The Philosophical Appreciation of Rocks in China & Japan: A Short Introduction to an Ancient Tradition

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.

Related Content:

Kintsugi: The Centuries-Old Japanese Craft of Repairing Pottery with Gold & Finding Beauty in Broken Things

Eastern Philosophy Explained with Three Animated Videos by Alain de Botton’s School of Life

Watch Animated Introductions to 25 Philosophers by The School of Life: From Plato to Kant and Foucault

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Hummingbird Whisperer: Meet the UCLA Scientist Who Has Befriended 200 Hummingbirds

Common wisdom, and indelible memories of The Birds, warn that feeding seagulls, pigeons and other creatures who travel in flocks is a can of worms best left unopened.

But what about hummingbirds?

Melanie Barboni is research geochemist in UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences. Near the UCLA Court of Sciences she took a break from volcanos and the moon long enough to hang a feeder filled with sugar water outside her ground floor office window.




This complimentary buffet proved such a hit, she hung up more.

Two years later, Barboni is serving a colony of over 200 hummingbirds from four 80-ounce feeders. Their metabolism requires them to consume 8 to 10 times their body weight on a daily basis.

Barboni’s service to her tiny jewel-toned friends extends well beyond the feeders. She’s diverted campus tree trimmers from interfering with them during nesting season, and given public talks on the habitat-destroying effects of climate change. She’s collaborating with another professor and UCLA’s Chief Sustainability Officer Nurit Katz to establish a special garden on campus for hummingbirds and their fellow pollinators.

The intimacy of this relationship is something she’s dreamed of since her birdwatching childhood in Switzerland where the only hummingbirds available for her viewing were the ones in books. Her dream came true when a fellowship took her from Princeton to Los Angeles, where hummingbirds live year-round.

Some longtime favorites now perch on their benefactor’s hand while feeding, or even permit themselves to be held and stroked. A few like to hang out inside the office, where the warm glow of Barboni’s computer monitor is a comforting presence on inclement days.

She’s bestowed names on at least 50: Squeak, Stardust, Tiny, Shy…

(Show of hands from those who wish she’d named them all after noted geologists: Mary Anning, Eugene Merle ShoemakerCecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin...)

Get to know the UCLA hummingbirds better through Melanie Barboni’s up-close-and-personal documentary photos. Learn more about the species itself through the National Geographic documentary below.

via The Kids Should See This

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Dr. Jane Goodall Is Now Teaching an Online Course on Conservation, Animal Intelligence & Activism

Back in June, we mentioned that the great primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall was gearing up to teach her first online course on environmental conservation, animal intelligence, and activism. Now, it seemed worth giving this quick update--Goodall's course is ready to go. It features 29 lessons and costs $90. You can sign up and take the course through MasterClass here.

Above watch a trailer that introduces the course. Below see her discuss the course on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Other courses currently offered by Masterclass include:

Find more courses taught by star instructors here.

Note: MasterClass is one of our partners. So if you sign up for a course, it benefits not just you and MasterClass. It benefits Open Culture too. So consider it win-win-win.

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A Century of Global Warming Visualized in a 35 Second Video

Antti Lipponen, a researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, gathered historical data from NASA and produced a short video effectively showing that, from 1900 through 2016, the temperature has steadily gotten warmer worldwide. Each spoke of the wheel represents one of 191 different countries. And the hotter the color (e.g. oranges and reds), the warmer the temperature. You can get a closer look at the historical progression here. The materials have been released under a Creative Commons license on Flickr.

Note: If you want to better understand the science of Global Warming, we'd recommend watching the lectures from this free Global Warming course from the University of Chicago:

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via Yale Environment 360

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A Song of Our Warming Planet: Cellist Turns 130 Years of Climate Change Data into Music

Frank Capra’s Science Film The Unchained Goddess Warns of Climate Change in 1958

Dr. Jane Goodall Will Teach an Online Course About Conserving Our Environment

A quick heads up: The great primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall--now 83 years old--will soon teach her first online course ever. Hosted by Masterclass, the course, consisting of 25 video lectures, will teach students how they can conserve the environment. It will also share Goodall's research on the behavioral patterns of chimpanzees and what they taught her about conservation. The course won't get started until this fall, but you can pre-enroll now. The cost is $90.

Other courses currently offered by Masterclass include:

Find more courses taught by star instructors here.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Buckminster Fuller Creates an Animated Visualization of Human Population Growth from 1000 B.C.E. to 1965

Sit back, relax, put on some music (I’ve found Chopin’s Nocturne in B major well-suited), and watch the video above, a silent data visualization by visionary architect and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller, “the James Brown of industrial design.” The short film from 1965 combines two of Fuller’s leading concerns: the exponential spread of the human population over finite masses of land and the need to revise our global perspective via the "Dymaxion map," in order “to visualize the whole planet with greater accuracy,” as the Buckminster Fuller Institute writes, so that “we humans will be better equipped to address challenges as we face our common future aboard Spaceship Earth.”

Though you may know it best as the name of a geodesic sphere at Disney’s Epcot Center, the term Spaceship Earth originally came from Fuller, who used it to remind us of our interconnectedness and interdependence as we share resources on the only vehicle we know of that can sustain us in the cosmos.




“We are all astronauts,” he wrote in his 1969 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, and yet we refuse to see the long-term consequences of our actions on our specialized craft: “One of the reasons why we are struggling inadequately today,” Fuller argued in his introduction, “is that we reckon our costs on too shortsighted a basis and are later overwhelmed with the unexpected costs brought about by our shortsightedness.”

Like all visionaries, Fuller thought in long spans of time, and he used his design skills to help others do so as well. His population visualization documents human growth from 1000 B.C.E. to Fuller’s present, at the time, of 1965. In the image above (see a larger version here), we have a graphic from that same year---made collaboratively with artist and sociologist John McHale---showing the “shrinking of our planet by man’s increased travel and communication speeds around the globe.” (It must be near microscopic by now.) Fuller takes an even longer view, looking at “the confluence of communication and transportation technologies,” writes Rikke Schmidt Kjærgaard, "from 500,000 B.C.E. to 1965.”

Here Fuller combines his population data with the technological breakthroughs of modernity. Though he's thought of in some quarters as a genius and in some as a kook, Fuller demonstrated his tremendous foresight in seemingly innumerable ways. But it was in the realm of design that he excelled in communicating what he saw. “Pioneers of data visualization,” Fuller and McHale were two of “the first to chart long-term trends of industrialization and globalization.” Instead of becoming alarmed and fearful of what the trends showed, Fuller got to work designing for the future, fully aware, writes the Fuller Institute that “the planet is a system, and a resilient one.”

Fuller thought like a radically inventive engineer, but he spoke and wrote like a peacenik prophet, writing that a system of narrow specializations ensures that skill sets “are not comprehended comprehensively... or they are realized only in negative ways, in new weaponry or the industrial support only of war faring.” We’ve seen this vision of society played out to a frightening extent. Fuller saw a way out, one in which everyone on the planet can live in comfort and security without consuming (then not renewing) the Earth’s resources. How can this be done? You'll have to read Fuller's work to find out. Meanwhile, as his visualizations suggest, it’s best for us to take the long view---and give up on short-term rewards and profits---in our assessments of the state of Spaceship Earth.

Related Content:

Buckminster Fuller’s Map of the World: The Innovation that Revolutionized Map Design (1943)

200,000 Years of Staggering Human Population Growth Shown in an Animated Map

The Life & Times of Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome: A Documentary

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Italian Pianist Ludovico Einaudi Plays a Grand Piano While Floating in the Middle of the Arctic Ocean

Above, watch Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi perform an original composition, "Elegy for the Arctic," on a grand piano, floating right in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. In one of his most challenging performances, Einaudi played "Elegy for the Arctic" for the very first time--a piece dedicated to the preservation of the Arctic. The home of endangered wildlife, the region also helps regulate our fragile climate. And our future depends partly on whether we keep it intact.

To pull off this production, a Greenpeace ship transported Einaudi and his grand piano to the seas north of Norway, and put them on a large platform. Says Greenpeace:

The massive early retreat of sea ice due to the effects of climate change allowed the construction of a 2.6 x 10 metre artificial iceberg, made from more than 300 triangles of wood attached together and weighing a total of nearly two tonnes. A grand piano was then placed on top of the platform.

You can see Einaudi performing right in front of a large glacier, while ice sheets fall aways as he plays. It's a sight to behold.

If you would like to help protect the Arctic, you can donate to Greenpeace here.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

Global Warming: A Free Course from UChicago Explains Climate Change

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The Arctic Light

The Making of a Steinway Grand Piano, From Start to Finish

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