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.

Wang-Zhiweng-active-14-th-century-Portrait-of-the-Japanese-Monk-Kokan-Shiren-dated-1343

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!

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