Rock writing is one the most ancient art forms known to humankind. Votive art like my two stones could be found on a shaman’s altar three thousand years ago. The enduring messages they carry, “written in stone”, are time travelers, silently witnessing the changes around them.
My stones, however, have said nothing to me. They are a puzzle written in code. My investigations turn up alluring clues about silence. I am informed by Oriental antique dealers and scholarly works on Chinese landscape art and poetry. They point to a larger picture.
Each stone weighs thirteen ounces and is three inches high, 370 grams and 7.62 cm. The ink from the engravings is almost worn away in places. How many times, over how many years, have these old stones been held?
They are alabaster – a colored crystalline formed eons ago when lava congealed with the minerals around it. This remarkable material has been used for millennia to create objects of art. The Tomb of Tutankhamen (1356 BCE) contained an ornate alabaster triple oil lamp in the form of three lotus flowers. (1) It is a precious lustrous stone. It is so translucent that it was cut into thin flat slabs and used as windowpanes in medieval monasteries around the Mediterranean.
These particular stones are a rare type of alabaster known as “Shoushan” stones, almost certainly from Mount Shoushan on the island of Taiwan. They have found their way from the South China Sea a thousand miles north to the Korean peninsula. This unusual mountain, north of the main entrance to Kaohsiung Harbor, was called Ape Mountain by the Portuguese who observed the many chattering monkeys scampering around on its surface. Cool veins of alabaster can be found buried inside the mountain some fifteen feet beneath the surface.
Koreans and Chinese have always seen their mountains as powerful sacred places. In the mountains they observe the dynamic relationship between water and stone, flow and permanence. They see how mountains connect earth and sky, the human with the divine, the changing and the permanent. Here they find the hidden principles of the universe. Mountains are alive and with souls. Mountains dominate Korea which is three-fourths hills and mountains cut by steep river valleys. The whole Korean Peninsula is made of granite.
Korean and Chinese mountains are powerful sacred places.
Stone CalligraphyEtchings cover the entire surface of the stones, transforming them into miniature mountains. Mountain imagery is an important part of Korea’s shaman history and Taoist past. Drawings of mountains can be found in Buddhist shrines. It is said that a great mountain is itself a Buddha.
From the very beginning, Chinese and Korea monks sought enlightenment in mountain caves. The famed thirteenth century Korean monk, Chinul, rejected the traditional Buddhist monastic life and retreated to the mountains. Here the monks could practice meditation without distraction. Mountain caves are an environment conducive to the meditative absorption, samadhi, necessary to attain enlightenment. In these natural monasteries, the monks encounter both beneficial and harmful spirits on the journey of development.
Alabaster has been used since the Chinese Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE) for beads and incense holders in Buddhist monasteries. Some of these stones are also called gongshi, spirit stones, because they are intended to evoke something from the viewer. (2) In Korea they are called suseok. The most common English name for these small individual stones is “Scholar’s Stones”. Professor Nam would have known that they were a traditional gift between scholars. Studying these stones open a window for me into the profound and fascinating Chinese philosophies expressed in landscape art, an art of silence.
WABI-SABITHE ARTISAN HAD STUDIED THESE TWO particular stones in minute detail, turning and viewing them from every vantage point, in every light. Fault lines make alabaster exquisitely beautiful. The artist would wet the golden-hued stones, paying close attention to slight variations, the tiny “imperfections” of cracks and fissures and lines.
It is here, in these seeming defects, that the stones reveal their unique character and possibility, their wabi-sabi, their natural essence. On one stone the artisan skillfully transforms a tiny crack into the outline of a hill. Another “imperfection” becomes the foundation of a hut.
The stones reveal their wabi-sabi- “defects” are unique possibilities.
A HIDDEN WORLD COMES TO LIFEA FEW SIMPLE LINES from the artist’s fine-tipped metal tool brings the whole miniature mountain to life, full of the quintessential rhythms of nature. Streams tumble down the mountain sides following some invisible natural force, meandering out of sight to become a waterfall or to enter some mountain cavern. The bare suggestion of overhanging crevices, rocky overreaches, narrow ledges and lone pines standing along ridge lines transmit the sense of great heights.
The Lone FishermanThe artist is practicing “the art of expressing much by little”. The arching shapes make the stones soar.
Mountains rise from the valley mists into the sky. One stone shows a vortex of twelve birds flying into the heights; on the other stone five birds in formation dive into an unseen valley.
A lone fisherman lies low in the hills, almost unnoticed. In his tiny boat he sits in quiet serenity, floating in the reservoir of calm, immersed in the incredible grandeur. Tucked into a hill nearby is a thatched hut. The human traces are so faint they easily vanish back into emptiness.
The insignificance of the human presence in the vastness of nature is a Taoist emphasis. The ordinary world is grand and perfect just as it is. These etchings express a deeply ecological message, a profound weaving of the human and natural world, never really different to begin with.
The etchings express a deeply ecological message, a profound weaving of the human and natural world.
Ancient Stamps: On my desk, the stones stand solidly on their flat bases where a seal, known as a chop, has been carved. A chop is the widely used East Asian version of a formal signature. The chop would be dampened in an ink pad of red paste made of vivid red cinnabar and then pressed onto a sheet of rice paper. The chop would be either yin or yang, depending on which part of the stamp is inked and pressed into the paper. Stamps like this are often found on paintings and scrolls, not only to identify the author of a painting, but to show the names of admirers. These stamps were first used in the Imperial Court of the Chinese Emperor, they could be the stamp of an official administrative office. The writing on the stamp is of Mongol origin, evoking the high windswept plateau of Central Asia. Each stone has a strange identical circular seal that looks like blossoming energy.
Stone Poetry and ArtWritten on a cloud: In addition to the mountain elements, each stone contains a set of twenty traditional Chinese characters. The four columns of five characters each are precisely and beautifully etched, perfectly oriented. Each vertical column of characters is read from right to left and from top to bottom, as is customary in Chinese poetry. One poem is written on the face of a huge boulder. The other stone’s poem is written on a cloud of mist.
Just to the left of the poems is an intriguing inscription containing a Chinese character that looks slightly familiar. Is it the number two? What could that mean?
Fullness in emptiness: These surface etchings transform each stone into a world within itself. Like cave art, there is a lasting message being conveyed. Like the kensho breakthrough, the stones provide a glimpse of a larger story still shrouded in mystery, waiting to become known. I could guess the meaning of a few markings on the stones, but the real message is written in a language I do not yet know, about a world I barely understand.
Carving poetry on rocks is an ancient Chinese tradition. But adding drawings to the poetry is an unexpected clue. This unique form of expression is called a “soundless poem”.(3) It was first created during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE). It is intended to express an immediate silent experience.
The Chinese have a word for this kind of artistic expression. It is called shan-shui. The Chinese characters stand for mountain and water; together they mean “frontier”, “a gateway”. The vortex of birds draws your eyes upward into emptiness. Mountain landscapes emerge from that emptiness, hover, and recede into mist. This unique art form always contains a threshold and a path – you enter the emptiness.
The sparse fine lines are just enough to welcome you on a path into the mountain, perhaps a monastic journey into this silent world of mist and cloud-hidden peaks. Between the lines there is a pregnant emptiness, a fullness rather than a nothingness. The stones embody the experience of silence; they are intended to transmit silence to the holder.
“When we have found the Truth,
Mountain is mountain, water is water” (4)
COMING ALIVE, TAKING THE CHALLENGEWHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THESE STONES? What do they say about the larger mystery of silence? What will they reveal?
It has been three decades since I received the stones, and something deep is beginning to change in my life. At home, silence becomes a central force in my everyday life. I stop answering the phone, and Stevi begins covering for me. Being invisible to my community feels OK, but when I say “No” to friends I still feel guilty. How could they know about this shift I am experiencing? I don’t understand it myself, but feel grateful for its presence in my life.
I feel myself coming alive, reawakening to a forgotten quest. The controversial challenge, from theologian and social advocate Howard Thurman, speaks to me: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” (5)
HOW DO I PROCEED with a two-dimensional project like this – both personal and scholarly? It is completely unclear, but I get enthusiastic encouragement from my interfaith group. (See end note on MCWRET. (6))
Silence is the sense of vast inner space, something you learn to live in, an inner space that is your deepest home. Silence can’t really be understood second-hand. It is essentially subjective; it has to be studied directly and personally. It is an ancient and invisible space that must be navigated solo.
This silent inner voyage is best seen in an individual life in which it is actually happening A personal narrative can serve as a vehicle to understand and tell the greater story of silence. I felt encouraged by Carl Rogers’ challenge to investigate our own depths: “That which is most deeply personal, is most universal”, he says. (7)
I needed time to get inside myself. A physically exhausting trek through a remote canyon in Utah gives me a week in the deep desert silence. Here is the same vast interconnected stillness I experienced so long ago in a Korean temple.
How could something as commonplace as silence have such overwhelming power? For thousands of years, humans have been drawn to the realm of silence. Silence is an important, but largely unseen, part of the human story.
Silence is the sense of vast inner space. It is your deepest home. Silence is not understood secondhand.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
- Write a description of an object in your everyday life that you would describe as “wabi-sabi.”
- Write about an object in everyday life that seems to have some special allure and mystery for you.
- Spend a half hour in the “here and now”. Listen to the silence. Use your senses of taste, sight, touch, hearing, smell in the present moment. Write about what you experience.
- Find an image (from magazines, a Google image search, art work, etc.) that best represents what solitude and silence looks like to you.
(1) “What-Is-Alabaster”, http://www.newclassicsbrasslight.com/What-Is-Alabaster .
(2) Studying these stones opened a window for me into the profound and fascinating Chinese philosophies of landscape art. Some useful resources have been:
- “A Brief History of Chinese Scholar’s Rocks” http://shimagata.tripod.com/srhist.htm accessed 11/1/15
- Mowry, Robert D. (1997) Worlds Within Worlds: The Richard Rosenblum Collection of Chinese Scholar’s Rocks, Exhibit Catalog, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass.
- “Landscape Painting in Chinese Art” http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/clpg/hd_clpg.htm accessed 11/1/15.
- Little, Stephen (2000) Taoism and the Arts of China.
- Nan Shunxun, Nan and Foit-Albert Beverly (2007) China’s Sacred Sites, www.HimalayanInstitute.org accessed 11/1/15
(3) Rubinstein, Leni, (1999) “The Great Art of China’s ‘Soundless Poems’” Fidelio, Spring, 1999.
(4) Kwon, Ho-Youn, Korean Americans and Their Religions: Pilgrims and Missionaries from a Different Shore,“Turning the Wheel of Dharma in the West, Korean Sŏn Buddhism in the West”, p. 238.
(5) Thurman, Howard, Attributed to Thurman in Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled, p. xv.
(6) There are deep-seated assumptions about how things are “supposed to be” that many people would never think about or question. My own field of intercultural relations makes me well aware of how deeply every culture is grounded in a worldview based on religion/philosophy. So my involvement with my interfaith organization has been very rich. Despite my usual reluctance to belong to a group, I am excited with the mission: peace through interfaith understanding, building bridges between religious/spiritual groups in my highly diverse Monmouth County.
The group is composed of leaders from a dozen religious traditions and some with no religious affiliation at all. Being guided by the principles of interfaith dialogue, we can discuss just about anything. Over the years our focus and interests are more on how we actually live our traditions, than on our comparative dogmas.
One evening I decide to tell them about my interests in silence. I am thrilled by their response. Several members tell me that silence is a significant part of their own lives. It is also an important part of their religious traditions. The group encourages me to take on the challenge of exploring and understanding this silent path. It turns into a major project called The Solitude Project. The Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought continues to be a powerful support and collaborative resource in this project.
(7) Rogers, Carl (2003) The Quiet-Revolutionary. Amazon https://amzn.to/2KMenUo