Sunday, March 17, 2013

On mending broken things

“Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. 
Between the two my life flows.” 
- Nisargadatta Maharaj

TEABOWL (chawan), 15th century, Tokoname ware (yobitsugi-repairs with 18th century porcelain)

Yesterday I went to a meditation and discussion session on mindfulness and no self, at the Abbotsford Convent. Over lunch at a lovely café there, I found myself discussing Japanese aesthetics with a Christian minister while sipping on genmaicha (green tea with roasted brown rice), served in pale green porcelain cups.

One of the aesthetic concepts my new friend introduced me to was Kintsugi, which literally means “golden joinery.”  It relates to the practice of mending breaks in pottery or porcelain by filling them with gold – or to be more accurate, with adhesive resin mixed with gold dust. In this way something broken can become more beautiful, through the process of mending, than it was to start with. Perfection, or looking “as good as new” is not the most valuable possibility, from this perspective.

Later, thanks to a fascinating essay written by Christy Bartlett to accompany an exhibition of Japanese mended ceramics, I discovered a suggestive connection between this approach to the repair of broken objects, and the teaching of no self that we were attempting to practice and understand in our meditation and discussion at the Convent.

Bartlett explains that in the context of traditional tea ceremonies in Japan, mended objects are seen as a physical embodiment of the spirit of mushin, or “no mind.” This state is associated with fully existing within the moment, non-attachment, equanimity amid changing conditions, and relinquishing the impulse to impose one’s will on the world.

Accidental fractures set in motion acts of repair that accept given circumstances and work within them to lead to an ultimately more profound appearance. The only willfulness in the process is the effort to assist with the rebirth of something whose existence has been threatened, something that has held value for others.

In this practice there is the wisdom of accepting change, and seeing that there is no permanent self to cling to, whether we are talking about a pot or a person. But there is also the compassion that senses the value in a broken bowl, or a life in crisis, and is willing to take the care necessary to carry it forward into a new form. The two apparently (or logically) contradictory impulses of wisdom and love are not in tension here. As Nisargadatta suggests, life flows between them.

This meeting of acceptance and care in turn evokes another Japanese concept, that of mono no aware, literally “the pathos of things.” It connotes a compassionate sensitivity to ephemera, an empathy towards, or even identification with transient things. This sense of connection springs from an appreciation of temporality, an awareness that just like fragile and well-used ceramics, we are all vulnerable to the gradual or sudden, but in case eventually inevitable, break up of the body.

This thought brings to mind my father, who is currently recuperating from a double knee replacement, happily a very successful “breakage” and repair of these well-used parts of his body.

Bartlett emphasizes that the impact of a carefully mended teacup or bowl (or kneecap, for that matter) is not just visual, but emotional. Historically significant mended items are often accompanied by lines of poetry, which enhance the object’s mute ability to evoke a simultaneous sense of rupture and continuity, fragility and resilience, life before the breakage and life after.

Often the tone of these verses is wistful, reflecting the fact that in Japan, mended ceramics are traditionally used only in the last two weeks of October, the waning days of autumn, known as the season of nagoriBut sometimes the tone is humorous, emphasizing the transformative power of the imagination.

This is the case in a story told about a Korean Ido-style teabowl owned by a Japanese military leader of the sixteenth century, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He had received this treasured object from an older leader, Tsutsui Junkei. One day, a page in Hideyoshi’s retinue dropped the precious bowl and it broke into five pieces. Everyone froze, fearing for the boy, since Hideyoshi was known for his fierce temper.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

Then a guest (showing remarkable mindfulness) improvised a gracious comic poem, taking as his inspiration a famous verse about the passing of time as measured by a mark on a well curb. In the original poem the mark records the height of a boy, who has since grown up. In the improvisation, the well curb becomes a metaphor for the broken cup:

Tsutsui’s well curb
Became split into five
Alas for that well-deep bowl
All of the blame –
It seems to have been mine.

The poet’s words made everyone laugh appreciatively, and restored Hideyoshi to good spirits. Soon enough, the teabowl was also restored and given the name Tsutsui Zutsu (meaning well-curb). It continued to be used and cherished in Hideyoshi’s family for generations, occasionally returning to five pieces only to be mended again. Centuries later, the bowl and its five famous cracks are still in existence today.

Stories like this don’t just affirm the value of mending things that are broken; they also change our perspective on brokenness. They suggest that the value of gold-filled cracks might lie less in the gold, than in the unconventional beauty and interest of the cracks themselves.

After we finished lunch, and the minister left, I noticed a tiny, yellow and white flower that must have drifted down during our conversation, now floating in my unfinished cup of tea.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


In a yoga class this week, I asked my teacher about how to perform a movement which involves “sucking in” the abdomen without letting the chest rise (uddiyana bhanda, for the yogis). Should I think of this movement as pulling the abdominal muscles upwards within the body, or straight back toward the spine? He replied that I shouldn’t think about it at all. He warned against trying to understand everything through analyzing it (he’s read some of this blog and picked up that this might be my habitual way of doing things).

Instead, he advised me simply to watch how he does it and try to emulate his example. Eventually, I will “get it” and it will be clear when this happens. He used the image of a candle bursting into flame due to its proximity to another lit candle to describe this process of learning. He asked if I was happy with this answer. I said yes, but even I could hear that I didn’t sound overjoyed. Being told to stop thinking didn’t really thrill me.

However, the idea that some kinds of knowledge, possibly the most important ones, cannot be acquired by intellectual analysis or even by cultivating artistic skill, came up again when I went to see Michael Haneke’s latest film, Amour.

The central topic of Amour is how we deal with the deteriorating health and eventual death of aging loved ones. The film touches on issues raised by the availability of medical care (in privileged Western countries) that can keep people alive long beyond the point where they would have died without it, but can also mean that the quality of life in the last months may be very low, and caring for the not-yet-dying is a very demanding, even heart-breaking task. Is it love that leads us to keep people alive as long as possible, or is it a combination of confusion and selfish attachment? Or is human love so mixed up with these less desirable qualities that the judgments implied in this way of framing the problem are unhelpful?

Haneke’s film tells the story of an elderly married couple (the actors who play them, Emmannuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, are both in their 80s). Anne has been a successful piano teacher. In the course of the film, she suffer a stroke, undergoes unsuccessful surgery which leaves her half-paralysed, and then suffers a second, more serious stroke. Georges, her stoic and affectionate husband, honours Anne’s wish to remain at home after the surgery, and heroically takes on the challenge of caring for her as she becomes increasingly incapacitated, both physically and mentally.

Apart from one scene at the beginning (an audience shot which provides us with a rough mirror image of ourselves as viewers – implying that we are involved in this story), the whole film is shot in the apartment where Georges and Anne live. This enclosed space, with its empty entrance hall and doors leading to a nest of different rooms, powerfully evokes the claustrophobic, subdued intensity of the emotional situation that unfolds as Anne’s condition deteriorates. Although Georges is devotedly determined to carry out Anne’s wish not to be institutionalized at the end of her life, when she expresses the more final wish to be released from her increasingly painful situation by dying, he reacts violently.

Michael Haneke

Georges’ confusion in the face of Anne’s desire to die and the great difficulty he shows in accepting the grief of her loss are sympathetically portrayed, and are balanced by the moving tenderness he shows towards his wife. Haneke does not lead us to judge Georges harshly, but nor does he spare us a sense of horror at the fear, helplessness and violence that surface in the lives of this cultured and contented couple as the inevitability of death approaches, like bones breaking through soft skin.

The empty entrance hall of the apartment in this film reminded me of the empty upper room in the apartment of another Georges and Anne in Haneke’s earlier film, Hidden. In both films, the empty, central space can be read as a metaphor for the absence of god, or of any clear source of spiritual or moral wisdom in a society that is wealthy in so many other ways: not just materially, but also in terms of artistic culture and scientific knowledge.

In this film, it might also be taken to signify the absence of robust resources of love and connection to draw upon when facing death and grief. A sense of emotional brittleness is particularly palpable in the scenes between Georges and his daughter, who attempts, but largely fails, to make any meaningful connection with her parents during her mother’s decline.

Isabelle Hupert and Jean-Louis Tringigant in Amour

Science can tell us how to keep people alive longer, and give us tools to do so. Artistic culture provides a rich language for expressing the subtleties of human experience (music and paintings are an important part of this film). But it seems that neither science nor art can tell us when to accept the end of life, or how to do so with kindness. These powerful forms of knowledge and expression cannot substitute for love.

If science and art are not enough, how then can we learn to love? In the film, Georges’ encounters with a pigeon who flies in and out of the apartment a couple of times seems to symbolize an intuitive, if tentative, process of learning about loving in the form of catching, holding, and letting go.

Clearly, this isn’t a process of intellectual analysis.

I’d go so far as to say that Haneke’s film suggests that love might be learnt simply by carefully observing, and waiting for it to pass on like a flame, when the moment is ripe, from those who already know how.

But who are the ones who already know how to love? The optimism of this film, at least compared to Haneke’s earlier work, lies in the suggestion that, in spite of all the disconnected and overly intellectualised aspects of modern Western culture, the ones who already know at least something of how to love might include types as common as pigeons – in other words, us.