let’s Experience Wabi-Sabi Through Tea

We can easily try this on our own, without having to go to a tea house in Japan.
In our own home, we can find a quiet room or corner. Decorate it in a simple manner or perhaps remove some things that are crowding the space and mind. With less clutter we allow new experiences to enter. Setting up a space to fit the philosophy of wabi-sabi will remind us of one of its major concepts: impermanence, acceptance of transience. This set up will soon flee so we might as well stay in the moment and enjoy it to its fullest. 

Now we can take a sip of our tea and see if we notice anything new or anything different. Do we begin to notice more?

To read more about the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi click here