Imperfection

Zen and wine tasting may not seem like a harmonious connection, after all much of the culture of wine celebrates prestige, perfection, passion and pleasure while the zen approach avoids the extremes of self-indulgence and humbly accepts our fallibility and mortality. In fact, the centuries-old, artistic tradition of “Kintsugi” speaks to a certain Japanese aesthetic which embraces imperfection and flaws, serving also as a beautiful metaphor for our own lives. What might such an approach teach us about the experience of wine tasting where imperfection is often, if not looked down upon, downright unacceptable.

The Kintsugi tradition of mending broken objects with gold
The Kintsugi tradition of mending broken objects with gold

Kintsugi” translates to “golden seams” or “golden mending”, and is the practice of repairing broken vessels with lacquer and gold pigment, resulting in a restored object that is often more beautiful and unique than before. Instead of discarding the broken object, Japanese lacquer masters put the pieces back together using a type of putty, “urushi”, made from tree sap. Once the pieces are assembled and held together by the putty, they sand down the surface and leave it to dry. Then, they paint over the putty with gold. The whole process can take several months and the masters dedicate decades of their life to training in it.

The origins of the tradition are somewhat unclear, but it is commonly associated with a legend about a military leader from the 14th century. A shogun of Japan, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), became upset when his treasured Chinese celadon-glazed bowl shattered. He sent it back to China, asking them to replace it, but the Chinese said that the bowl was so rare that it couldn’t be replaced. They sent it back mended with large, metal staples as was used at the time. The shogun was unhappy with its unseemly appearance, so he turned to the lacquer masters for help. The lacquer masters were known for decorating objects with fine florals and landscapes in gold and silver and they used the same materials to repair the bowl, thus the “Kintsugi” tradition was born.

Translated Vase (TVW2) 2013 Yeesookyung
“Translated Vase (TVW2)”, 2013 by Korean artist Yeesookyung

The tradition also reflects zen Buddhist philosophy, and in particular the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Wabi-sabi appreciates the beauty in imperfection and cherishes the impermanence of all things, embracing irregularities, roughness, asymmetry, defects, and signs of ageing and decline. It engages with reality honestly and openly without judegement, dealing with things as they are and accepting change as a part of life. Therefore, cracks and blemishes are not a source of shame but rather celebrated as an important part of the objects history, giving it character and in turn making it more interesting to contemplate. In this sense, by embellishing flaws with gold, “Kintsugi” is fragility, strength and resilience applied to physical objects.

Nowadays, we live in a society that not only expects perfection, but is also highly focused on image. From flawless photos on instagram advertising flashy lifestyles to the importance of wealth and status symbols, how we appear to others has become more important than the actual, messy reality of our lives. As a result, vulnerability, weakness and shortcomings are often sources of shame and ridicule. We tend to avoid them at all costs, missing their potential value to our personal growth and connection with others.

If there is one thing we can learn from this artistic tradition it is that by accepting imperfection as a natural part of life, we can become more compassionate to ourselves and to others. But perhaps even more importantly, we can take it a step further and fully embrace imperfection, metaphorically gilding it in gold- a golden opportunity not only to grow and to love, but also to revel in the present moment.

Translated Vase (TVWG1), 2013 Yeesookyung
“Translated Vase (TVWG1), 2013 Yeesookyung

I was drinking wine recently with some friends and we were served a sparkling wine with a defect. I had tasted the wine, being a sommelier, before it was served to the table, and failed initially to notice it was off. The more I drank it, I realised that it was cloudy in colour with a slight yeasty odour, but assumed that it was intentional rather than flaw. Maybe I was just enjoying the evening too much to care, but the fact remains that when another person asked to have the wine changed for another bottle, I was mortified. The wine having been changed, I began speaking to the person next to me who, very graciously, declared he preferred the first glass because it was more interesting!

What became very clear to me, once the embarrassment subsided, is that the person who asked to have the wine changed was having a completely different experience to the one I was having. Should I have noticed the wine was off? Yes. Did I think there was nothing of merit to enjoy in the wine? No. Was I enjoying the wine, and the evening, for what it was? Absolutely. Wine is natural, and yes of course we want it to be well made, but maybe throwing a defected wine out right away rather than appreciating its “particular” uniqueness is a wasted opportunity (given it’s not entirely repulsive).

Translated Vase (TVW), 2012 Yeesookyung
Translated vase (TVW), 2012 Yeesookyung

Framing a wine tasting experience within the wabi-sabi aesthetic may well prove to be freeing, humbling and ultimately gratifying, leading to a greater sense of connection to one’s environment and experience.

Kintsugi ceramic bowl

“In an age that worships youth, perfection and the new, the art of Kintsugi retains a particular wisdom- as applicable to our own lives as it is to a broken tea cup.”

– School of Life, Leisure: Eastern Philosophy, Kintsugi

Resources:

Lesser, Casey, “The Centuries-Old Japanese Tradition of Mending Broken Ceramics with Gold”, August 24, 2018, Artsy.net

Livni, Ephrat, “The Japanese Art Principle that Teaches How to Work with Failure”, August 3, 2018, Qz.com

The School of Life, “Leisure: Eastern Philosophy, Kintsugi”, Theschooloflife.com

5 Comments

  1. A most interesting post, and as a Buddhist, one I can totally identify with. Though Zen is different from Tibetan Buddhism in some areas of process and practice the core elements are the same, especially impermanence, non-judgement, and the imperfections that apply to us all as human beings. The description of Kintsugi is a beautiful aesthetic concept especially in its acting as a metaphor for our own lives; no wonder the Japanese in particular have an extremely respectful mindset towards the old and vulnerable! Your example about the wine you realised was flawed rings several bells with me, one from over 30 years ago when I was at a special dinner party with 12 guests. The host had selected 6 bottles of Chateau Montrose, all had been opened prior to his tasting one of the bottles. “That’s corked” he said, and before you could blink all 6 had been whisked away and a substitute chosen. Nobody else tasted it and the sommelier didn’t bat an eyelid! The rest of us missed a learning experience. More recently, in April on my birthday, I opened a bottle of Meursault to share with Sharon and Michael, it was a monopole from 2013. I bought it in 2017 and kept it for 4 years. It was a golden yellow and we remembered tasting it in Meursault as I bought 3 bottles. On this day we tasted together, and …… it was oxidised, very Sherry-like with that “burnt “ taste. We all had the same experience, but didn’t immediately pour it down the sink, we probably drank half a glass each, slowly, and talked about it quite a lot. It was a specific sensory experience not to be missed, Sharon and Michael learned about it a lot as we discussed how it can/could have happened. I kept the remaining half bottle in the fridge and tasted again 24 hours later, no change. Now, I did consider writing to Claudine who now runs the Francois Gaunoux business, but I stopped, what could I say, how would it be interpreted? I decided not to write, but I will tell and discuss it with her when I next visit. Much more agreeable 👍🙏🙏

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    1. Thank you Dr. B! I don’t know much about Buddhism to know the differences, but I can say that the meditation I am doing has improved the quality of my life in many ways. It seems a bit extreme to throw out 6 bottles of wine because one was corked! As for the oxidised wine, I agree! Bad wine can be a good learning experience. Wine flaws are a hard one, some come in and out of fashion while others make the wine undrinkable, but I do like the idea of non-judgement and accepting things as they are. It just seems you would get more out of life with that kind of approach. It also goes along with the idea of not categorising things dualistically, “good” or “bad”, “I like it.” or “I don’t like it.”. That being said, it’s hard to avoid with wine tasting! 🥂

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  2. Thanks for adding the links to Artsy.com from which I got a lot of information on kindsugi about which I knew nothing but which now fascinates me. It has given me some ideas for repairs of some much-loved ceramics. It might not work with gold leaf or gold paint but I shall have a go!

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