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

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