With its seeming love for the one-of-a-kind and constant change, the natural world can be quite worthy of our detailed inspection. Even an oddly unique, or broken and incomplete natural object can be so beautiful it can take our breath away. There is a story about Sen no Rikyu, a famous Japanese tea ceremony master – he shook a few leaves onto the moss after a tea garden was cleaned a bit too perfectly. Leaving a few fallen leaves on the moss points to the wonder and mystery of reality as it really is.
We care about others’ approval because we need others in order to survive, and that can have us wanting to be perfect. But perfection in the abstract is a rather odd concept when you think about it. Toward what end? And according to what standards does it operate, anyway? What matters to one person may not matter at all to another and different cultures value different things.
I have found that people actually love it when we accept ourselves, imperfections and all, and when we can be open about feeling vulnerable at times. Those who can accept their own imperfections tend to have an easier time accepting them in others which can be a great relief given how much we tend to fear being negatively judged.
Japanese tea ceremony teaches many lessons through the actions involved in sharing tea while engaging with various objects. For example, a beautiful tactile tea bowl like the one made by my Japanese tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya, may be misshapen or have imperfections in its glaze that resulted from a collaboration with the kiln fire. Irregularities and burnishing from age and use can add great depth to beauty, something that we can learn to appreciate in each other as well as in tea bowls, even mended ones.
The subtle and hard to define Japanese concept of “wabi sabi” embraces imperfection. It recognizes that since everything is constantly changing, perfection is impossible, except in perfect moments as Beth Kempton notes along with wonderful examples in her Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life.
I find that looking for a beauty that embraces imperfection can provide great solace. At times we can even catch others and ourselves in the act of being beautiful. And seeing the light shining through that deeper beauty can connect us to all that is.
Below are examples of imperfect beauty that called out to me. I recommend the wonderful adventure of finding your own examples.
The first photo shows an arrangement designed to evoke a falling down structure. This “well” was originally constructed in the White Mountains of New Hampshire by pioneer Dolly Copp to capture stream water which was piped downhill to the Copp Family homestead.
When I returned to the site in New Hampshire in 2012, it was still a place where fireflies gathered in the evening, but all indication of a manmade structure was gone (second photo below).
I noticed right away that there was what looked like a dry stream running along the back of my yard:
During a trip to Japan, I noticed this superb dry stream where Somehow the flat plate-like rocks in the stream bed suggest rushing splashing rapids and more. The way the rocks are set feels inevitable, yet not immune to the forces of time. This gift by a true master reminds us that we have access to where transience meets eternity, even as we ourselves change.
Just for fun, here is an actual stream in a place that should by rights be dry:
Many viewing stones are completely natural, although some are cut so they can be placed cut side down in a carved stand. With an impact that belies their small size, viewing stones can be highly evocative of mountains, waterfalls, or pools. They are worthy of contemplation for the response they produce in us.
At times they resemble animals or are prized for their surface patterns. A tiny figure may be added to complement the mood of a stone. Larger ones are displayed outside in gardens. Placing a number of them together on a stand provides an opportunity to linger and enjoy the “conversation” among their diverse colors, shapes and textures.
When I asked what she might like to contribute for a gathering to share tea and dialogue in my tea hut, Anita suggested blueberries. Blueberries are tough plants. They like the acidic gravelly soil with lots of sun exposure that is found on tops of mountains in New England and other places where they grow wild. They thrive when they are burned or eaten back by animals as this stimulates new growth underground.
Knowing they are good for you does not take anything away from their wonderful color and sweet-acid taste after a hike up a mountain.
Anita told me she has different memories of blueberries. In New England where she now lives, she buys them at farm stands. But in Central America, where she is from, they did not know about the fruit.
She has special memories of her American grandfather who loved pies made from blueberries. He had the fruit sent all the way from North America to Honduras by boat. Here she tells that story for a video made by Jeff Klein.
Like jade, tourmaline comes in many colors. Individual crystals can grow quite large at times – a two-inch green example is shown below. They are also found in handsome clusters and penetrating quartz. When many narrow crystals (or hollow ones) are aligned, a cat’s eye effect may be achieved with a bright band that intensifies, fades and moves with the light. Gems are cut in a rainbow of single colors and multi-colored slabs are also used in rings and pendants. “Watermelon” tourmaline is famous. Blue is relatively rare with the intense blue-green Paraiba highly prized.
There is a theory that all humans prefer a particular type of open landscape with a vista of trees and water. These days, we are bombarded with devastating images of too little or too much water, but I hope we do not settle for mere survival as we work to compensate for this widespread and highly destructive disruption.
Landscapes with water can do more than that and it may not take as much water as you think.
It is true that I love taking photos of large bodies of water in nature…
and the sea has meaning for me as a metaphor.
But surprisingly, the small amount of water in my granite water basin has proven to be enough for me to feel a deep connection to nature’s flow. It captures light. Breezes move its surface as do rain drops. Creatures drink from it. On a hot day, a raccoon jumped right in. Leaves it reflects change shape and color, then fall in. After I clear them out, ice mounds up until it melts in spring. Then the caressing moss emerges once again.
My brother, who gave me this facetted rabbit asked me to take a photo of it creating rainbows. Though tiny, you can see them there on the bottle behind it.
I was surprised by the interest in this photo. Perhaps I should not have been. Rainbows capture our attention. Whether arching out in nature or resulting from light dispersing through objects, we are delighted by their ephemeral beauty.
Our ability to perceive rainbows can also be thought provoking. Color vision is a mysterious part of our highly sensitive but limited apparatus to sense what is out there. Other animals’ vision can be quite different.
At a fundamental level the colors we can see are a function of how our human eyes and brains work. In most humans, three types of cone cells are triggered by different wave lengths of light and the results are combined by our brains so we can distinguish at least a million colors.
Color blindness results from having two normal and one mutant cone cell. The daughters of color-blind men may be born with a fourth type of cone cell and in theory, these tetrachromat daughters can perceive many millions of additional colors. However, it may take practice for them to activate this ability, and the natural world may not provide many opportunities for such practice.
The study of color vision involves many disciplines and the elusive nature of personal subjective experience adds to the challenge. Associations matter, and color preferences can differ by culture. That, however, takes nothing away from the wonder we feel when seeing a spectrum array of colors, however we perceive them, laid before us in a rainbow.
Bringing in peace as you prepare for a gathering will affect you in ways that cannot help but benefit your guests – Pause, Relax, and Open, Attune to Emergence and Listen Deeply. Then Speak the Truth in creating an environment that conveys warmth and welcome. The Insight Dialogue guidelines work well in so many applications including this one.
Perhaps you will include a reminder of nature displayed in a place of honor with space around it. Using a light touch, see what happens. Relying on a heart connection without words can open us to wonderful small surprises and an understanding that with a little care, life can be lived more like a work of art.
You can bring to it all the sensitivity and freshness used to create a tokonoma alcove arrangement for a tea ceremony. This one includes a collage by my tea ceremony teacher, Giselle Maya:
You may also wish to keep in mind the Japanese tea ceremony values of harmony, purity, respect and tranquility. While it is important to ensure that what touches food or drink is scrupulously clean and that edibles are pure and safe, purity also dictates that anything not needed be eliminated. Care taken with objects and supplies implies respect for your guests.
Ideally, the result will be supportive of a sense of peace and wellbeing as well as openness. It takes a bit of effort, but this approach to preparing for guests is an important mindfulness practice in its own right.
I had the shadow box for some time before I discovered what I wanted to do with it. It was a multi-step process: 1) Pick a stone, 2) Find or take a photo that told a story about the stone, 3) Arrange the stone and photo in the shadow box, and finally, 4) take a photo of the completed arrangement like those below. I could not predict what would happen. The ones I struggled with could come together in perfect balance in the end. I kept thinking of new possibilities. This could be endless. Stones just have resonance.
Morrisonite jasper slab with closeup taken from the top right.
Lobster claw Scholar’s Rock with a lobster roll.
Bubble lace agate with closeup.
Hut Stone Scholar’s Rock with Japanese garden photo.
Jasper pebble & the Whidbey Island beach where I found it.
The below contemplation was used for several tea and dialogue sessions with an explanation that “The unending sea of blessings,” a phrase used on scrolls hung in Zen temples and during tea ceremonies is not a closed concept. It tells us what we can sense when we remove the obstacles we put in our own way. Wilson discusses it in The One Taste of Truth, Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea on page 135.
The ability to experience pain is necessary for biological beings. We need to recognize and avoid what is dangerous in order to survive. But humans can easily get stuck cycling in stressful worry and doubt. We can forget that compassion also comes naturally to us.
Compassion is. It matters as much to us as sensing pain. That understanding is common to spiritual traditions the world over. We are born with an instinct for compassion. Even babies too young to speak will pick up something that is dropped and hand it back to you.
Bringing in self-compassion when it is needed makes it easier to see the caring generosity from others and nature all around us. It shows us the unending sea of blessings. Research provides evidence that when we offer support to others, we benefit our own wellbeing, health and resilience.
We can open to the preciousness, the beauty of the transient tides we swim in. We dance the unending sea of blessings as much as it dances us. We have the capacity to do small acts of kindness as simple and important as a smile. We can recognize the light in each other that shines through our uniqueness.
We belong to the source of all waves
Colors never seen before
Floating and becoming and blinking out of existence
Only to well up again with
All the moldy, composted, and fertile mysteries
That make up our days
And the recognition when we see
Our own water light colors in others’ eyes
Facing waterfalls and the ocean, we recognize
The call in our sea salt blood ever coursing
We answer our cries for compassion
From no-thought belonging