We read this article written by Sean Smith that was published in the monthly newsletter of California Aiseki Kai just a few days ago.  I consider it one of the best, if not the best, Western articles written on the very personal impact that suiseki can have on those of us who collect or share the appreciation for this art form.  I have asked Sean’s permission, and received it, to republish his writing on our blog.  I know his article for us captured the very essence of some of the suiseki we have collected and what it means to us.  Please enjoy his writing and the next time you are collecting or thinking of purchasing a stone, I hope you will go beyond the physical attractiveness of the stone to see what really lies beyond either in experience or in imagination.

Sean thank you again for this seminal article on the personal art of suiseki.  For those of you who are interested, I would strongly suggest you navigate over to the California Aiseki Kai web site for other interesting and educational articles in their monthly newsletter.  BTW, I’m a dues paying member there even though I live in Northern California and I can’t attend their club meetings.  My personal viewpoint is we need to support organizations like the California Aiseki Kai who diligently educate and inform us about suiseki and viewing stones.  If you feel like we do, then we strongly recommend you support the club and those that create the monthly newsletter by joining the club.  You can do so by emailing them at  hutch at aisekikai dot com or calling one of the numbers listed on their membership page.  Thanks!

Sean Smith

Sean Smith


Suiseki, The Personal Art by Sean Smith

Several months ago in Japan I was viewing a suiseki displayed in a tokonoma; it was your typical formal display with table, accent and a scroll. It was explained to me as a distant mountain; the scroll showed a few birds that migrate at that time of year in Japan, and the accent plant was one that grows in the bogs below the mountains.

It was wonderful so I thought; it was very elegantly done and I was very grateful for the time and effort that this person spent preparing this display for me. Then I scratched my head and thought to myself do I really understand what this display really means….then it came to me, why should I, this is not my suiseki. This was created by one man’s thoughts and to him it was wonderful and meaningful.

Why is it that the western approach is always to point out the negative and not the positive? I came away feeling bad having only focused on me! I should have asked many questions about the suiseki and the display, and what his approach was about the stone. That way we both could have shared our feelings for the display.

For me suiseki should invoke a feeling, almost like a personal relationship so to speak, a sensation that gives me pleasure or sadness, something that stirs my heart of a recollection good or bad.

Suiseki should have an importance to the enthusiast in some way, a connection that gives an emotional feeling. Even when one purchases a suiseki from a reputable dealer, it should move that person in some way.

Quality is of the utmost importance; never say it’s just good enough. Always look for quality.

Stones of high quality, either purchased or found, have the ability to move a person; they are of high aesthetic and emotional value. For me, a quality stone is one that in a sense is perfect, without blemishes, cracks or chips; it’s the quality of the suiseki not the quantity that counts. This recalls the story from Japan that you will only find three suiseki in your life time. This art is very difficult.

Not only is finding good, high quality suiseki hard, but so is displaying them.

There is an old story from Japan that tells of a samurai returning from battle stopping at a river to water his horse. As the horse was drinking, the samurai looked into the water and saw a stone that looked like a mountain. He reached for it and picked it up looking at it, it reminded him of the mountain valley in which he had just done battle. We all know that war is pain and suffering, bloodshed and loss of comrades; when looking at this stone it invoked just such a place, where he lost his comrades and inflicted pain and death onto others.

He took the stone and slipped it into his kimono sleeve and returned to his village and shared his experiences with others. How many people would really understand this stone without being at this battle? No one. However, for this samurai it moved him emotionally and reminded him of what happened that one day. He would remember everything of that day by viewing this suiseki. Even by sharing this story with others and explaining what happened could they obtain the same feeling from the stone as he would? Although they could try to empathize and perhaps develop their own interpretation of the stone, is it likely?

To help share his feelings, there would perhaps be some kind of written record about the stone in order to help tell its story. This is something we also overlook; keeping a written record about a stone we find and keep. I have gone to bonsai/suiseki enthusiasts estate sales and so many of the items that they have collected for many years have a heritage which is unknown. Often the person passes away and no one knows where the item came from or when it was collected. For suiseki, these facts could be preserved in the traditional way with kiri bako (wooden box) where the information about the suiseki is written on the back side of the lid or just on a sheet of paper kept with it. Another way would be to have exhibition catalogs where stones are photographed for publication. This would provide a valuable record of the suiseki. Our suiseki will certainly out live us so we need to preserve this information for generations to come and by doing so we will have a suiseki history in the West.

Too often here in the West, we collect with no feeling or emotion; we look for that doha or toyama along the rivers… why? Because we have seen photographs of them in Japanese books? Sure we do, because this is a Japanese art form; we are copying them just as we do in bonsai. There is nothing wrong with that, we enjoy it and it brings pleasure to us. There is however a more important aspect to collecting than simply accumulating a massive quantity of Japanese style rocks.

I shared a story with a good friend the other day, it’s nothing special to anyone but me. A few summers ago I was vacationing with my family in Atlantic City, New Jersey. My daughter was 7 years old at the time, swimming at the pool after a long day at the beach. Show-off Dad was jumping into the pool trying to impress his daughter with big splashes. I slipped jumping into the pool and unknown to me I had torn a ligament in my knee. Despite being in great pain I continued to play with my daughter without letting on, so as not to ruin a family memory. The next day I flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico to do a demonstration. The following day I was collecting stones on the beach and in immense pain, I came across a magnificent sugata ishi. I carefully bent down and picked it up. Wow this is very nice I told myself, but my pain was too much to bear and I had to return to the car to rest. As I looked at the only stone I picked up, I realized that this stone had all the great Japanese guidelines. It was not until I returned home, and had my knee operated on that I realized that this stone had a story behind it. However, in the same way as the returning Samurai, it was just my story, special to me, and when I display this stone I remember all the pain I was in, my daughter telling me to, “Jump higher Daddy, make a really big splash this time.”

Yes, I know this story may seem lame for some, nevertheless to me it means the world and I will never forget that time.

Another story is about my late father in the early 90’s. As we walked in the forest together I came across a little stone that followed the Japanese guidelines for a good suiseki. I picked it up and showed my father the stone and he said it’s just a black stone. I laughed and slid it into my pocket, returned home and placed it outside with many other stones where it blended in like all the rest of my “nothing special” stones.

Seven years later my father passed way from cancer. That day I looked at the stone and cried for hours holding it in my hand; again, to others it may look like just another stone, but to me it brings back memories of my father and that day we were together. It moves me every time I see it or touch it and for me this is what suiseki should do, invoke an emotion, a personal feeling. However, displaying it and conveying that feeling could be almost impossible as the stones power and history only relates to me. As time passes and I give this suiseki to my daughter and tell her the story, perhaps she will take it and cherish it as I have.

Display is a deeply personal act that I feel should not be criticized in a negative way. We have to keep in mind the personal feelings suggested by that display. We should ask questions to help get a better understanding of the suiseki and the intentions of the person displaying it. Some displays are obvious scenes in nature, others slightly more abstract. Even the obvious scenes can have a hidden, unique and personal depth to them which can only be appreciated through an open minded approach to the art. Rather than take a detached attitude to your suiseki, I urge you to attach a personal importance to it and look to record it when important; strive for quality over quantity and above all else, do it with an open mind. And enjoy what someone else is giving.


Sean Smith

You can read and learn more about Sean at his web site: Custom Oriental Wood-Craft.