In addition to summing up Socrates and his European heirs, Alain de Botton has also applied his five-minute animated video approach to the very basics of Eastern philosophy. While offering its introductory surveys, the series may hopefully spur viewers on to greater appreciation of, for example, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Japanese Zen master Sen no Rikyu, who refined the tea ceremony as a meticulous meditative ritual. Rikyu’s practice shows us how much philosophical and religious traditions (often a distinction without a difference) in Japan and China engage rigorously with everyday objects and routines as often as they do with texts and lectures.
Yesterday, we brought you several short explanations of one such practice, Kintsugi, the wabi sabi art of “finding beauty in broken things” by turning cracked and broken pottery into gilded, beautifully flawed vessels. Several hundred years earlier, in 826 AD, renowned Tang Dynasty poet and civil servant Bai Juyi discovered a pair of oddly shaped rocks that captivated his attention. Taking them home to his study, he then wrote a poem about them, influenced by Daoism’s reverence for the forces of nature and inspired by the hard evidence such forces carved into the rocks. Like the broken pottery of Japan’s Kintsugi, Bai’s rocks come in part to symbolize human frailty. In this case, he casts the rocks as friends in his lonely old age, asking them, “Can you keep company with an old man like myself?”
After Bai Juyi, aesthetic meditations on the beauty of rock formations became highly popular and quickly refined into “four principal criteria,” writes the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “thinness (shou), openness (tou), perforations (lou), and wrinkling (zhou).” The found artifacts are often known as “scholar’s rocks”—a mistranslation, de Botton says, of a term meaning “spirit stones”—and are chosen for their natural wildness, as well as shaped by human hands. They were placed in gardens and studies, and “became a favorite and enduring pictorial genre.” During the early Song dynasty, such stones were “constant sources of inspiration,” and were “valued quite as highly as any painting or calligraphic scroll.”
So highly-prized were these objects, in fact, that they appear to “have hastened the collapse of the Northern Song Empire,” through a mania not unlike that which drove the tulip craze in the 17th century Netherlands. As did many Chinese cultural traditions—including Zen Buddhism—the love of rocks crossed over into Japan, where it was adapted “in a particularly Japanese way” in the 15th century, inspiring the “subdued, smooth,” minimalist rock gardens we’re likely familiar with, if only through their consumer novelty versions.
As per usual, de Botton imbues his lesson with a takeaway moral: rock reverence teaches us that “wisdom can hang off bits of the natural world just as well as issuing from books.” We may also see the love of rocks as a kind of anti-consumerist practice, in which we shift the attention we typically lavish on disposable objects destined for landfills, trashheaps, and plastic-littered oceans, and instead apply it to beautiful bits of the natural world, which require few investments of labor or capital to enrich our lives, and can be found right outside our doors, if we’re careful and attentive enough to see them.