First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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The Beauty of the Imperfect

June 9, 2019
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees

READING excerpt from Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren

Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring. Wabi-sabi is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. Wabi-sabi is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to the vulgar eyes.

Like homeopathic medicine, the essence of wabi-sabi is apportioned in small doses. As the dose decreases, the effect becomes more potent, more profound. The closer things get to nonexistence, the more exquisite and evocative they become. Consequently to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow way down, be patient, and look very closely. 

SERMON The Beauty of the Imperfect—Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees

There is a Japanese legend that tells of a young man named Sen no Rikyu. He wanted to learn about the traditional Japanese tea ceremony and its elaborate set of customs. So he sought out a tea master. He went to see tea-master Takeeno Joo.

The tea master tested Rikyu. He asked him to do something that seemed unrelated to the tea ceremony. The master asked him to clean up and rake the garden. This was Rikyu’s entrance exam. The garden was full of leaves and other debris. Rikyu set to work cleaning the garden until he had cleared and tidied it to perfection. He checked his work carefully and could see that the garden was immaculate.

And then, before presenting his work to the master, he took one more measure to beautify the garden. He shook the cherry tree. This sent a few flowers spilling randomly onto the very ground he had so meticulously cleaned up. (various sources)

Rikyu’s final touch of beauty has come to be known in Japan as wabi-sabi. “Wabi” can be translated as “rustic simplicity” or “understated elegance.” “Sabi” can be translated as “taking pleasure in the imperfect.”

Wabi-sabi has become a much-revered practice and cultural aesthetic in Japan. It emerged in the 16th Century with Rikyu. It was a reaction against opulence, ornamentation, and other lavish design aesthetics. The focus was shifted from expressing beauty through a grand, majestic perfection to discovering beauty in the simple and imperfect. (“Wabi-Sabi: The Art Of Imperfection: The Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi offers an inspiring new way to look at your home, and your whole life,” Robyn Griggs Lawrence, Natural Home, Sept.-Oct. 2001)

Wabi-sabi rejects the soul-numbing quest for rigid standards of perfection that leads to anxiety, stress, and shame. Instead, this Japanese philosophy emphasizes authenticity, earthiness, natural simplicity, and appreciation for transience. Aged wood is appreciated rather than the mass produced, a single dahlia is prized above a dozen roses, texture is valued over sleekness, antique markets are preferred to shopping malls, and heirloom vegetables and fruits are sought rather than hothouse versions.

Wabi-sabi does not mean run-down, neglected, or uncared for. In fact, a wabi-sabi approach comes with a heightened awareness of what it means to tend to spaces, objects, homes, places, and people. It comes with a heightened awareness of what gives a thing or a person character and uniqueness.

I think, for example, about the redbud tree in my backyard. This was a tree I planted when I first moved to my current home. It was struck by lightning a few years later when it was only about three feet tall. The lightning split a main branch at the tree’s center, and I thought the tree wouldn’t survive. In fact,  I thought I would need to remove it. I was worried that it wouldn’t be strong enough to survive. But I opted to give it a chance. Now about 10 years later, this tree is about 20 feet tall. And not only does it have the heart-shaped leaves which I love and which redbuds are known for, but it also has a kind of heart shape to its trunk. The branches turn outward with no center branch. I simply adore this tree. We sometimes call it the heart tree. It has a story, a character, a heart. It carries the marks of that lightning strike and has a strength and resilience that inspires me. My heart tree is beautifully imperfect. The innate beauty of my redbud comes through. 

Spiritual writers Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat say of wabi-sabi and objects that reflect this idea that the

innate beauty still shines through in ways that touch the heart and reveal our intimacy with it. These old things also compel us to look at our mortality. We bear in our bodies the wear and tear of time. The wabi-sabi objects in our lives are spiritual teachers opening our eyes to beauty in unexpected places. (Book Review, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat)

That tree of mine is truly a spiritual teacher, teaching me about mortality, wear and tear, and opening to beauty.

Audrey Harris had an experience that led her to appreciate what she calls the art of broken. Audrey Harris grew up in the French countryside and studied History and Political Science at The Sorbonne.She decided she wanted to train with a kintsugi master. Kintsugi is a great example of wabi-sabit, of the art of imperfection. This term, like wabi-sabi, comes from Japanese philosophy and culture. Kintsugi is the ceramic tradition of fixing pottery with gold. The cracks are prepared and filled with gold to beautify and strengthen.

What Harris learned from her kintsugi training is that 

a major part [of it] is humility. You have to wait . . . [before adding the gold] and be able to figure out what you have. Each crack is unique. . . . This approach opens you to what you are facing.

When something is broken we have to figure out what we have and how to approach it. That begins with having an intention and making choices. In kintsugi, the first decision is whether the bowl deserves to be fixed, according to Harris. And then if the decision is to fix the bowl, the next step is to give life to the bowl, to make it powerful and solid. Giving it life won’t make the cracks disappear. Instead, gold is used to accentuate the cracks, the veins of its brokenness.

By doing this, Audrey Harris says she has learned that fixing the bowl creates meaning. The process of adding gold makes the bowl more beautiful. Part of that beauty is the reminder of how it was broken, and that it was broken, and that it was fixed. Rather than erasing the brokenness, the bowl with its golden veins serves as a reminder of its value and meaning—its story and character development.

Audrey Harris began to see kintsugi everywhere. She saw it not only in repairing bowls but in people and in herself. She concludes that:

the world needs more kintsugi. The world needs more kintsugi masters. The world needs more people who really invest themselves so that they with all their humility take time to analyze what was broken in order to fix it.

This is a way of being we need to experience more often. We need more of such extraordinary moments of humility and depth. But it isn’t about forgetting. Harris emphasizes that this “is about not forgetting what was.” It’s about making value and meaning with a part of yourself and remembering how that meaning evolved. (“Kintsugi: The Art of Broken,” Audrey Harris, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-uZiszbo7M)

What if we learned to value the broken and cracked parts of our lives? What if we set an intention and made a choice to fix those parts. Not to try to conceal the broken places, the places where we have failed, been vulnerable, the parts of who we are that do not conform to societal standards of perfection and beauty. But to learn to give value and meaning to these places. What if we filled them with gold to accentuate the veins where they were broken. Imagine how that would make us stronger and bring greater authenticity and healing and freedom to our lives.

Western culture has begun to pick up on this concept of imperfect beauty—at least in interior and garden architecture and design. In 1994 Leonard Koren’s book, Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers was published. Koren explains that,

Wabi-sabi represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring. . . . Wabi-sabi is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. . . . [it] is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to the vulgar eyes.

He goes on to note that

the closer things get to nonexistence, the more exquisite and evocative they become. Consequently, to experience wabi-sabi means you have to slow way down, be patient, and look very closely. . . . Appreciation for imperfections in others, and even in yourself, is the essential wabi sabi frame of mind. Deep down you know perfection can be rather dull. As singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen poetically put it, “There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”

It’s so true, isn’t it. Perfection can have a quality of being sterile, lifeless, and lacking in distinctiveness. Beauty has a raw, natural, real, and authentic quality. In a world that can be too fast and too busy, ever impatient, and often anything but subtle, the art of the imperfect is indeed a profound philosophy.

In this morning’s story of two pots, one perfect and one imperfect, the imperfect cracked pot experienced shame for not being able to carry its share of water. Every day it leaked its water along the path while the perfect pot was able to carry a larger load. But in the end it was the cracked pot that watered the side of the path, where seeds had been scattered and where beautiful flowers grew, flowers that were used to beautiful people’s lives. 

We’re all cracked pots. Like the cracked pot in this morning’s story, we each have our own flaws. But sometimes that weakness can also be what make us strong and beautiful. Sometimes it can create an opportunity for greater beauty. Rather than living in shame, recognizing the beauty in the imperfect allows us to bring intention and attention to what is broken and create meaning and value.

The world needs more people who are willing in humility to take the time to analyze, to slow down and be patient enough to reflect on what is broken in order to mend the broken places, making them stronger, making them more beautiful.

The world needs more people who never forget the stories, the history, the character, and the struggle of what was that makes the world and us who and what we are.

Blessed be. Amen.