Suiseki Sale: Paul Gilbert and Sam Edge


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Hello from Paul and Sam,

Please review our latest sale catalog for a number of very nice suiseki from Japan and the USA.  This first version of the catalog contains items from Paul.  Sam will update the catalog in a few weeks with a number of high quality accent and bonsai pots.

If you have any questions, you may reach out to either of us.  Conditions of sale are outlined in the catalog, so please review them.  The information on each stone should provide river where known, size and other details such as daiza and or kiri-bako if included. 

Stones are sold as first come, first served.  It is possible some stones may be under negotiation when you inquire.  If so, a priority list will be created based on the date and time of your inquiry.  It is hoped you will enjoy seeing these fine stones regardless of your interest in purchasing any of them.


Sam and Paul

P.S. A number of stones have sold already, so check in with us on availability.


Final Mas Nakajima Suiseki Group for Sale


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I am happy to announce a group of suiseki by Mas Nakajima are available for purchase.  The current catalog is available here: Mas Nakajima Suiseki Sale .


This catalog of stones for sale will be updated as items are sold, and additional stones will be added over time. A few suiseki with bases made by others are also included.

Please make note of the following information:

  • Some of the stones for sale are large and heavy, and thus the buyer will need to work with Janet to arrange for someone to pick up the stone (and if necessary, box and ship it to you). 
  • For smaller stones Janet will box and ship them. The shipping costs will be included in the payment due. 
  • Payment is by Paypal “friends and family”.  Janet will ship the suiseki to you after payment is received.
  • It might take some time for her to get it done, depending on circumstances.  But she promises she will be in regular communication!

Even if the perfect stone for you is not in this list, I hope you enjoy viewing them. Thank you for your consideration and enjoy! You can find contact information for Janet here:

If you have any questions, also feel free to contact me.



Mas Nakajima’s Suiseki for Sale

I’m happy to announce another group of Mas Nakajima’s suiseki are available for purchase. Thirty-one stones have been posted representing some of Mas’ finest collecting and daiza making.

Please take note, some of these stones are quite large and heavy. It is important to take notice that some will require you to work with Janet on finding someone to box and ship the stone. For smaller stones, Janet can manage these for you.Due to the volume of sales and the current Covid-19 environment, it may take a number of weeks before your purchase can be shipped. But I assure you the wait time is less than you going up to the Eel River, finding a stone, letting it develop it’s patina and then making a daiza for it!

Many of these fine suiseki are going to go quickly…just a warning. In the event that the perfect stone for you is not in this list, there will be future sales. Thank you for your consideration and enjoy viewing them on her website.

Click here to go to the sales page!

Edge Artworks Launches…

KJ and I have discussed for a while if we should sell a part of our collection of stones, stand and the like. After much discussion, a site was built to do just that.

The commerce website contains some fine suiseki from Japan and viewing stones from the United States and China. A number of bonsai pots, dobans and suibans are available; primarily sourced from Japan but also elsewhere.

Stands, which seem to be hard to find these days, are also available in different shapes and sizes; most are from Japan and were imported many years ago.

Check out the bronze given to us from Mr. Saburo Kato’s family shortly after his death. This would be a wonderful display piece with either a stone or tree.

Bronze Temple from the Saburo Sato Collection

There are also a number of books; primarily bonsai books with a few suiseki catalogs. Lastly, there are about 60 deep sky photos that can be printed from ~12 inches to as large as 60 inches. If you have interest in the photos, just email us and we can discuss sizes and finishes. Our home as M42, the Great Orion Nebula, hanging above our fireplace. It was printed 52-inches square on canvas.

M42 – The Great Nebula in the Constellation of Orion

We attempt to ship within 24 hours of an order. International orders can not be competed directly from the website. Just email us with the SKU number and we can make arrangements to ship things to you.

Feel free to browse and we thank you for doing so!

Lastly, if you would like for us to help you sell something similar to what we have listed, just reach out to us and we can discuss…

Sam and KJ

“She Just Needed To Be Who She Really Was.”

Before I begin, please take a few minutes to read this true story as documented in the Book The Element – How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson (c) 2009.

The Element

“Gillian was only eight years old, but her future was already at risk. Her schoolwork was a disaster, at least as far as her teachers were concerned.  She turned in assignments late, her handwriting was terrible, and she tested poorly.  Not only that, she was a disruption to the entire class, one minute fidgeting noisily, the next staring out the window, forcing the teacher to stop the class to pull Gillian’s attention back, and the next doing something to disturb the other children around her.  Gillian wasn’t particularly concerned about any of this—she was used to being corrected by authority figures and really didn’t see herself as a difficult child—but the school was very concerned. This came to a head when the school wrote to her parents.

Gillian Lynne with her mother, Barbara, in 1932

The school thought that Gillian had a learning disorder of some sort and that it might be more appropriate for her to be in a school for children with special needs. All of this took place in the 1930s I think now they’d say she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and they’d put her on Ritalin or something similar.  But the ADHD epidemic hadn’t been invented at the time. It wasn’t an available condition. People didn’t know they could have that and had to get by without it.

Gillian’s parents received the letter from the school with great concern and sprang to action.  Gillian’s mother put her daughter in her best dress and shoes, tied her hair in ponytails, and took her to a psychologist for assessment, fearing the worst.

Gillian told me that she remembers being invited into a large oak-paneled room with leather-bound books on the shelves. Standing in the room next to a large desk was an imposing man in a tweed jacket.  He took Gillian to the far end of the room and sat her down on a huge leather sofa. Gillian’s feet didn’t quite touch the floor, and the setting made her wary. Nervous about the impression she would make, she sat on her hands so that she wouldn’t fidget.

The psychologist went back to his desk, and for the next twenty minutes, he asked Gillian’s mother about the difficulties Gillian was having at school and the problems the school said she was causing.  While he didn’t direct any of his questions at Gillian, he watched her carefully the entire time.  This made Gillian extremely uneasy and confused. Even at this tender age, she knew that this man would have a significant role in her life.  She knew what it meant to attend a “special school,” and she didn’t want anything to do with that. She genuinely didn’t feel that she had any real problems, but everyone else seemed to believe she did.  Given the way her mother answered the questions, it was possible that even she felt this way.

Maybe, Gillian thought, they were right.

Eventually, Gillian’s mother and the psychologist stopped talking. The man rose from his desk, walked to the sofa, and sat next to the little girl.

“Gillian, you’ve been very patient, and I thank you for that,” he said. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to be patient for a little longer.  I need to speak to your mother privately now. We’re going to go out of the room for a few minutes. Don’t worry; we won’t be very long.

Gillian nodded apprehensively, and the two adults left her sitting there on her own. But as he was leaving the room, the psychologist leaned across his desk and turned on the radio.

As soon as they were in the corridor outside the room, the doctor said to Gillian’s mother, “Just stand her for a moment, and watch what she does.” There was a window into the room and they stood to one side of it, where Gillian couldn’t see them. Nearly immediately, Gillian was on her feet, moving around the room to the music.  The two adults stood watching quietly for a few minutes, transfixed by the girl’s grace.  Anyone would have noticed there was something natural—event primal—about Gillian’s movements. Just as they would have surely caught the expression of utter pleasure on her face.

At last, the psychologist turned to Gillian’s mother and said, “You know, Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

I asked Gillian what happened then.  She said her mother did exactly what the psychologist suggested.  “I can’t tell you how wonderful it was,” she told me. “I walked into this room, and it was full of people like me. People who couldn’t sit still.  People who had to move to think.”

She started going to dance school every week, and she practiced at home every day.  Eventually, she auditioned for the Royal Ballet School in London, and they accepted her.  She went on to join the Royal Ballet Company itself, becoming a soloist and performing all over the world. When that part of her career ended, she formed her own musical theater company and produced a series of highly successful shows in London and New York. Eventually, she met Andrew Lloyd Webber and created with him some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, including Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

Little Gillian, the girl with the high-risk future, became known to the world as Gillian Lynne, one of the most accomplished choreographers of our time, someone who has brought pleasure to millions and earned millions of dollars. This happened because someone looked deep into her eyes—someone who had seen children like her before and knew how to read the signs.  Someone else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.  But Gillian wasn’t a problem child.  She didn’t need to go away to a special school.”

She just needed to be who she really was.”

A Few Thoughts

You might ask, what has this to do in a blog focusing on suiseki? A good question, so let me spend a few moments explaining why.

I’ve been busy at work for more than two years researching how to “view” suiseki stones. It has been a passion that has taken a great deal of my free time. I have read hundreds of papers, research articles, and books on aesthetic with a special focus on Japanese aesthetic. Through this process a discovery was made, for me at least, that there is no true universal definition of aesthetic between cultures and often even between similar groups of people.

Most aesthetics focus on the concept of beauty, however, even in this definition beauty can be defined in so many ways. What I have discovered is that most aestheticians link beauty with truth. Rising early to watch the sun break brilliantly across distant mountain tops, standing in the late afternoon on the rocky shores of the ocean seeing and hearing the waves break below, or watching the inherent beauty in a small child asleep and at peace. There is not only beauty but real truth in these scenes.

At some future point, it is my hope that all of this research will be gathered and focused into a book that will help its readers to begin to define their own aesthetic regardless of the artistic outlet be it stones, painting, or something.

Returning to the story of Gillian, one can only imagine the loss to the world had the doctor not intervened to declare there was nothing wrong with Gillian – she is just a dancer. How many artist, dancers, writers, photographers, comedians have been lost to the world simply because they were viewed as different? And tragically so, treated as if they were broken.

Let’s juxtapose for a moment ourselves into the world of suiseki for a moment. How often have we stood before a beautiful stone asking someone what they see and before they can even respond we admonish them in what we see in it. If you take note, you might see a small frown appear on the other person’s face?

How often do we see people courageously describe what they see in the stone for the “expert” to immediately bark at them that what they are seeing is wrong that it is not “A” but their viewpoint “B.” How many new participants in our art form have we driven away because we haven’t allowed them to participate and for them to have an opportunity to express what they see!

It reminds me of when Masahiko Kimura created this now famous bonsai.

Upon its initial release, this was frowned upon by the bonsai world. It wasn’t bonsai; it didn’t follow the accepted practices of the time. Surely there were other forest plantings, but they were in a pot, or slab, that was horizontal to the ground. This design broke the conventional rules!

Over time it became recognized as a master work of design. Expressive, beautiful and now often mimicked by others.

Anytime there is a major change in an art style such as realism to impressionism the holders of the standard fight to maintain that hold and thus feel inclined to reject the new.

I caution each of us to allow others to see what they see. Attempt to understand what they are expressing through either their display or their interpretations. As relayed in the earlier story: “…But Gillian wasn’t a problem child.  She didn’t need to go away to a special school. She just needed to be who she really was.”

In the same way, who knows, the very person who seems to be breaking the rules today may very well be creating a new form of art tomorrow.

Su Shi (蘇軾) – Chinese Poet




Su Shi (simplified Chinese: 苏轼; traditional Chinese: 蘇軾) (8 January 1037 – 24 August 1101), courtesy name Zizhan, (Chinese: 子瞻), art name Dongpo, was a Chinese writer, poet, painter, calligrapher,  pharmacologist,  gastronome, and a statesman of the Song dynasty.”

Portrait of Su Dongpo by Zhao Mengfu

Su Shi was born into a literary family in 1037. At the age of 19 he passed the highest-level civil service examinations with flying colors, and was marked out as a rising star within the world of officialdom. His lucid, eloquent essays greatly impressed Emperor Renzong (1010-1063) and by the time the young Emperor Shenzong (1048-1085) ascended to the throne in 1067, Su Shi was a respected figure among scholar-officials at court.

‘During the Song dynasty, a period of unsurpassed refinement in the arts in China, Su Shi had a brilliant and staggeringly varied career,’ explains art critic Alastair Sooke. A poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter and aesthetic theorist, Su Shi was the pre-eminent scholar of the Song dynasty. ‘He was so prolific in so many different fields that it is very tempting to think of him as a proto-Renaissance man,’ says Sooke, ‘even though he was born four centuries before Leonardo.’

“Su Shi was exiled to provincial Huangzhou, where he lived in relative poverty. He built a farm in the foothills of what became known as the Eastern Slope (Dongpo), and began to call himself Master of the Eastern Slope (Su Dongpo). For all the hardships he experienced in exile, it was during this period that he produced some of his most well-known verses.”

One of 12 leaves from the album Stories of Su Dongpo by Zou Yigui (1686-1772), showing Su Shi when he was 66 years old. Sold for HK$437,500 on 28 May 2012 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

“Today, Su Shi is recognized as one of the eight great prose masters of the Tang and Song, and one of the four Song masters of calligraphy. His poems, including At Red Cliff, Cherishing the Past  and Prelude to the Water Melody, have become embedded in Chinese culture, inspiring landscape paintings and poetic illustrations throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. His calligraphy has been copied, studied and collected for centuries.

Note: The movie Red Cliff by Director Johnathan Woo is in our top 10 movies of all time. It is a two-part, four and one-half hours film. Everything about this film is stellar.  From the story-line, casting, music and production.  We cannot more highly recommend this film.  Click here if you want to purchase a copy.   Be sure to purchase the International version as the US version, as seen on Netflix, is a cut down 2 hour version that ruins the film frankly. 

Su Shi’s ideas on what it was to create an image, and the relationship of the image to the internal psychology of the painter, were revolutionary, and can be seen as a launchpad for painting as a non-representational, psychologically driven process. It was Su Shi who first began to explore concepts of artistic practice as the outward expression of the artist’s interior experience.”

“Similarly revolutionary was Su Shi’s approach to brushwork. Other contemporary painters pursued a representational style that involved great detail and strong delineation. But Su Shi’s brushwork is impressionistic and spare. Writing on the principles by which to judge the highest class of painting, Su Shi once declared, ‘If one discusses painting in terms of formal likeness, one is no different from a child.’ For him, there was painting in poetry and poetry in painting.”

‘There is a saying in Chinese art history that “ink has five colors”,’ says Zhou. ‘Ink has all that you need to depict the external world and to express yourself and whatever your artistic impulses have to say. Wood and Rock  is a true embodiment of the artist’s state of mind at the time, which you can see so palpably in the painting.’

Note: Similarly, English painter Lawerence Stephen Lowry, born in 1887, used only a five color pallet for his paintings.  His use of ivory black, vermilion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white. 

Su Shi (1037-1101), Wood and Rock. Handscroll, ink on paper.
Painting: 26.3 x 50 cm (10⅜ x 19¾ in); Overall with mounting: 27.2 x 543 cm

“Wood and Rock  is inscribed with the poetry of Su Shi’s friend Mi Fu (1051-1107), which was probably added at a later date. Like Su Shi, Mi Fu was a celebrated poet, calligrapher, painter and statesman. For Su Shi, expressing affinity through the giving and exchanging of painting and verse in the form of calligraphy was a means of building networks of cultural capital.

The ink traces on this scroll offer insights into abstracted ideas of how Su Shi and Mi Fu thought and conceived of art, but also illuminate how these exceptional men of the 11th century understood each other. They are, therefore, tangible representations of the relationships between cultural giants of the distant past.

Mi Fu’s verse on the scroll interprets his friend’s painting of a withered tree as an intimate expression of oneself at an old age. The pathos in Mi Fu’s lament certainly resonates with what is known of Su Shi’s experiences in exile. In Mi Fu’s other writings, he speaks of how Su Shi condensed his emotions in the turns of his brush and the construction of his rocks and trees.”

Inset of the scroll entitled Wood and Rock

This 1,000 year old scroll was recently auctioned at Christie’s in Hong Kong.  It sold for HK$ 463,600,000 or approximately $59 million USD.  

Kokan Shiren (虎関師錬), 1278–1347)

Kokan Shiren (虎関師錬), 1278–1347), Japanese Rinzai Zen patriarch and celebrated poet in Chinese, was the son of an officer of the palace guard and a mother of the aristocratic Minamoto clan.  Kokan studied under the celebrated Chinese monk Yishan Yining. Their relationship can be regarded as the beginning of the golden age of the Literature of the Five Mountains in Japan. He studied calligraphy under an additional Chinese master Huang Shangu. A portrait of Kokan Shiren is in the Kaizoin of the Tōfuku-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan.


The Japanese monk Kokan Shiren dated 1343, painted by Wang Zhiweng.

Our interest in Kokan is for the similarities that many of us experience today when sharing our stones (suiseki) with friends.  His experience was recorded in his  essay entitled Rhymeprose on a Miniature Landscape Garden.   Take a few moments to read a portion of his essay and see how well it resonates with your own experiences.

What I liked to do for fun when I was a child was to gather up sacks of stones and pile them on a table near the window high and free. When I reached middle age, I felt ashamed of doing this and so I stopped, becoming like any other ordinary person, obtuse like a brick. Finally, I have reached decrepit old age, and I particularly dislike the sound of children’s games in the summer. So I had the children gather up stones in the corner of the wall. I brushed them off and washed them, preparing a green celadon tray with white sand on the bottom. The result was poetry that would lighten your heart. The landscape lent a coolness to the air and dispelled the heart.

A visitor saw it and exclaimed, “Okay, okay, but it seems a little bald, doesn’t it?”

I responded, “You see a pile of stones and fail to see the mountains. The marvelous thing about miniature landscape gardens is that they are imitations of mountains and streams. The base is made to look flowing waves and the cliffs are made to seem covered with vegetation. Sometimes you can see miniature gnarled pine or knobby plum. You might see unusual blossoms or strange new shoots from their trimmed branches. Of course you will discover the utter vexation of your creations withering and wilting due to carelessness of slow watering and tending. If you fail to exert yourself, then you will simply fail to fashion a magnificent mountain and a smaller world among the smaller mounds and hills.

“Years ago I climbed to the top of Mt. Fuji. The climb took three days. For two days I passed through areas of great trees and forests, but on the third morning there wasn’t a blade of grass to be seen! At that point there were only great boulder-like cliffs and purplish-red stones. It was like this for a number of miles until I reached the peak itself. Of course Mt. Fuji is not unique in this respect as all peaks are without vegetation. People who climb mountains do not dislike the so-called baldness; rather, the love the sense of height.

“These stones then, just a number of inches tall, and this tray roughly a foot across, they are nothing short of a mountainous island rising from the sea! Jade-green peaks penetrate the clouds and are encircled by them. A blue-green barrier, immersed in water, is standing straight up. There are caves as if carved in the cliff sides to hide saints and immortals. Jetties and spits flat enough and long enough for fishermen. The paths and roads are narrow and confined, yet woodcutters can pass along them. There are lagoons deep and dark enough to hide dragons.

“So is it not fitting that I guard against weeds, carefully watching and laboring over the thing, taking delight in its total subtlety? Do you dislike the baldness of the small mounds and hills? Am I oblivious to the bareness of just the peak? I sometimes pick a flowering branch and place it in a peak or in a ravine. The alternations of plant life, their blooming in the morning and fading in the evening, are the splendor of the four seasons with their countless transformations and myriad changes! So therefore I say that it doesn’t have to be bare, and it does not have to be lush.

“Another thing, do you think this miniature landscape is big? Do you think it is small? I will blow on the water and raise up billows from the four seas. I will water the peak and send down a torrent from the ninth heaven! The person who waters the stones sets the cosmos in order. The one who changes the water turns the whole sea upside down. Those are the changes in nature which attain a oneness in my mind. Anyway, the relative size of things is an uncertain business. Why, there is a vast plain on a fly’s eyelash and whole nations in a snail’s horn, a Chinese philosopher has told us. Well what do you think?”

My visitor got up from his seat and made his excuses. He saw that these stones purified my senses and purified my intellect. He realized that events are really not what they seemed and yet they enriched me. I told him that he only understood what he perceived with his own eyes and did not understand my point of view at all. I asked if he wouldn’t like to sit for a while longer and study the matter afresh. He said he would, but there were no waves for him. He said nothing more and I was silent. After a while my visitor left without another word.

— Saihokushu, ch. 1, pp. 1–2.

An Example of a Miniature Landscape Garden

Kasuga gongen genki

Kasuga gongen genki, The Miraculous Tales of the Deities of the Kasaga Shrine

The Kasuga gongen genki by court painter Takashina Takakane in 1309 is one of the earliest examples of the usage of stones and trees together to create contemplative art.  As seen from the following black and white insert from this painting.

Kasuga gongen genki

An close-up of the miniature garden in the painting Kasuga gongen genki

We can see what appears to be a pine, a deciduous flowering tree and stones along with another stone in a pot above and to its right.  Note as well the handles on this portable wooden tray, thus allowing it to be moved about perhaps to be seen better from inside the home.

During this period Kokan is describing his experiences in creating these miniature landscape gardens and what his viewing experience does for him personally.  It becomes clear very quickly that Kokan and his friend see his display very differently.

A visitor saw it and exclaimed, “Okay, okay, but it seems a little bald, doesn’t it?”

His friend only saw a pile of stones with an admonition that it “seems a little bald.”  Oh, the times I have shown a stone display to a friend, or acquaintance, to hear the reply “oh, you collect rocks?”

Kokan replies to his friend:

I responded, “You see a pile of stones and fail to see the mountains….”

In a simplistic way, we could stop the evaluation of their respective viewpoints now.  One sees a pile of stones the other a majestic mountain that he continues to describe in vivid detail. One seems to have imagination the other none.

Kokan is describing the scene using his imagination and memories from prior experiences in nature while his friend’s imagination seems non-existent. His friend, like ours, might at this point have at least engaged Kokan to attempt to gain a better appreciation of what Kokan was attempting to create and experience through this miniature landscape garden and accompanying stones; as often our hope is that our visitors might do the same.  Yet, Kokan’s friend listens, perhaps politely, and at the end of Kokan’s vivid description of what he sees Kokan asks “Well what do you think?”

At this point one hopes for some engagement, some interest to be shown in this display.  One might assume Kokan was also waiting in hopes of some appreciation as well.  Yet, he like us, was only met with only disappointment.

“My visitor got up from his seat and made his excuses. He saw that these stones purified my senses and purified my intellect. He realized that events are really not what they seemed and yet they enriched me. I told him that he only understood what he perceived with his own eyes and did not understand my point of view at all. I asked if he wouldn’t like to sit for a while longer and study the matter afresh. He said he would, but there were no waves for him. He said nothing more and I was silent. After a while my visitor left without another word.”

So his friend made his excuses, said nothing more and soon thereafter he left without another word.  Can you feel Kokan’s disappointment?  Don’t you imagine Kokan was hoping that his sharing of the enrichment he was receiving from this scene could also be enjoyed by his friend.  The offer for discussion, to engage in conversation would have allowed his friend to at least gain a better insight into this garden display, but as importantly into Kokan himself.   What a missed opportunity.

Now before we get all in a huff and declare that his friend seems not to be a friend at all, if we allow ourselves to become introspective might we ourselves be that friend?  How easy it is for us to wax poetic about our stone displays, but yet to encounter someone else’s, especially if it differs from our aesthetic, how often do we see “it as a little bald” and then we sit, or stand, quietly and soon leave without another word with the exception of perhaps the ubiquitous “good-bye.”  Even worse today, those without understanding often begin to lecture us on why our display is done incorrectly; a topic for another day.

Might we learn from Kokan’s essay to seek to understand what at first seems a little bald?  Should we not at least put in a some effort, if nothing more to support our friend and/or companion?  I find that often when it comes to beauty, we are quick to judge and slow to contemplate.  In less than a moment, we process what we see, attempt to categorize it, apply a set of rules that we believe in and then if it doesn’t resonate with us, we simply dismiss it and we are done.

All of us have much to learn from Kokan’s essay.  Perhaps we have much to learn from this quote within the essay to Kokan’s friend:

“If you fail to exert yourself, then you will simply fail to fashion a magnificent mountain and a smaller world among the smaller mounds and hills.”

Let’s not fail at seeing and experiencing the magnificence of our imagination as we gaze upon ours and others stone displays.  Let’s be willing to exert ourselves!

The Book of Tea, Part III

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō, 1906

This is the third part of this story and comprises the final section.  Let us continue with Kakuzō’s writing on the tea ceremony.

“The tea-master, Kobori-Enshiu, himself a daimyo, has left to us these memorable words: “Approach a great painting as thou wouldst approach a great prince.” In order to understand a masterpiece, you must lay yourself low before it and await with bated breath its least utterance. An eminent Sung critic once made a charming confession. Said he: “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgment matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.”

“It is to be deplored that so few of us really take pains to study the moods of masters.  In our stubborn ignorance we refuse to render them this simple courtesy, and thus often miss the rich repast of beauty spread before our very eyes. A master has always something to offer, while we go hungry solely because of our own lack of appreciation.”

This so reminds me of a story that my good friend Mas Nakajima relayed to me in one of our study sessions.  Mas’ teacher, Mr. Hirotsu, spent many afternoons discussing suiseki with him.  On one occasion he gifted him with a stone.

Gift to Masahiro Nakajima from his teacher Mr. Hirotsu; photo used with permission.

Gift to Masahiro Nakajima from his teacher Mr. Hirotsu; photo used with permission.  An Eel River stone on a painted fine base; 4.5″ x 3.5″ x 4″


Mas was in his mid-30s and had admired a number of Mr. Hirotsu’s suiseki.  When he was gifted with the stone above, Mas was quite unhappy.  He had hoped to be gifted with a more traditional stone which would show the beauty of a landscape.

As he told this story a large smile came across Mas’ face as he continued to describe to me that his appreciation for this stone has grown over the years as he realized that Mr. Hirotsu was teaching him that the spirit of Zen in the stone can far outweigh the style of the stone.  Mas continued to describe the stone in attributes of it being quiet, humble and very modest.

If you would like to acquire this interview of Mas and his wife Janet, it can be found in the magazine Works and Conversations, Number 32, entitled Living on Earth.  You can obtain a copy by emailing  If you would like to read this article online – please click here.


Janet and Mas; December 4, 2016

As Mas was my mentor, I took this story to heart as I vividly recall times he would look at a stone that I had found and remark that is was good suiseki.  I struggled to see it frankly, and that was quite exasperating.  The best example of this occurred on a collecting trip with him and his wife Janet to a lake in Northern CA known for its beautiful Jasper stones.  It was coincidentally my birthday and I very much looked forward to this trip as it was just the three of us that day; to have time alone with your mentor is to be treasured.

Mas and Sam, Trinity River, 2013

Mas and Sam studying a stone on the Trinity River in 2013.

After an early morning of collecting, I decided to take a long walk to an area where we rarely found anything approaching a stone to take home.  During my walk westward along the lake, I happened to notice a stone that appeared to have a pool in it.  I picked up the stone to note that it has no evidence of Jasper whatsoever, what I was focusing on collecting, but the pool was interesting.  The issue was that the stone was very dark gray, it has bumps or nodules on both the front and back and the pool was not very wide but very deep in the stone.  I must admit that I more than once thought about putting it back down on the ground as it wasn’t full of color nor was the pool what I thought it should be for a pool stone.  However, if I had learned anything it was when in doubt put the stone in my backpack and show it to Mas during lunch.  After our lunch at the top of the largest hill overlooking the lake, I summoned sufficient courage to take the stone out and show it to Mas.  He became very quiet…

I have to admit that quietness was unsettling.  I had experienced enough times bringing stones to Mas in my early days of collecting for him to politely, but firmly, inform me that the stone wasn’t good suiseki, thus my fear was am I wasting his time once again?  I’m sure all students standing before their mentors have had similar encounters.

Mas continued to study the stone and he finally simply said “I will trade all the stones I have found today for this stone.”  Now mind you, he had collected more than 20 stones that morning.  I’m not sure what emotion swept through me more – one of I must have found a spectacular stone or two what am I not seeing!  I thanked Mas and asked for him to describe what he saw.  He then took me through an observation of the stone and how he saw in it an ancient mid-1700s tea cup.  He smiled at me and said that I had found my meiseki; the designation for a very rare stone due to their outstanding qualities and beauty.  My heart soared with joy!

So at the Sung critic stated “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgment matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.” I would like to think I’m on that same journey of liking what my master (Mas) had chosen for me to like.

Let’s continue…

“We must remember, however, that art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies. Our finite nature, the power of tradition and conventionality, as well as our hereditary instincts, restrict the scope of our capacity for artistic enjoyment…It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent enthusiasm for art at the present day has no foundation in real feeling. In this democratic age of ours men clamor for what is popularly considered the best, regardless of their feelings.  They want the costly, not the refined; the fashionable, not the beautiful.  A collector is anxious to acquire specimens to illustrate a period or a school, and forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school.  We classify too much and enjoy too little. The sacrifice of the aesthetic to the so-called scientific method of exhibition has been the bane of many museums.”

One hundred and ten years later nothing has changed in this regard.  I still observe, and have participated myself, in indiscriminate collecting.  We seem to enjoy the “hunt” of finding art but yet then spend almost no time being taught by it.  In retrospect, I think of the number of inferior stones that I have purchased when I could have aggregated my funds to obtain a specimen where much could be learned. In many ways this is a human normality. When we begin to collect we are unsure of ourselves so we tend to restrict our purchases to smaller transactions.  Then as we begin to better understand the art form we expand our collection to include better specimens.  Yet, we must be cautious that our collecting isn’t just for collecting sake!

Our displays might also reflect this sentiment as well.  Are we better to have fewer displays rather than more?  Might this allow more contemplation rather than just seeing?

Again I wish to make clear; I’m not referring to today’s suiseki shows in the US in a denigrating way, not at all.   I clearly understand the needs of most clubs to share their member’s stones.  I do though think we need to think of suiseki in terms of a real art form worthy of being shown amongst some of the finest paintings and sculptures in our best museums.  In this setting, those that are so inclined will have only an opportunity of introduction as well as a few moments to reflect and contemplate these natural forms.

As we close our study of The Book of Tea, perhaps the following this text will resonate with you. It is from the Taoist tale of the Taming of the Harp. The story well illustrates the mystery of art appreciation.

“At the magic touch of the beautiful, the secret chords of our being are awakened, we vibrate and thrill in response to its call. Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken, we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognize, stand forth in new glory. Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their color; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.”

This last paragraph is eloquent and holds great truth.  As we think of encountering beauty, be it a painting, a sculpture or a stone, memories are brought back to us – good or bad – and often as stated with a new significance.   The work of art, its beauty, and those memories somehow become intertwined and become a part of us and thus we become a part of the masterpiece itself.

In closing…

My mentor and friend Mas Nakajima passed away on September 10, 2018.  For many of us and especially for me this is a tremendous and very personal loss.  As I struggle today to comprehend the loss of my friend, I can truly say that Mas will never leave my heart.  He taught me so much.  Many of the things that he taught me I’m only now beginning to understand.  I truly miss him.  There is a passage in this Book of Tea that I wish to dedicate to my friend Mas.

“To the sympathetic a masterpiece becomes a living reality towards which we feel drawn in bonds to comradeship.  The masters are immortal, for their loves and fears live in us over and over again. It is rather the soul than the hand, the man than the technique, which appeals to us—the more human the call the deeper is our response.”

The Book of Tea, Part II

Part II, The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō, 1906

If you haven’t read Part I, we suggest you do that before beginning Part II.

“The tea-room (the Sukiya) does not pretend to be other than a mere cottage—a straw hut, as we call it. The original ideographs for Sukiya mean the Adobe of Fancy.  Latterly the various tea-masters substituted various Chinese characters according to their conception of the tea-room, and the term Sukiya may signify the Abode of Vacancy or the Abode of the Unsymmetrical.  It is an Abode of Fancy inasmuch as it is an ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse.  It is an Abode of Vacancy inasmuch as it is devoid of ornamentation except for what may be placed in it to satisfy some aesthetic need of the moment.  It is an Abode of the Unsymmetrical inasmuch as it is consecrated to the worship of the Imperfect, purposely leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete.”

“The first independent tea-room was the creation of Senno-Soyeki, commonly known by his later name of Rikiu, the greatest of all tea-masters, who, in the sixteenth century, under the patronage of Taiko-Hideoshi, instituted and brought to a high state of perfection the formalities of the Tea-ceremony.”

“The Sukiya consist of the tea-room proper, designed to accommodate not more than five persons. The tea-room is unimpressive in appearance.  It is smaller than the smallest of Japanese houses, while the materials used in its construction are intended to give the suggestion of refined poverty.  Yet we must remember that all of this is the result of profound artistic fore-thought, and that the details have been worked out with care perhaps even greater than expended on the building of the richest palaces and temples.”

To be noted is this reinforcement of the concept of “unfinished for the play of the imagination to complete.”  In Part I, the author connects this concept with the following:

“In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion.  In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it.”

Let’s for a moment leave the tea-room and discuss how this concept adds value to suiseki display.  Does our display concept allow for this “leaving something unfinished for the play of the imagination” to complete?  Let’s take a moment to study this brilliant stone from the Iwasaki collection.


Kamaogawa Yase Sudachi-Maguro-ishi (A-8); Title: “Ugo no Sansui” (The Landscape After Rain)

Before you proceed into the following text take a moment and truly study this stone.  Click the above image to see the full resolution photo while also obscuring the text.  Spend 3-5 minutes observing each aspect of the stone and its display.  See you back in a few!

I hope you will agree that this is a fabulous example of suiseki.  This Iwasaki stone carries the number 2 in kanji character form and also the number 18.  So what do you see?  Let’s take a moment to analyze this stone.

We find a well-proportioned stone with a distinctive peak that has a beautiful waterfall cascading down the right-hand side of the tall peak.  What about the white inclusions we see running across the bottom of the stone?  Is this tidal foam or as the name suggests simply the reflection of rain off the landscape? The stone is presented in river sand contained with an older bronze/copper doban that shows great age and patina.  The doban is well matched to this stone as there seems to be from the photo just a hint of red in the stone.  The texture of the stone and doban is rough – a smooth doban would not seem as congruent with the roughly textured stone, so an excellent choice by its owner.

This rather quiet, un-busy display, in our opinion, speaks volumes to this concept of letting us “complete the idea” of what we are observing.  How so, let us give just a few thoughts to this subject. When we see this stone our mind’s eye can be taken into two directions, or more.  One this distant mountain stone rises from a vast plain.  After an afternoon storm, the sun just begins to peak out amongst the clouds and as the heat begins to rise so does the evaporation of the late afternoon rain from the forest trees and plants.  Do you recall on a hot summer day after a cooling rain seeing what looks like water evaporation almost like mist rising into the sky?

A secondary view might be of a coastal mountain.  Now the sand represents the ocean. The waterfall is moving the fallen rain; thus returning it to the vast ocean below.  Also we can see the remnants of the tide cascading up the slope of the mountains rocks. If we continue with the later view, we might also add the sounds of gulls, plovers, terns or sanderlings.  The added noise of a cacophony of elephant seals might mentally enhance our view of this stone.

In a Tokonoma, a scroll might be added to provide some visual clues as to the season, the locale or even the weather.  But absent of anything else is this the end of the display or where we should start?  I think perhaps that the inclusion of only a few elements allows us a rather quiet, un-busy display, in our opinion, speaking volumes to this concept of letting us “complete the idea” of what we are observing.

To stand across the street, so to speak, on this issue is there anything wrong with adding even more elements? No, and especially if this is a display primarily for us or our home.  However, might we be wise in a more public setting to allow each viewer to visually and mentally explore the scenes evoked by this wonderful suiseki without too many added elements?

Let’s continue with more of Kakuzō writings.

“The simplicity and purism of the tea-room resulted from emulation of the Zen monastery.  On the altar, flowers and incense are offered up on the memory of the great contributions which these sages made to Zen.  We might add here that the altar of the Zen chapel was the prototype of the Tokonoma—the place of honor in a Japanese room where paintings and flowers are placed for the edification of the guests.”

“The roji, the garden path which leads from the machiai to the team-room, signified the first stage of mediation-the passage into self-illumination.”

Note: The koshikake Machiai is an area for guests, who have come from the Yoritsuki (waiting shelter of the outer garden) and walked down the garden path. Here, they wait for the host to welcome them inside the tea house. It is usually fitted with Enza, individual round mats of woven rush, and an ashtray. In colder months, there is often a small heater for guests to warm their hands.

“The roji was intended to break connection with the outside world and produce a fresh sensation conducive to the full enjoyment of aestheticism in the tea-room itself.  One who has trodden this garden path cannot fail to remember how his spirit, as he walked in the twilight of evergreens over the regular irregularities of the stepping stones, beneath which lay dried pine needles, and passed beside the moss-covered granite lanterns, became uplifted above ordinary thoughts.  One may be in the midst of a city, and yet feel as if he were in the forest far away from the dust and din of civilization.”

Let’s pause for a moment and discuss this idea of a transitionary approach to the tea-room.  The concept of using a transition point is paramount as the author states its purpose is for “breaking connection with the outside world.”

Someone that understood this well was Walt Disney.  Disney World is 40 square miles or the same size of the city of San Francisco, CA.  Upon taking the exit into Disney Land, Walt was intent in having a great deal of land, thus a drive, before entering into the actual theme park.  He wanted to remove you from the busyness outside the park so he could begin to bring you into his magic kingdom.

As noted earlier, for me attempting to contemplate suiseki at a show is very difficult based on the number of distractions present.  In your mind think through the last experience you had at a stone show. What was that experience like in terms of attempting to contemplate each stone? Museums attempt to correct these problems in how they present art.  The room is lit only where it enhances the art, the room tends to be very quiet, and often there is a place to sit and observe.  All of these help us to transition to a mode of contemplation.  Our Dixon Gallery, located in Memphis, TN, utilizes a tree lined walkway that guides you from the parking lot to the ticket kiosk from where you are led next to a continuation of the tree-lined path leading into the entrance of the museum.  This is quite effective at beginning to “calm the soul” before entering into this house of art.

As we think of contemplating suiseki for ourselves, we like many of you, have stones scattered around our house amongst other pieces of art, furniture, rugs, and the like.  Frankly, it is so busy it is hard to compare it to this idea of the roji as one approaches the tea-room.  Perhaps this is why garden stones were so popular in China and Japan as the ability to set a mood was easier to establish in a garden setting.  Before we delve deeper into a potential solution for the contemplation of stones, let’s continue in the text as Kakuzō is about to really enlighten us on what to me is one of the most key attributes of the tea-room.

“Thus prepared the guest will silently approach the sanctuary, and, if a samurai, will leave his sword on the rack beneath the eaves, the tea-room being preeminently the house of peace. Then he will bend low and creep into the room through a small door not more than three feet in height. This proceeding was incumbent on all guests—high and low alike—and was intended to inculcate (instill) humility. The order of precedence having been mutually agreed upon while resting in the machiai, the guests one by one will enter noiselessly and take their seats, first making obeisance to the picture or flower arrangement on the Tokonoma.  The host will not enter the room until all the guests have seated themselves and quiet reigns with nothing to break the silence save the note of the boiling water in the iron kettle. The kettle sings well, for pieces of iron are so arranged in the bottom as to produce a peculiar melody in which one may hear the echoes of a cataract muffled by clouds, of a distant sea breaking among the rocks, a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest, or of the soughing of pines on some faraway hill.”

Close your eyes for just a moment and replay this scene in your mind’s eye.  As you have walked down the garden path and your mind and soul begin to relax immersed in the trees and moss and soft wind, the approach to the entry to the tea-room creates the need to bend low to move into the room.  This requirement of bending down will be discussed later in this post, but remember it well as it is highly important to this experience.  Quietly in silence one enters into the tea-room and takes their place amongst the other guests.  Entering into this quiet space the outside fades away and we are introduced into a new environment; one where virtually the only noise is that of boiling water in a kettle.  Note how the author describes for some it is as if the sea is breaking for others a rainstorm sweeping through a bamboo forest or lastly the soughing (moaning, whistling, or rushing sound) of pines on a faraway hill.  This reminds us of his earlier admonition to allow us to complete the idea of our surroundings.

I find that I don’t often allow sufficient time for this transition of busyness to quietness when observing to occur.  A fast entry into the room where the stone is displayed, an immediate thought as to what I see, my mind racing.  This often, perhaps always, leads to a quick review of the stone and then my mind is off to the races again. Is it no wonder that I don’t often see the greatness in the little things of the stone?  Shouldn’t we transition from the point of busyness and distraction to quietness so that we can at least give respect to the stone via our full attention?

Let’s continue…

“Even in the daytime the light in the room is subdued, for the low eaves of the slanting roof admit but few of the sun’s rays. Everything is sober in tint from the ceiling to the floor; the guests themselves have carefully chosen garments of unobtrusive colors. The mellowness of age is over all, everything suggestive of recent acquirement being tabooed save only the one note of contrast furnished by the bamboo dipper and the linen napkin, both immaculately white and new.  However faded the tea-room and the tea-equipage may seem, everything is absolutely clean…not a particle of dust will be found in the darkest corner, for if any exists the host is not a tea-master… what Rikiu demanded was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural. Dripping water from a flower vase need not be wiped away, for it may be suggestive of dew and coolness.”


We love the thought of allowing dripping water to be present as the author writes.  One must be careful that the environment doesn’t become sterile.  To confirm this view, Kakuzō continues.

“In this connection there is a story of Rikiu which will illustrate the ideas of cleanliness entertained by the tea-masters.  Rikiu was watching his son Shoan as he swept and watered the garden path. “Not clean enough,” said Rikiu, when Shoan had finished the task, and he bade him try again. After a weary hour the son turned to Rikiu: “Father, there is nothing more to be done. The steps have been washed for the third time, the stone lanterns and the trees are well sprinkled with water, moss and lichens are shining from a fresh verdure; not a twig, not a leaf have I left on the ground.” “Young fool,” chided the tea-master, “that is not the way a garden path should be swept.” Saying this, Rikiu stepped into the garden, shook a tree and scattered over the garden gold and crimson leaves, scraps of the brocade of autumn! What Rikiu demanded was not cleanliness alone, but the beautiful and the natural also.”

One might propose in establishing a display for our stones this concept of cleanliness but also room for the beautiful and the natural as well should be followed.  I seek the reader’s guidance in how this might be accomplished.  Should our display include a freshly cut flower in an earthen or bronze vase with water droplets on the leaves of the flower slowly dripping to the surface of the display.  Might it be as simple as a grouping of flowers but yet one small petal has fallen to the floor?

Let’s continue…

“The term, Abode of Vacancy, besides conveying the Taoist theory of all-containing, involves the conception of a continued need of change in decorative motives.  The tea-room is absolutely empty, except for what may be placed there temporarily to satisfy some aesthetic mood…To a Japanese, accustomed to simplicity of ornamentation and frequent change of decorative method, a Western interior permanently filled with a vast array of pictures, statuary, and bric-a-brac gives the impression of mere vulgar display of riches.  It calls for a mighty wealth of appreciation to enjoy the constant sight of even a masterpiece, and limitless indeed must be the capacity for artistic feeling in those who can exist day after day in the midst of such confusion of color and form as is to be often seen in the homes of Europe and America.”

“The Abode of the Unsymmetrical suggests another phase of our decorative scheme. The absence of symmetry in Japanese art objects has been often commented on by Western Critics.  The dynamic nature of their philosophy laid more stress upon the process through which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself.  True beauty could be discovered only by one who mentally completed the incomplete…In the tea-room it is left for each guest in imagination to complete the total effect in relation to himself.  Uniformity of design was considered fatal to the freshness of imagination. Thus, landscapes, birds, and flowers became the favorite subjects for depiction rather than the human figure, the latter being present in the person of the beholder himself.”

There is a great deal to digest in these last two paragraphs.  Do we merge the idea of vacancy and unsymmetrical into our display methodology?  I believe the author is correct that in the West we tend to overwhelm our designs with too many objects—often random and without connection to the whole; but perhaps more importantly too many items thus relegating the viewer to the displayer’s perspective rather than allowing the viewer to “complete the total effect” individualistically.

Can we begin to understand the philosophy of stressing the “process through which perfection was sought than upon perfection itself?”  This idea of dissymmetry as something imperfect which is in the process toward perfection is difficult to grasp.  “Perfection” is grasped as an ideal end to arrive at, whereas the dissymmetry is understood as something which, being imperfect, has not yet arrived at the end and which is halfway to being completed by one’s imagination.  So might we then consider that “perfection” is different for each individual, therefore if I as the displayer achieve perfection is that perfection only for me, such then the display must be headed towards perfection thus allowing the imagination of each viewer to continue on the journey to “their” view of perfection.

This is such a central core thought for the tea ceremony that it bares spending some time considering its potential influence for the our personal, or small group, study of suiseki.  Let’s review the photograph of stone A-12, titled “Araiso” (reef).  This is a Kamogawa Shizuhata Itomaki-ishi and is displayed in an oval basin of white Cochin ware.

Kamogawa Shizuhata Itomaki-ishi A-12

The Iwasaki family stone, number 6 written in red and in kanji the character three in white, is described as a scene of roaring waves dashing against coastal reefs.  The name “Araiso” translates as reef.

This is further emphasized in this photo through the use of a small bronze figure on the leftmost jutting point on the stone.  So does this element help to complete the display? It certainly adds scale doesn’t it.  However, in the context of the ideal that we should allow the viewer’s imagination to complete the picture does the addition of the small figure go too far, or does it help move the scene more towards perfection but still allowing the viewer to use their imagination to complete the scene?

For me personally, I would prefer it without the figure, but I can see its use in that the stone has somewhat of an odd shape for a coastal stone with the secondary jutting precipice at the top left.  Perhaps the use of the figure centers the viewer that this is a coastal scene and now the imagination of the viewer can be utilized more towards what is unseen in the display.

Is the person fishing, staring into the distance attempting to see an approaching vessel, or perhaps just lost in thoughts of someone they miss seeing?    Perhaps one can see that with a simplistic display such as this one’s imagination and what our mind’s eye sees can be vastly different than the person sitting next to us viewing the very same display.  One can only assume that is the point of this ideal.

Let’s continue…

“In the tea-room the fear of repetition is a constant presence.  The various objects for the decoration of a room should be so selected that no color or design shall be repeated twice.  If you have a living flower, a painting of flowers is not allowable.  If you are using a round kettle, the water pitcher should be angular. A cup with a black glaze should not be associated with a tea-caddy of black lacquer. In placing a vase of an incense burner on the Tokonoma, care should be taken not to put it in the exact center, lest it divide the space into equal halves.  Here again the Japanese method of interior decoration differs from that of the Occident, where we see objects arrayed symmetrically on mantelpieces and elsewhere.”

“The simplicity of the tea-room and its freedom from vulgarity make it truly a sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world. There and there alone one can consecrate himself to undisturbed adoration of the beautiful. In the seventeenth century, after the strict formalism of the Tokugawa rule had been developed, it offered the only opportunity possible for the free communion of artistic spirits. Before a great work of art there was no distinction between daimyo, samurai, and commoner.”

As we now close this post, how appropriate that the author illuminates this ideal.  A great piece of art stirs within all of us an emotion regardless of our station in life or even the troubles we might have that day. For a moment, in its presence our imagination can take over – we can remove ourselves from the outside world to enjoy a brief respite.  Nothing in our imagination can be blocked by an outside force from seeing and experiencing beauty, even if only for just a few moments.

Our next post will continue with Okakura Kakuzō writing on art appreciation.

The Book of Tea, Part I

The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzō, 1906

The Book of Tea (茶の本 Cha no Hon) by Okakura Kakuzō (1906) is a long essay linking the role of chadō (teaism) to the aesthetic and cultural aspects of Japanese life.  This essay, or book, was written for a Western audience where the book emphasizes how Teaism taught the Japanese many things; most importantly, simplicity. Kakuzō argues that this tea-induced simplicity affected art and architecture in Japan. It is a 53 page book that can be easily found in PDF format if one has a desire to read and study his writings on this subject.

Okakura Kakuzō (February 14, 1863 – September 2, 1913) was a Japanese scholar who made contributions to the development of art in Japan.  Okakura was one of the principal founders of the first Japanese fine-arts academy, Tokyo bijutsu gakko (Tokyo School of Fine Arts).  He also founded Nihon Bijutsuin (Japanese Institute of Fine Arts) with Hashimoto Gahō and Yokoyama Taikan.

Our study of this book was to gain influence into the Japanese aesthetic and a way of seeing beauty. Our desire was then to apply these concepts to our study and practice of suiseki.  Today’s blog post will contain a few key quotes from his essay and our thoughts on them.

“The long isolation of Japan from the rest of the world, so conducive to introspection, has been highly favorable to the development of Teaism.  Our home and habits, costume and cuisine, porcelain, lacquer, paintingour very literatureall have been subject to its influence…Our peasants have learned to arrange flowers, our meanest laborer to offer his salutation to the rocks and water.  In our common parlance we speak of the man “with no tea” in him, when he is insusceptible to the serio-comic interest of the personal drama.  Again we stigmatize the unnamed aesthete who, regardless of mundane tragedy, runs riot in the springtide of emancipated emotions, as one “with too much tea” in him.

The Outside may indeed wonder at this seeming much ado about nothing. What a tempest in a tea-cup! He will say. But when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup.”

What a start to his essay. He quickly grabs the reader’s attention.  Tea was introduced to Britain in the 1700s and any student of history understands its significance to the creation of the United States of America.  However, how many of us would view a cup of tea in the context in which it is being presented here?

We are also struck by his observation “how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is” as insightful for 1906 but how even more insightful for us more than 100 years later.  Life is so busy, so full of mundane or meaningless activities.   How often can we say our days are full of enjoyment, much less our very lives?

Let’s move forward.

“In the liquid amber within the ivory-porcelain, the initiated may touch the sweet reticence of Confucius, the piquancy of Laotse, and the ethereal aroma of Sakyamuni himself….Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.”

Note: Confucius (551–479 BC) was a Chinese teacher, editor, politician, and philosopher of the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history. The philosophy of Confucius, also known as Confucianism, emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. Traditions hold that Lao Tse lived in the 6th century B.C., possibly from around 570 to 490 B.C. He served as keeper of the imperial archives or court librarian at Loyang, in Honan province, and was a contemporary of Confucius, though about 20 years older. Sakyamuni is one of the titles of the Buddha, deriving from the name of Sakya where he was born.

How do we interpret the author’s view that if we cannot “feel the littleness of great things then we are likely to overlook the greatness of little things in others?”  I think of the many times in the evaluation of suiseki how quickly I make a “decision” on what I see!  How this initial view entrenches me into a position that with further study holds no value whatsoever.

Kamaogawa Yase Maguro-ishi

Kamagawa Yase Maguro-ishi titled “Unjo Enbo” translated as Distant View Over the Clouds.

I distinctly recall seeing this stone for the first time in the book Suiseki An Art Created by Nature, The Nyogakuan Collection of Japanese Viewing Stones, Volume I.  This is the first stone discussed in the book and carries the label A-1.  Staring at it I could not fathom why this stone was in the book much less the first to be described!   The description for this Kamagawa stone is as follows: “This stone appears plain at first glance, but when observed closely, it can be noticed that it is plump and warming.”

Quickly I flipped the pages to the next stone hoping there were better examples to be found.  This was more than 10 years ago and over the years I found myself returning to stone A-1 to study and enjoy it.  What changed?    As Kakuzō so eloquently writes, perhaps I was becoming better at seeing the “greatness in little things.”  The Unjo Enbo is plump; it does have a warm feeling.  Is it a classical distant mountain stone with sharp peaks – well no – but it certainly does in a romantic way represent a distant view over clouds doesn’t it?

I learned from this experience to withhold quick judgments with suiseki.  We must study to see what the stone is offering to us and how it speaks to our view and perspectives on life. How does it interact with our surroundings, what memories does it invoke and what feelings are derived from its study?

“For Teaism is the art of concealing beauty that you may discover it, of suggesting what you dare not reveal. It is the noble secret of laughing at yourself, calmly yet thoroughly, and is thus humor itselfthe smile of philosophy…The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things.”

Evanescence is defined as disappear, vanish.  There is a dual meaning for me in this statement as the viewing of suiseki leads to both an eventual remembrance and disappearance of memories invoked by the stone itself while at the same time realizing the experience of observing and feeling at that very moment will also vanish quick quickly. So there is a longing of desire to linger in its beauty for a few more moments.

“The beverage grew to be an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane.  The tea-room was an oasis in the dreary waste of existence where weary travelers could meet to drink from the common spring of art-appreciation. The ceremony was an improvised drama whose plot was woven about the tea, the flowers, and the paintings. Not a color to disturb the tone of the room, not a sound to mar the rhythm of things, not a gesture to obtrude on the harmony, not a word to break the unity of the surrounds, all movements to be performed simply and naturally-such were the aims of the tea-ceremony.  And strangely enough it was often successful. A subtle philosophy lay behind it all.”

“In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion.  In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is here for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.”

As we think of stone display, stones are often placed on a stand or perhaps a white museum box with barely another article surrounding it.  There might be a singular colored material covering the display tables.   Does this lack of complexity inhibit or improve our aesthetic emotion?

2017 Nippon Suiseki Association Exhibition

Photograph from the 2017 Nippon Suiseki Association Exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park.

Or is it better to add an object, or two, to the scene to better yet contribute to how the stone is received?  Does this add to its aesthetic emotion?

Clearly a exhibition like this has an obligation to its participants to display numerous stones so that its many visitors have an opportunity to see a large collection of suiseki.  But from our viewpoint, these types of shows have a very different purpose than that of the historical tea room or the tokonoma found in Japanese homes.

We find that attempting to study stones in a general exhibition is quite difficult due to not only the volume of stones being displayed but also inability to quietly study the stone without distractions such as noise and lighting.  This is not to be taken that exhibitions should not be planned and executed, not whatsoever.  We are challenging the notion that one can really achieve what is being written by Kakuzō in these types of displays; therefore shouldn’t we attempt to create some type of atmosphere that gains us entry into the tea-room concept for stones?

Nippon Suiseki Association
© 2017, Nippon Suiseki Association, The 3rd Japan Suiseki Association Exhibition, All Rights Reserved

“The ceremony was an improvised drama whose plot was woven about the tea, the flowers, and the paintings. Not a color to disturb the tone of the room, not a sound to mar the rhythm of things, not a gesture to obtrude on the harmony, not a word to break the unity of the surrounds, all movements to be performed simply and naturally-such were the aims of the tea-ceremony.”

This ideal seems to us to be better achieved in a display such as a Tokonoma.  The NSA catalog beautifully illustrates this point with 10-15 types of these displays where the owner/artist can evoke a vision as to their intended purpose in the display.

Our collection contains stones that at first do lend themselves to continue to be in our collection.  Yet, with quiet contemplation, sometimes over a period of years, we begin to see a hidden beauty in these ancient stones.   Is it possible that we needlessly discount beauty simply because we the viewer will not take the time to properly establish the appropriate conditions for study?

In addition, even with stones that upon first glance capture our imagination, we find that quiet contemplation of these stones allow us to capture more nuanced aspects of them.


Kamogawa, Edge Collection

A striking stone that has been suiseki for a very long time.  When observing this stone we are drawn to its mountain peaks and the flowing lines from right-to-left.  But one can easily miss the valley floor at the bottom of the stone almost immediately below the highest peak on the right.  This small detail when carefully observed adds a great deal of texture and context to the stone and It adds a sense of three dimensionality that is often missing in stones whose fronts simply descend in an angular line to the bottom of the stone.So how best to display this, or any other, stone so that we can attempt to achieve this concept? Let us review again what Kakuzō states:

“In art the importance of the same principle is illustrated by the value of suggestion.  In leaving something unsaid the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it. A vacuum is here for you to enter and fill up the full measure of your aesthetic emotion.”  [Emphasis added by author.]

 In our next blog post, we will further explore Kakuzō’s writing of the tea-room’s characteristics and the importance of same.