Welcome to the Saruyama Blog, intermittent and generally off topic. Occasionally you might see some trees...and weird ones at that.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Aiseki Kai Newsletter

The California Aiseki Kai newsletter is now out. It is one of the best, if not the best Suiseki only newsletters out there and I look forward to it every month.

As I mentioned below, after the Stone symposium, I was asked to write something regarding my approach to stones, so I did. You can find it in the newsletter which I think is a worthy read here

Here it is on my site though....

Over thinking and under feeling: a difference in approach from West to East

After my experiences at both the 2008 and 2010 ISAS symposia and along with reading much of the discussion and debate on the internet, it is obvious that the approach many people take to Suiseki differs greatly. It is not my place to criticise or denigrate opposing points of view but rather explain the why behind mine and hope that it helps others to understand their own. After a few years involvement within the Bonsai and Suiseki world in the west, both European and American, I have noticed that there is one particular topic which is very rarely discussed. Many enthusiasts and professionals wax lyrical about what is or is not a Suiseki and how to understand it in simplified terms and conditions; however I have yet to find many people who talk about why they do Suiseki. Although there are many reasons and none is superior to any other, we are all entitled to our opinions and tastes yet we are seemingly afraid to openly discuss our motivation.

My initial experiences of Suiseki were entirely in a Japanese environment and I was lucky enough to be exposed to very high quality stones in a traditional environment. At first I found it strange that lumps of rock could be revered in such a way however as time passed I began to truly enjoy the appreciation of Suiseki in a deeper and philosophical way. After coming into contact with Bonsai and Suiseki I began to reconsider the logic which I had previously studied during a degree course in Physics as stones spoke to me of a world beyond my immediate comprehension. Suiseki is, to quote from the new Matsuura book, “anything but scientific” and allowed me to “feel the poetics and beauty of all things in nature.” Stones which have a provenance of over 500 years can tell us many stories but more importantly, if approached with the correct mind they can give us an insight into ourselves and the way in which see the world around us.

Many of the Japanese aesthetic ideals are concerned with the passage of time and an implicit understanding that death is inevitable yet not to be feared. We are impermanent and the universe continues with or without us and Suiseki is a reminder of this. A stone which was created before humanity and will outlast us, yet in this infinitesimal period of time has been appreciated by many, creating a chain of linked experience and shared history which varies according to the individual who gazes upon it. Therein lies the rub, the problem of the individual, and in the case of the appreciation of an Eastern practice through Western eyes, a significantly different mindset.

The logical mindset of the West at times has difficulty embracing the Eastern approach where less emphasis is placed on the quantification of reality and is more interested in the understanding of it through experience, observation and empathy. Rather than seek to define what is observed and conclude an eternal and universal truth, it accepts that “while I see this as x, tomorrow it may be y and for another viewer it may be z.” While a Japanese viewer may see a red mountain stone which reminds him of Mt. Wakakusa, an Italian may see Mt. Sassolungo in the autumn and another viewer may see himself walking through the hills surrounding his Pennsylvanian childhood home. It is true that all viewers see a mountain but in different contexts. This can be taken even further with more abstract stones, particularly object stones. In one figure stone different viewers can see dragons, dogs, people or whatever takes their fancy. An individual and particular appreciation of stones without the limitation of explicit names, either poetic or categorical, is a large part of the enjoyment of Suiseki.

For me the beauty of Suiseki is the lack of Aristotelian logic and the limitless possibilities a stone can offer the viewer. Without mystery and ambiguity, the beauty of a stone is lost and it becomes a rock, a geological formation with value only as a curio. The Japanese are well renowned to favour black and smooth stones with a quiet and simplistic appearance. Such a stone creates a blank canvas in which the viewer can see a rich tapestry of internal feelings which are destroyed by external considerations such as the geological composition or the positioning of the signature on a scroll.

Approaching Suiseki through an either/or logic limits the ability of an enthusiast to appreciate Suiseki. There is a greater depth to the practice of Suiseki and whilst classification of stones is an important entry point into the deep and mysterious world, it is just that, an entry point. Others of a more spiritual or artistic bent will look to take further steps along the path provided by Suiseki to a deeper and more personal, particular understanding. As I stated at the beginning, I firmly believe that no one reason for doing Suiseki is superior to any other, for many the joy of collecting is the sole motivation and for others the classification and naming of stones brings pleasure. As you have seen in Wil’s excellent series of notes from Japan, the umbrella of Suiseki is wide and varied, however the motivation of each group and school of thought is clear, distinct and evolves over time. Each can exist peacefully next to each other as they are all different viewpoints of the same thing. It is unfair to expect everybody to sit meditating in front of stones to get a deeper understanding of the nature of the Universe (this is something which very rarely happens in my life); equally I feel that it is unfair to force everybody into the same way of thinking and interpretation which is something that taxonomy and the literal naming of stones does.

When approaching the discussion of Suiseki, the motivation of others as well as one’s own motivation for doing suiseki must be considered. While I find the debates created by adherence to rigid systems on both sides of the argument both counterproductive and circular, it is not in keeping with the spirit of Suiseki to add fuel to the fire or ridicule anybody else. Self improvement is not achieved by pushing others down, but rather by examining one’s own position. I do not look to speak for the Japanese and my personal approach to Suiseki is something which is rooted in both West and Eastern thinking and feeling. I have found in Suiseki aesthetic ideas which resonate within and allow me to see through different eyes. Over time and without a conscious thought process, philosophical questions posed in quantum mechanics lectures began to explain themselves in ways which I am yet to fully understand. Only through further study and dedication will it become clearer.

Just my humble opinion like...

Back from some wandering again...or was it just wondering

I said in my previous post, which was over a month ago that I would be more prolific with posting but that clearly hasn't happened. I hope anybody that follows this is actually still there. I feel it is necessary to post stuff to help people to understand what I do and what I am thinking but, like my dislike of living life through a lens, I have been more focused on learning and experiencing new things...some of which have been incredible and given me a different outlook on Bonsai, others simply good fun.

I have just returned from a month long trip to the US which took in two major conventions and plenty of private work and clubs in between. The first convention was one which is very close to my heart as it is the only purely stone orientated convention and it is run by a good friend and spiritual brother of mine, Sean Smith. This year I was invited to speak about Japanese Suiseki Aesthetics, a topic which made me think greatly and do some academic research into things which I had taken for granted or simply accepted. I was very worried that my talk would be dry and too academic but it was warmly received, particularly by those people who are much more learned than me. The world of Japanese Aesthetics is a very vague and indistinct one, the concept of beauty for the Japanese is something difficult to define and comes from the heart more than the head. It was good practice for me to try and make it come from the head and along with a lot of the discussion that took place at the event, I wrote an article for the California Aiseki Kai newsletter which will be published soon. I will link it here when it goes up.

Mr. Morimae of Wabi fame also came and spoke and I had the honour of translating for him for some of the time, if you can call it an honour, it was a trying and difficult ordeal but I made it through relatively unscathed. He talked a lot about many of the things I had spent the summer thinking about. This is not unsurprising as he is the organiser of the Genkoukai, the group who put on a very special exhibition in Kyoto at the end of January. At the end of January I had seriously considered quitting Bonsai for various reasons which need not be discussed here, but after visiting their small but refined exhibition and speaking with several of the key figures in the group and also taking time to sit down with the Chief and discuss why we do Bonsai, I decided that my short term annoyance with the shady side of Bonsai was not as important as having a grand view of things and the necessity to concentrate on the path rather than the goal.

After a few months of ruminating on this, Mr. Morimae spoke at great length of the importance of approaching Suiseki with the correct heart and mind. Rather than looking to criticise and look for the negative, it is better to be more accepting and appreciative of the effort that has been put into it. This was something that I had felt at the Newstead exhibition in the middle of September. Whilst the overall level of quality of individual trees had decreased slightly, the overall level of effort and spirit had increased dramatically. There were many new names and faces who were trying hard rather than resting on their laurels. This would feature again later in my trip

After the show I spent a few weeks on the North East coast, mainly with Sean Smith but also up in Rochester, NY and also down at one of the greatest single collections of Bonsai in the west, the Kennet Collection. During my time with Sean, we spent many a night discussing the future of Suiseki in the west and how we can both best serve the small but dedicated number of enthusiasts. The Cuba Libre's certainly helped the conversations flow but it was refreshing to speak freely and openly about the problems and the positives that come up. Sean also taught me a few new techniques and it was incredible to watch a true craftsman at work. I commissioned him to make a new box for an antique scroll I purchased. I was very happy not only with the final result but also to have been able to watch him in action. It also gave me another insight into why rather than simply how.

One of the other highlights of the trip was the fact that I got to experience an American Halloween for the first time...including carving my very first pumpkin. Staying with Sean meant that I got to hang out with his daughter who, along with most girls/women I meet, seemed to enjoying making fun of me, calling me "Accent Boy" and moking my clear and perfect speech. I did get even though by beating her at pumpkin carving and the Disco numbers on Just Dance on the Wii. I challenge anybody to beat me on it...my rendition of "Ring my Bell" will go down in history.

I have just written another page of text but due to the wonder that is windows and this stupid blogging tool, it has been lost. I am an analog person. I need to sleep so I shall add to this again later.