Suiseki's charm nurtures a sense of serenity
Maria Endah Hulupi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
The art of suiseki has not lost its ancient charm, helping modern enthusiasts appreciate and respect the grandeur and mysterious beauty of nature.
Known around 2,500 years ago in China and Japan, suiseki is imbued with the sense of serenity and reverence for nature of Taoist belief that has long inspired Chinese landscape paintings, poetry as well as other art forms.
The experience of enjoying these naturally beautiful shaped stones can be likened to admiring the magnificence and mysterious beauty of the universe -- on a micro scale.
"Lakes, mountains, plateau or cave-shaped suiseki are displayed by collectors or enthusiasts as meditative tools, enjoying the beauty of nature right in their own home," said the secretary-general of the Indonesian Suiseki Association, Budi Sulistyo, during a recent suiseki exhibition in South Jakarta.
Suiseki is actually a Japanese word that means "water stone". In other countries, where the art has been adopted and gained popularity, suiseki is known by different names, such as "viewing stones" in Western countries, ya sek (beautiful stones) in Taiwan and su sok (timeless stone) in Korea.
Regardless of its different names, its enthusiasts believe the same thing; that besides pleasing the eyes, it helps stimulate, purify and uplift their spirits.
Suiseki is actually the result of a long process occurring thousands or even millions of years ago, involving the forces of nature through continuous exposures to wind, water, cold and heat, which gradually carved these stones into their esthetic shapes as they lay in riverbeds, the sea, mountains or practically anywhere.
Once found, the stones, are classified based on their shapes, such as panorama (like a lake, a mountain, a plateau, a waterfall or a cave), human, animal, abstract and symbolic shaped suiseki.
Apart from suiseki, such artistic stones can also be classified into "kikaseki", or stones with naturally imprinted chrysanthemum-like patterns (in Japan it is the symbol of the empire); or "biseki", for stones with pleasant natural colors and patterns. The latter requires polishing to bring out the stones' natural colors or patterns.
They are not mere pretty decorations: The stones symbolize deep philosophical values, teaching humankind to seek perfection in imperfections and beauty in simplicity.
"You cannot find a perfectly shaped stone and this helps remind people, in a meditative way, that nothing in the universe is perfect, just like humans," said the association's chairman M. Paiman, adding that the art of suiseki is often described as the art of finding and the art of imagining.
Unlike panorama and human-shaped suiseki, abstract-shaped stones can be appreciated when viewers use their mind and heart to enjoy them, a practice harmonious with Buddhist teaching.
Even simple-shaped stones radiate natural beauty and unique characteristics. Such stones, which in Japan are called Zen stones, remain well liked by many enthusiasts.
"To the owners, these simple stones can bring a sense of serenity. But if we look into what the stones have experienced in nature, we learn we all are short-lived and weak. This is the spirit of stones, regardless of their shapes," Paiman explained.
True suiseki enthusiasts would not alter or improve the shape of the stones out of respect for the natural process the stones have undergone for thousands of years.
"The base of each suiseki should also be designed in respect to the stone's natural shape, quite an artistic challenge for the artists and owners. In Japan, they may cut the lower, imperfect part of the stone but they have to be honest and inform others they have altered the stone," Paiman explained.
Some suiseki is a reflection of I ching philosophy -- nothing in the universe is stagnant, and such stones, when viewed in appreciative and a meditative way, can portray dynamic movements and or continuous flow, despite their motionless, hard cold appearance.
Others strongly reflect Taoist philosophy -- the world is a harmonious balance between yin and yang with the stone's hard and tender elements, smooth and coarse textures, straight and curved lines, for example.
Suiseki are usually displayed in simple yet artistic ways to better appreciate them, philosophically or conceptually.
"Some stones can look like two totally different things, for instance a cave that also looks like a resting Buddhist monk, and when properly displayed, both interpretations can be appreciated," Paiman said.
Generally, suiseki is put on a dai (a base which is specially designed in respect to the natural shape of each stone), on a shallow base covered with sand or water, on a cloth or tatami. It can be displayed alone or with plants, pots, paintings, traditional inscription, cloth or screen, among other objects.
Properly displaying the stones helps bring out their meaning, highlighting their beauty and at the same time maintaining the continuance, the grandeur, the movement and the serenity that the shape of a particular stone suggests.
"The use of plants or water as part of the display reflects the yin and yang concept. The stone represents solidity and resistance, while the plant symbolizes tenderness, growth and life and, when combined, both elements create balance," Budi said.
Portraying a panorama suiseki the way it exists in nature produces a breathtaking effect. A mountain, for example, looks stunningly beautiful after a rain shower; in order to obtain a similar effect, enthusiasts commonly spray mountain-shaped suiseki with water.
"Besides giving it that after-the-rain look, the mist would bring out the stone's natural colors and as the water dries up, the viewer can experience a very stimulating, contemplative moment that unites them with nature and lifts their spirit," said Hadi Wijaya, the association's deputy chairman at its Bogor chapter.
And unlike bonsai, which requires continuous care, these stones need hardly any maintenance when kept or displayed properly, he added.