Monday, August 03, 2009

Everybody Must Get Stoned

O rock,
How much I love you:
You are the only loveable one.
Would you let me grow a little flower of love on you?
If you don’t mind,
Maybe I could grow a pine tree on you. If you are so generous,
Maybe I could build a house on you.
If you are fantastically generous,
Maybe I could eat you up,
Or move you to my landscape garden. It is nice to be friends with a rock!

--- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,
from Love's Fool
July 1975

So, continuing with our rocky theme, begun yesterday with the Immortal Mani Stones post, I thought I would share another one of my uselessly diverting hobbies: rock appreciation, and no, we are not talking about the Rolling Stones.

The example above is called penjing, or the art of miniature landscaping. If you have ever visited the junk shops in Chinatown (or the penjing shops in China), then you have seen the miniature pagodas, bridges, and so forth. This art is also practiced, and highly esteemed, in Viet-Nam. My friend used to build these all over his backyard, to the point they were no longer miniature, but an actual landscape.

I have experimented with this, but as a child of the 20th century, I like my miniature landscapes to have model trains running through them.

The Chinese believe that penjing eventually developed into suiseki, which is the Japanese art of stone appreciation, and the aspect of the hobby that I have been practicing for about 35 years. I used to go to all the shows and so forth, but who cares anymore? The last one I visited was San Francisco, in 2007, with my youngest daughter, who was only politely enthusiastic. The 2009 show was yesterday; alas, I have missed it.

Above is a "near mountain" form -- quite elegant, actually -- although to a purist it does have the flaw of having an artificially flattened base. At the San Francisco show, just mentioned, I saw a lot of this, and asked the judges why they weren't subtracting points. They told me the aesthetic had changed -- but I'll bet that doesn't extend back to Japan. I have seen antique suiseki go for over USD $250,000 on the Tokyo market, and never have they known the rock saw.

People tend to specialize, i.e. they will pick a form, or a type of stone, and work exclusively with that. I like black jade, or nephrite, which I used to collect from Jade Cove, on the California coast, before all that was outlawed. Lately, my tastes have changed, and I am starting to like chalcedony boulders from Nye County, Nevada, and marble and rhyolite, from San Bernardino County, California. Over the past 20 years, this has been developing into an interest in carved "boulder mountains," which are a study unto themselves -- the possible subject of a future post.

Note that in the highest expression, the beauty of the hand-carved base (daiza) is every bit as important as the beauty of the stone.

Finally, we come to gongshi, or scholar's stones. This is an obsession peculiar to the Chinese literati, which continued through the centuries until it reached all levels of Chinese artistic sensibility. I have seen things like this trade hands for over USD $1 million. Even today, if you go visit the farthest eastern hutong (San Gabriel Valley, California) you will find numbers of shops selling these, ranging in sizes from a few inches to many feet.

The aesthetic involved is complex, and I have heard it explained many ways. Very well educated, erudite Tibetan Buddhists say the form reflects dzogchen values, and can in fact instruct that which cannot be instructed. In the Tibetan culture, they also have "soul stones," but again -- that is a possible future post. Equally erudite Daoists say that the ideal form captures "incense smoke in stone." Others say that to be ideal, the stone must exhibit the influence of wind, water, and fire. This is the sort of thing that one can discuss for hours, whilst sipping tea on the veranda, gazing at wild geese flying across the moon. Of course, you could just as easily have the same discussion sitting out back of the trailer, in a lawn chair, picking your nose.

Sino-Japanese stone appreciation is a deep, deep subject, but here we have just scratched the surface, so to speak.

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