Object Lessons

I recently acquired a tiny (4 cm tall) copper “Three Wise Monkeys” statue. Finding a ceramic version confirmed my suspicions that the three monkeys statue was a futaoki (lid rest in Japanese) used to support the kettle lid when hot water is poured into tea bowls. But associations with manmade objects can be complex and change over time. I wanted to learn more.

An article about the symbolism of the three monkeys noted, “During the Warring States period of China, around 475 to 221 BCE, the Analects of Confucius included the proverb of looking not at what’s contrary to being right; listening not to what’s contrary to being right; making no movement which is contrary to being right.”

I was glad to learn from this article that the monkeys were present in Japan at the time tea ceremony was gaining popularity; “By the time of the Tokugawa period, also known as the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, the three monkeys were portrayed in Buddhist sculptures. At the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Japan, an eight panel sculpture represents the Code of Conduct developed by Confucius. One of the panels is the Three Wise Monkeys, symbolizing the principle of not seeing, not hearing and not saying anything evil…The message is that we should protect ourselves by not letting evil enter our sight, not allowing evil words to enter our hearing, and finally to not speak and engage in evil words and thoughts.”

The meaning ascribed to the three monkeys changed as they spread to new lands; later in Europe, the monkeys provided a reminder of the need to be blind, deaf and dumb in order to live in peace. Now with technology making it possible for fake news to travel faster than real news and the increasingly subtle ways evil doers are finding to manipulate our harmful human mind tendencies, the monkeys’ warning is taking on new poignancy.

They are also used as emojis – the hear no evil monkey to suggest hearing something one did not wish to “hear,” and speak no evil, when a comment seemed inappropriate for the topic under discussion.

I wonder what new associations these three enigmatic little monkeys will acquire in the future? I will smile as I place the little monkeys next to the hot water kettle before guests arrive to share tea in my hut.

The Spirit of Wood

With its warmth and depth, wood can speak to us in ways that few other materials can. We make so many things from it, we can take wood’s existence for granted. Some cultures particularly value the beauty of wood. The Japanese (who also value “forest bathing ”) have developed tools to shave incredibly thin strips from wood leaving a satin-smooth surface.

This post focuses on two old wooden objects from Nepal – see the first photo below. The wonderful five inch box with wheels has a cherry blossom carved in its swivel lid. Some kinds of cherry trees are native to Nepal but this chunky box seems quite a contrast to the delicacy of those blossoms.

Anthropomorphic figures like the one to the right are found outside temples, near springs, guarding bridge entrances and on rooftops in western Nepal. In Wood Sculpture in Nepal, Jokers and Talismans, Bertrand Goy and Max Itzikovitz write, “very few serious and thorough scientific works (are) available to help us make sense of the scattered, fragmented and often conflicting information on these sculptures” (p 49). Scholarly works tend to discuss religious objects from the Kathmandu valley like the idealized donor lamp in the second photo.

Knowing almost nothing about them only increases the appeal of these two wooden objects – I am free to imagine all kinds of meanings and uses. Whatever the original intention, the makers deep feeling for the spirit of wood is clear in a vivid aliveness that transcends cultures and time.

These two old wooden objects from Nepal captured my heart

An idealized donor oil lamp that would have been given to a temple

Learning to See

This paperweight was on the window sill for a while before I noticed its changeable personality. Two curved layers with outer films of dichroic glass reflected and transmitted light. Now that I looked more closely, depending on the light and the angle, everything changed.

I got out my camera to see what the super macro setting would capture. How could one small object do all of that?

Tiny Rainbows

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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.

The Colors of Jade

While it is known for its shades of green, jade can be found in many remarkable colors, some softer and some more brilliant. It is also carved in a wide variety of styles and forms. The pendants and bangles in the photos below show just some of its possibilities. They were carved in the United States, New Zealand, China, and Guatemala, some a while ago and some only recently. Each has a story to tell, and since jade is such a tough stone, it is a refuge that will last.

smalls
two rabbits
bangle
three NZ
tree
haitiki
bird head
bangle2
Schiling's pendants
dragon