The Suiseki

Suiseki and the unique view of nature in Japan

by Mr. Martin Pauli

Japanese artists have turned more frequently to nature for their subject matter while Western artists have tended to focus primarily on human subject. Ancient Buddhist art containing representations of human form is above all concerned with expressing the truth of Buddha’s law. Buddhist images symbolized, in iconographic form, a universal view that set forth humankind’s relation to nature.
Subsequently, art expanded beyond the realm of religion, evolving first through the Heian imperial court (794-1185), then into the austere period of samurai ascendancy during the Kamakura (1185-1333), Muromachi (1333-1568), and Momoyama (1568-1600) periods, and further still into the modern aestheticism of the Edo period (1600-1868). Through every era, despite numerous changes in modes of expression, one common artistic thread persisted: a profound interest in natural scenery and landscape.

For Japanese, it seems that the portrayal of nature by its symbolic beauty, its harmonious interplay, its inherent order, and its evocative power should be the predominant subject of art.

Non-Japanese often say that they find the thinking of Japanese people difficult to comprehend. The rules that define the norms for Japanese people are different. Underlying their guidelines are a number of basic tenets: nature is beautiful, nature is harmonious, it has an intrinsic order and rules, and in certain way it can be seen to have an ethical or moral dimension.
These ideas are shaped by the belief that humankinds exist with the order of nature. Where the Japanese perhaps differ from other peoples sharing these same views is in their seeming inability to define nature’s laws in clear, objective terms.
Among the terms used by Japanese to define their sensibilities, are “mono no aware” (the pathos of things). The term informs the norms believed to govern Japanese behavior, and is based of a deep affinity with nature and beauty, and a spontaneous, emotional response toward them.
The term is also used in a broader sense to describe a corresponding emotional affinity between humankind and the other creatures in the natural universe, or the love that exists between a man and a woman.
One of the most exceptional Japanese arts, representing this unique view of nature, is “suiseki”.
Suiseki is the art of striving to symbolize natural phenomena, from countryside to the universe, using a stone a few inches to a foot and a half in dimension.
The art of suiseki begins with the acquisition of stones in nature and consummates in a sensation of beauty and in a spiritual connection between the collector and the stone. The stones are natural and not to be worked on or altered in anyway by human being.
The five main elements
Many different things have been written about facts and terms from the world of suiseki during the last few years. I am writing this text in the hope it can clear up some inconsistencies about the art suiseki.
A beautiful suiseki is a natural stone, which suggests, in its natural form, a scene from nature (sansui), a personage or an object (sugata), an animal (dôbutsu) for example.
This act of association evokes a spirit of calm and restfulness in the soul of the viewer. In order to grasp this concept in concrete terms it is important to understand what are known as the five elements of suiseki. In other words, the aesthetic value of a stone is influenced by the shape, quality, color, texture and age of the stone.
The final judgment of a stone is an overall appreciation of these various elements interweaving and interacting with each other.
First at all, it is important to accept, that the suiseki is a pure Japanese art form developed during several hundreds of years by peoples with refined taste, well educated in chado the way of Tee and a deep understanding of nature.
If one have found a nice stone in Europe or somewhere else and you ask a Japanese person to judge it, one will mostly be disappointed. The reason why is, that a Japanese person was brought up in a world totally different to ours in all aspects of life and culture, religion, symbolism, colors, shapes, food, signs, language and his profound relation to nature.
First element: Shape (katachi)

This is the most important element in judging the relative qualities of a suiseki. The most common method of appreciation is to sit at some distance from the front of the stone and gaze at it. Any stone that has an unnatural feeling at the first glimpse is considered unsuitable. We can also mention the following about the ideal method of viewing a stone.

Three Surface Method (sanmen no ho)  
This is considered to be the most basic approach to appreciating suiseki. Three surfaces (sanmen) refer to the front & back, the left & right, and top & bottom of the stone. A balance among these different surfaces is considered to be basic when viewing and judging a stone.
When viewing a stone from the vantage point of these three surfaces, there should be a balance in terms of mass and shape. An outstanding stone is also one in which there is a harmony regarding the size, thickness and shape of the three surfaces.
For an example, if there is a mountain foot on the front of a distant mountain stone ( toyama ishi), there ideally should be a foot section on the back as well.
If the right side of the mountain protrudes out, there must also be an extension of some degree on the left side as well. The bottom of the stone is good when the stone „sits“ well in the center in relation to the whole. However, these are all ideals. In actual practice, the three surfaces should basically display a representative form and a certain degree of unity.
Unnatural feeling   
Note that suiseki are representing an idealized picture of Japanese nature and culture. «Sanmen No Ho», the Japanese system only plays with these 3 surfaces, but it judges all 6 sides. Front and back: As Matsuura Arishige says, the front of a stone is the most important side of the stone because of stones are presented in the alcove (tokonoma) and you sit or stand in front of it to view the tokonoma display (tokokazari). Likely a human being, Japanese understand a tree or a stone as a creature or a „living been that cannot speak“ they somehow personify Mountains as Fuji-san or stones suggesting Kannon as Kannon-san. Lafcadio Hearn mentioned in one of his books: Japanese believe, that there are to kinds of existences such with “wishes” (humans) an such without wishes
A stone lover has said once: „An outstanding person is hardly to be found, to find an outstanding stone is even worse.“
Front & back means all aspects like the stones contour or outline, the depth and so on. The line of the mountain ridge should be soft and rhythmical and the viewer’s eye should be able to follow easily. The slopes descent softly to the ground and the mountains foot should run out to the viewer. On the backside, the mountain should not look like cut or broken and it should not bend in. There should be a mountain foot running out as well but not as far as on the front side.
Left & right: Same like front and back, the mountains shall look harmonious and natural. The mountain food shall run out on the left side and on the right side. The peek of a mountain shall ideally stand one third from the left or right side, following the principle of the golden section.
Top & bottom: Seeing from top, the stone should bend a little toward the viewer, as bonsai should. The stones middle section shall be deeper than its ends. The stones bottom should be - more or less - flat, natural, not cut (It’s allowed to remove a small protrusion if it makes it difficult to place it in the tray (suiban) or carved wooden stand (daiza).
Mass & Shape
Thickness: A stone can be slim, light and elegant, another can be powerful and heavy.
A stone should “sit” well. If one place a stone in a suiban one will immediately see what is mend. If a stone is laid in the suiban, the whole base should touch the sand. Sand is always representing a lake or the ocean and shall be ideally of the color of ivory. A suiban has not necessarily to be very shallow. There are also deep suibans used to present a suiseki with an uneven base. But the dimension of a suiban shall always harmonize with the dimension of the tone.
Second element: Quality (shitsu)
As for the qualities stone suited for suiseki, the stone should be hard and dense enough that it does not immediately change in quality and where there is no danger of breaking. Moss grows readily on soft stone that absorbs water. Lava can break readily.
On the other hand, if the stone is too hard it will lack that special element of beauty that appeals to our hearts. In other words, a suiseki should have the proper hardness to maintain its shape but also have a tactile element that exudes peace and repose. It should also be suited to pouring water on it to maintain a moist feeling over a long period. Such stones are known as «mizumochi no ii ishi» good water-holding stones in the world of suiseki.

But such characteristics are difficult to bring out in stones, which have been newly retrieved from rivers, known as araishi; ara comes from atarashii (new). In order to improve the water holding qualities of the stone it is important to expose the stone to the daylight and to irrigate it. Even if the stone originally have poor water absorption qualities, it is possible to improve those qualities by „breaking them in“ over a long period. By exposing the stones to the elements it is possible to bring out the qualities that allow them to harmonize more readily with water.

In preparing stones, it is common to place them on bonsai shelves or in sunny areas of the garden and to pour water (in Europe distilled water would suit best) on them every day. The position of the stone should also be changed once a month. However, when exposing the stone to the daylight this is generally limited to stones, which will be exhibited in the suiban.  
For stones to be appreciated on daiza pedestals, such as stones with a beautiful texture, such a method outdoors is not suitable. In this case, the stones are kept indoors and rubbed with a dry cotton cloth regularly.
This period and treatment of bringing out the qualities of the stone is actually the most important element of suiseki. The types of stone appreciated on daiza pedestals include some Kamuikotan-ishi, Seigaku-ishi, Furuya-ishi and Chrysanthemum stones (Kikkaseki).
Breaking them in means, that the continuous process of watering and sunshine opens the surface of the stone. It erodes and physically seen, the surface becomes more and more porous and extended and the colors of the surface appear darker.
Third element: Color (iro)
Important in this case is that the color of the stone does not evoke a feeling of the strange or unnatural. Instead it should call to mind natural scenery and feelings. In the world of suiseki, the dignity and composure of the stone are especially important. That means solid, well-defined dark colors with a feeling of depth are most appreciated.   

A black stone, which produces a feeling of refined taste and sleekness when water is poured on, it is considered the ideal. The black stones from Kamogawa (Kamo-River) are rated best in this regard. How ever, connoisseurs also appreciate Kurama stones with their dark brown color close to that of iron rust. Then there are good dark tones as blue-black or gray-black.

An unusual and strange color is a color, which is not to be seen in (Japanese) nature.
Colors symbolize seasons. For example the rusty brown color of the Kurama-ishi is representing late summer or autumn. When the Japanese maples on the mountain slopes “bloom” (sakari), turn in to a wonderful red. There is another specific color very much appreciated by suiseki lovers the carmine red ( Beni ) found on stones from Kamo-River (kamogawa). They are known as kamogawa-beni-nagashi-ishi. It is said that this is the make-up color used by the ladies of the court during the Heian period.
Fourth element: Texture (hada-ai)

Natural stones are washed by the motion of the water in rivers or the ocean, creating a unique texture on the surface. This is known as “hada-ai” in the world of suiseki. The section, which has resisted erosion, is known as the “hame”. The softer section, which has been worn by wind and waves, is known as the “hadame”. The areas where the hadame has been carved with particular depth are known as the «shin» bone of the stone.

The texture must not necessarily be smooth. There are also stones with a rough texture. There are also special words used to express the features of the texture.

For example, “jagure” is the word used to describe irregular indentations and protrusions on the surface. “Sudachi” refers to a texture featuring multiple round holes measuring 1-2 mm across. Rice grain (beiten-moyo) refers to a surface with mainly small protrusions of rice grain shape and size. There is also “shun” which refers to a pleated surface. Such a texture is often found in Furuya stones. A word of similar meaning used to express complex and fine pleats on a stone surface is “shiwa” wrinkles.
A texture in which quartz on brown sandstone surface creates irregular lines horizontally and vertically is known as “itokake” or “itomaki” thread.
Pear skin surface (richi-hada) refers to innumerable spots on the surface like the skin of a pear. Then there is “ryûgan” dragon eye to refer to the spot like veins of quartz and limestone in the main stone as often found in the white section forming the waterfall of stones of that name.
Another type is one in which the softer section of a natural chrysanthemum-shaped stone falls off due to the weathering so that the center of the petals appears. This is generally referred to as “saba”. The common term “sabahana” refers to this “saba” state on chrysanthemum shaped stones.
Unique Texture
In it is said that the water of the rivers produces the best stone surfaces. Such stones are called “sawa ishi”. There are only few places at the shore of the ocean where good stones can be found and they are called “kobi ishi”. Sawa- shi and kobi ishi have normally a much more interesting and smoother surfaces than stones found in the mountain.

A very few places up in the mountain are known where good stones can be found for example the Furuya-ishi and Seigaku-ishi. Stones found in the mountain are called “yama ishi”. There are also stones found in caves they are called “do ishi”.

Important note: The place of origin has nothing to do with the form of “yôseki”.

Fifth element:  Age (jidai)
As in the case with bonsai, there is also reference to the age “jidai” regarding suiseki. This word refers to the composed nature and texture, that is, the special character of the stone, which appears a result of aging “yôseki” of the stone mentioned above.
The shape, quality and texture of the stone all come to completion when the proper age “jidai” is reached. This is the feeling of quiet composure resulting from the physical process of weathering. But this requires the care and attention of the owner to bring out the unique qualities of the stone.
Indeed, depending on the stone’s character, this can take as long as twenty years to bring out the age “jidai” or old color “ko-shoku” of the stone. In short words: The It is said that it takes at least ten years to bring out the true suiseki qualities of a new harder the material of a stone the longer it lasts to bring out the quality.
To be resumed. A new, young stone with a good shape, good quality, good color and a good texture is not jet a suiseki it’s called an “araishi” new stone. When you are viewing an old dark stone placed in a old suiban, the water disappearing from the surface, it will give you an impression of age that you will never get from a new stone. An old stone’s satin like surface seems to be eager for water. If you blow on it, it takes the liquid of your breath and keeps it for a while.
Enjoyment of suiseki

A suiseki is nothing more than a chunk of rock. We cannot expect to immediately feel the movement of nature in the stone and let our spirits play in that world. However, if there is something that attracts you in viewing stones, that is enough to develop an interest in suiseki. Interest in suiseki takes on depth together with the spiritual development of the individual person.

When person examines the way of “tokonoma kazari” presenting the suiseki in the tokonoma, one can immediately tell the taste and skill of the owner. When one view a suiseki presentation one can tell what thoughts the person had and what world he had entered. One can feel his sensibility, not to mention his aesthetic eye and consciousness. Persons of like tastes will feel the same thrill and joy on viewing a particular suiseki kazari.

 In other words, presentation of a stone “kazari” requires deep knowledge and learning in several fields such as poetry, literature, hanging scrolls, symbolism and writing utensils. This is why it is said, that an interest in suiseki extends into the deep recesses of the human spirit.

Nevertheless, one need not consider suiseki as an exceedingly demanding interest. One can start out by simply finding a stone, which suggests some shape, such as that of a mountain, and placing it in a water basin or on a pedestal for enjoyment. Rather than just the bare rock, you can let your imagination take wing and consider possibilities for the background..

An interest in suiseki develops a feeling of repose and richness in the soul, which can then be a source of energy in your daily tasks. Please take this opportunity to develop an interest.