Wabi Sabi, Ikebana & Zen

Text and Photography by Harvey Lloyd

This blog is part of a series entitled Secrets of Eternal Youth.

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All photographs by Harvey Lloyd, Copyright © 2016


Wabi Sabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.” It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence specifically impermanence, the other two being suffering and emptiness or absence of self-nature .

Characteristics of the wabi sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy, and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.

It is well at times to peer into worlds that are outside of our usual reference. Japanese art in certain ways remains closer to their past and their arts than our western practices of art. Europe moved into the industrial age with its literal views and economic realities in the seventeenth century. It wasn’t until the Meiji Restoration near the end of the nineteenth century that Japan began its industrialization.


In this new time of quantum physics and metaphysics merging with Eastern philosophy and the TAO, we eternal youths add spiritual values to our plastic brains by studying arts and esoteric aesthetics such as Wabi Sabi. Like many of the deepest mysteries of human intuition and creativity, it can be difficult for us to see it with our western eyes. In his introduction to Certain Noble Plays of Japan translated by Ezra Pound and Ernst Fennelosa, we read from Yeat’s introduction:

The arts which interest me, while seeming to separate from the world and us a group of figures, images, symbols, enable us to pass for a few moments into a deep of the mind that had hitherto been too subtle for our habitation.


Wabi Sabi inhabits these deeps. It is a very subtle Japanese appreciation of the impermanence, incompleteness and imperfections of great art. Travel writer Paul Thoreaux made a BBC series in Japan, “In Search of Wabi-Sabi and said that he asked many Japanese to help him understand the concept. None either could or would.

The tides of time should be able to imprint the passing of the years on an object. The physical decay or natural wear and tear of the materials used does not in the least detract from the visual appeal, rather it adds to it. It is the changes of texture and colour that provide the space for the imagination to enter and become more involved with the devolution of the piece.

Whereas modern design often uses inorganic materials to defy the natural ageing effects of time, wabi sabi embraces them and seeks to use this transformation as an integral part of the whole.This is not limited to the process of decay, but can also be found at the moment of inception, when life is taking its first fragile steps toward becoming.” 



Ikebana take our vision of flowers and flower arrangements in gardens of Elysium where new views of nature’s beauty unrobes to our dazzled or enraptured eyes. Asymmetry, so different from our western floral arrangements, startles us into see beauty in a new way. It is another manifestation of an art, a Japanese art which reveals the inner life of beauty. It is the strange dichotomy between the polished samurai sword of death which mirrors life in it curved blade.

Ryoanji: Peaceful Dragon Temple


The stone garden in the Zen temple of Ryoanji in Kyoto has the feeling of Wabi Sabi.
The clay wall, which is stained by age with subtle brown and orange tones, reflects “wabi” and the rock garden “sabi”.

In Virtual Reality and the Tea Ceremony, speaking of the famous rock garden at the Zen temple of Ryoan-Ji in Kyoto, Michael Heim writes, “You do not ‘understand’ the rock garden by stopping to look at it once . . . Our sense of presence and of being present wavers and fluctuates, and the garden confronts us brutally with our own fluctuations . . . It repels us again and again, until we face our impatience and finally give up the effort to fit the garden into our preconceived categories . . .”

Stone in a rock garden, Ryoanji Zen Temple, Kyoto, Japan
Stone in a rock garden, Ryoanji Zen Temple, Kyoto, Japan

Like any subtle work of art, also the artistic garden of Ryoan-ji is open to interpretation, or scientific research into possible meanings. Many different theories have been put forward inside and outside Japan about what the garden is supposed to represent, from islands in a stream to swimming baby tigers to the peaks of mountains rising above the clouds to theories about secrets of geometry or of the rules of equilibrium of odd numbers.

Garden historian Gunter Nitschke wrote: “The garden at Ryoan-ji does not symbolize anything, or more precisely, to avoid any misunderstanding, the garden of Ryoan-ji does not symbolize, nor does it have the value of reproducing a natural beauty that one can find in the real or mythical world. I consider it to be an abstract composition of “natural” objects in space, a composition whose function is to incite meditation.”—


We seek after the hidden intuitive meanings of great art that come from deep within our psyches, often without knowing it. Why does an artist suddenly take a leap into a different world as did many of the modern artists from Turner, Van Gogh, andPicasso to the New York School of Abstract Expressionists? From realism to modern abstract expressionism is a death defying leap into the unknown.

Our plastic brains often delight in these enigmatic leaps. They cause our brains to exercise and struggle with the new, which is the impetus for the growth of masses of new neurons to deal with these.new and mysterious insights. Art is brain food.



 Plants are beautiful as they are. But with people’s help, they can be arranged in an effective style to be even more appreciated. A Japanese theory of flower arranging has philosophy which brightens, colors, and gives life to our environment. Ikebana arrangements vary with the change of surroundings. ikebana is not difficult. Sogetsu School of ikebana believes that anyone can arrange ikebana anywhere, and with almost anything.

It should be part of a lifestyle to be appreciated by many people from all over the world, rather than being considered an exclusive aspect of Japanese culture to be enjoyed by a limited number of people. Just as people are different from each other, Sogetsu School encourages ikebana students to be individual and imaginative.”
–HIROSHI TESHIGAHARA, Director Sogetsu School


We eternal youths can learn much from Ikebana which are asymmetrical arrangements of flowers living and/or dried, selected for their shapes and colors. Ikebana arrangements teeter on the edge of falling over or apart. Great tension arises if you stare at the elegant yet unstable asymmetrical arrangements. The flowers are displayed in splendid hand made ceramic vases of many different shapes.

Western style bouquets have little of this tension, being primarily arranged in large groups stacked in a vase, and balanced. Art and the art of living like an eternal youth is much about tension, about our brains grappling with the unfamiliar, the difficult to decipher and fit into our often too orderly worlds. Like Wabi Sabi, Ikebana display the passing of time, the beauty of the temporary, the subtleness of asymmetry.

Faiko and JW write on their blog, “The most avant-garde of the Japanese Ikebana schools was started in 1927 as an answer to one man’s intense desire to make Ikebana a vehicle for personal artistic expression. That man was the late Sofu Teshigahara (1900- 1977), the first Iemoto, or grand master, of the Sogetsu School and he truly revolutionized the world of Japanese flower arranging.”


Teshigahara considered Ikebana to be much more than flower arranging. He believed that Ikebana is Art. He said, “the spirit under which the Sogetsu School was born was to create Ikebana that matches actual life and to create something that deserves the name art.” He feared that traditional Ikebana would die out unless it adapted to modern times. To survive, he said, “Ikebana has to be always fresh, vital and dynamic.” Here are quotes from his diary, Kadensho, The Book of Flowers:

 Ikebana is born from the encounter of nature and humans; it is the coming together of nature and human life . . . a clear example of perfect harmony between man and nature.

Just as musicians express themselves through the language of music, Ikebana artists must use the language of flowers. . . 

Ikebana will fail if its ultimate goal is the imitation of nature—even if the Imitation is more or less perfect. One cannot just take a piece of it and try to recreate it. One takes a piece of nature and adds something that was not there. This is what creation in Ikebana means.


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