Wabi is simplicity itself, and the appreciation of simplicity as one of the highest forms of beauty. Wabi is half of “wabi sabi” 侘寂 the expression of highest beauty in Japanese aesthetics.
Wabi describes a geometrically linear design, and a controlled (many times just black and white) color palette. In English, when we describe something as being "zen-like" in appearance, we're really describing something that has the design attributes of wabi.
Wabi is about more than beauty, though. It is about peace, about tranquility, and most importantly, balance. Many times, simplicity around us (a clean, uncluttered home, a well-organized and spacious office) promotes peace and balance within us. And even more importantly, simplicity tends to leave us feeling empowered, confidant that we are “in control” of our experience and our environment. Oftentimes, complexity brings murkiness, a lack of understanding, even a feeling of being out-of-control, and no longer in charge of our destiny.
Wabi also speaks to a kind of impermanence in beauty, and in life. More than simplicity, wabi speaks to the fact that all beauty, all perfection, is transient. Wabi sabi exists but for a moment in time, and then reality shifts and something changes. Beauty then, becomes something that we strive for, appreciate for the time we have it, and then move forward and begin working to build new beauty, new value. Beauty is not a thing to be captured, but rather a goal to be attained, appreciated, and then set free, only to come back to us in a different guise. In this way perhaps, beauty is even more appreciated because of its transient nature.
The simplicity of wabi has application on the dojo floor in many of our basic techniques: our karatedō should embody the concept of direct simplicity, “economy of movement and action”, and be clear and crisp. In understanding the various components of our karate (kihon, kata, kumite, and karatedo philosophy itself), it is only crystal clarity of mind that will give us a useful, resilient picture that we can use to advance ourselves.
And outside the dojo, wabi gives us a reminder that simplicity and coherence are their own beauty, and a goal worth striving for, in both our material things, and in our overall life.
Publication note: the lecture on Wabi was first delivered by Sensei on July 29th, 2013, and then again at the NYC Dojo on August 10th, 2022, and at Honbu on August 12th, 2022.