One of the great passions of
my life is suiseki. Over the years, the practice of rubbing
suiseki stones with the oil from the side of one's nose has evolved.
Here, the veracity of the origin of this practice is mute, i.e., it
makes no difference whether this is simply a myth, or if it came to
us directly from the hand of the first suiseki-god. For me, the
important question is—what is the justification for pursuing the activity
of rubbing suiseki stones?
Life of the Stone; Life of the Daiza
When one begins creating suiseki,
often as an adjunct of practicing bonsai, the popular dictum is, "suiseki
is preferable, because you cannot kill the stone." While the
claim may be literally true, in a spiritual or symbolic sense, it is
false. In contrast to their bonsai-cousins, what is the nature
of the "life" of the suiseki? It is a two-fold presence,
nature and art, which is a fundamental dichotomy extending significantly
into the history and theory of aesthetics; later in this piece I consider
the roots of this basic distinction in the early years of Japanese aesthetics.
Nature and art are realized in suiseki in striking fashion: 1) as the
natural, sculptural entity of the stone in nature; and 2) as the "life-instantiating-energy,"
in the suiseki-work-of-art. The sculptural stone from nature I
discussed briefly in the piece, Cutting Suiseki Stones; also, important
here is the presentational superiority of the stone on a daiza, as opposed
to a suiban. My intention is seeking the answer to—what is the
theoretic analogue in suiseki to the biological life
of the bonsai tree? The simple answer is—the life energy
transferred into the stone by means of rubbing it.
For 35 years I taught aesthetics
at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia. About 15
years ago, I approached the director of the Studio Foundation Department
at the school and suggested that I teach a Foundation section in suiseki,
concentrating on making daiza. He inquired as to what the focus
of the section would be. I responded that it would be basically
six weeks of sanding a small block of wood. Taking some time to
regain his composure, he politely responded, "Thanks, but no thanks."
Evidently, he had little appreciation for this particular kind of the
existential dimension in teaching freshman art students.
Within two years of beginning
to make suiseki daiza, the following question pressed itself upon me
- do I sand the block of wood to make suiseki daiza; or do I make daiza
in order to have a reason to sand a block of wood. This is a variation
on the old philosophic distinction between ethical voluntarism and ethical
naturalism, e.g., "are you beautiful because I love you; or do I love
you because you are beautiful?" My existential proclivities
fall to the side of living to sand, rather than the reverse. As
the sanding brings substantiality to my existence, so too does this
activity bring "life" to the wood being sanded. In a very
real, concrete sense, this is what constitutes the essence of the suiseki-work-of-art.
The wood from which the daiza
is constructed remains "alive" for its entire existence, be this
a week after it is cut from the living tree, or a millennium.
This is surely no revelation to the fine furnisher craftsman.
And in order to "preserve this life," fine wood pieces need continual
care and attention by regular polishing or oiling. In a real sense,
this is likely more important applied to suiseki daiza. The oiling
is a logical extension of sanding the daiza; the former is terminal,
the latter endless.
Some suiseki-stone stock is
appropriate for rubbing; some is not. The latter could be categorically
identified as "porous stone;" the former, rubbing-stock, e.g., in
Japan, is hard and semi-hard, dark geology, such as basalt. I
often refer to stones collected in nature as "rocks;" these well-weathered
specimen, once collected could be identified as "stones," i.e.,
as potential suiseki. Once these are placed upon a daiza,
they may be said to be "brought to life," and into the state of
"suiseki;" for the appropriate class of stones, this life is instantiated
by means of rubbing them with light oil (baby or mineral). This
functions in any number of ways, in addition to bringing it to "life;"
in an important sense, doing so makes the stone one's own; the basic
point here is important—the art-making process is conceived and
defined by it two critical dimensions—creation and possession.
While one may "live to sand," once the daiza is completed, the sanding
is finished. However, just as the daiza forever needs tending
and polishing, so too does the stone require attention and rubbing,
in order to retain its very "life." This is precisely the
analogue to the biological life of the bonsai.
Not only is the history of
a stone coming to be a suiseki important, but in addition, this history
is crucial to the ontology and function of the suiseki. As I said
above, a daiza receives a good part of its nature from how and much
it is sanded; rubbing is to the stone as finish sanding is to the daiza.
However, in all of this, the terminal/open-ended difference remains.
There is something inordinately primal in the latter the other side
of the "possession" coin mentioned in the last paragraph is that
we can virtually find a dimension of our identity in the rubbing of
this stone. This can be not only significant, but profound.
Analogues are not easy to find here; one possibility might be prayer
beads, whether Eastern or Western. It is not clear to me if and
to what extent meditation is a benefit of rubbing the stone.
In marked contrast to the prayer beads, the act of rubbing the suiseki
stone respects the sense of the being of the stone, while the prayer
beads remain benign in the process. With suiseki, the stone functions
more directly as an existential mirror than do prayer beads, i.e., with
the suiseki, my psychic reflection is right there within the stone.
A decade or two ago I wrote
on the relationship between bonsai and suiseki; and one of the primary
points that arose from that work was the distinction that bonsai are
primarily, if not entirely visual phenomena; suiseki are primarily tactile.
(While the argument was different, I addressed this in the earlier piece
Cutting Suiseki Stones.) Bonsai are directional (frontal); thus,
being viewed even at a near distance can two-dimensionalize them (their
critical "front-branch" notwithstanding); even more important, bonsai
are never intended to be touched. Suiseki stones always remain
three-dimensional, even in those cases where they cannot be touched.
And the real way to experience the six sides of the suiseki stone is
in one's hands. I would argue that this very kind of experience
is logically the same as "rubbing the stone;" and this is so even
if the stone cannot be touched. To complete this logical circle
with the Cutting Stone piece, psychologically, there is something offensive
in the concept of "rubbing a cut stone." This epistemological
core of the suiseki phenomenon directly determines the suiseki's ontology.
In other word, this is precisely what suiseki is and how it is
experienced. This experiential difference between bonsai and
suiseki is psychically profound; and in a primal, Darwinian sense, the
tactile always trumps the visual. And in this very same sense,
this Darwinianism will always trump cultural tradition and/or origin.
As a general rule, porous stones
cannot be rubbed. While porous suiseki can be quite lovely, this
comes at a fairly high price—in the above sense, porous suiseki will
remain "lifeless," in that they cannot be rubbed. For them,
the only "life-preserving" factor will be their daiza; and this
is a heavy burden to place upon a small piece of wood.
Early Aesthetic Theory &mdash Nature and Art
At the beginning of the Meiji
Restoration (1868), East and West began a convergence on two fronts
— 1) the commercial opening of Japan to the West made it the "inspirational"
darling of several Impressionist artists as well as the cultural elite
in Europe; and 2) philosophic aesthetics from Europe invaded academia
in Japan. Aesthetics had been part of the university curriculum
for a century in Germany (since 1750); and by the end of the 19th
century, as it moved into Japan, it was also finding its identity in
America. Prominent European philosophers of interest early in
Japan's aesthetic history were Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) (the
Apollonian and Dionysian), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) ("Beauty
is only fit for humans ... who are animal and yet rational beings."
Critique of Judgment).
Onishi Yoshinori (1888-1959)
in his work Bigaku (Aesthetics)
was one of the first aestheticians to bring the ideas of "nature"
and "art" together under the concept of "congruence of opposites."
This could not be more appropriately applied than to suiseki, especially
in the very context that we are considering in this paper. This all
gets fleshed out for Onishi using some of my favorite Japanese aesthetic
concepts—yugen (profundity; or the polarity between nature
and art), aware (pathos or preciousness of things), sabi
(simplicity, agedness), yuen (gracefulness), fuga (refinement) and the particularity of the
seventeen-verse poems haikai (the moment of feelings for nature
One of the most serious challenges
facing professional aestheticians is finding appropriate and worthy
examples from the arts for their theoretical claims; this is especially
the case connecting nature and art in the language and musical art media.
The primary reason for this is that neither the music nor language has
an intrinsically natural component. Sculpture seems to
fair better, as we saw in the Cutting-Stone piece using Michelangelo
as the example. However, with the medium of painting, the nature
component of "mixing pigments," is a bit of a stretch. In
marked contrast, both bonsai and suiseki lead from, and retain the integrity
of their natures: in both of cases, the nature component
retains the core of its being, which constitutes an additional argument
proscribing the cutting of suiseki stones. This nature/art connection
and the notion of the "congruence of opposites," as indicated above
from Onishi, constitute fairly sound and substantive aesthetic theory.
I am aware that the notion
of rubbing suiseki stones is not universally supported by the contemporary
Japanese suiseki community; and to the best of my knowledge, nothing
has been written on this topic. My convictions here could not
be more unequivocal and unqualified. The grounds for my certainty
go to the heart of what it is and means to be human, and how it is that
suiseki functions in this pursuit.
March 25, 2008