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.
“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.
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.
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).
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.
“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
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