During the Muromachi Period, in 14th-century Japan, a shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimitsu broke his favorite tea bowl and became highly distraught in reaction to the destruction. In fact, he was so inconsolable about the whole thing, that the damaged item was shipped to China to be repaired by expert craftsmen. However, on its return, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was horrified by the big ugly, metal staples that had been used to join the broken pieces of his once elegant bowl back together. In the wake of this tragedy, the infuriated shogun charged his own Japanese craftsmen with devising a more appropriate solution, lest his kingdom be lost for want of a cup, so to speak. Fortunately, what they came up with was a method that didn’t disguise the damage, but made something properly artful out of it, instead. This laid the foundation for a new kind of aesthetic, based on Zen Buddhist values.
The whole thing comes down to what’s known as Kintsugi “golden joinery”, or sometimes Kintsukuroi “golden repair”. Either way, according to the long-standing tradition, a broken plate, bowl, or cup should never be discarded but rather reassembled, with enormous care. More importantly, the glue is meant to be mixed with gold dust and left to show through as part of an improvement, hence the term “Kintsugi”. As such, there is to be no attempt to disguise the damage. On the contrary, the whole point is to render the cracks more beautiful through lavish accentuation. That is to say, according to Zen aesthetics, the broken pieces of an accidentally smashed pot should be carefully picked up, reassembled, and then glued back together with lacquer inflected with gold or even platinum powder. Again, if this is done properly then there will be no attempt to disguise the damage. The whole point is to render the fault lines strong and make them attractive. Thus, it is the fractures themselves that take on the most pleasing qualities of a repaired piece, at least in the mind of a Zen monk or nun.
In this way, Kintsugi belongs to the Zen ideals of Wabi-Sabi, which cherishes that which is simple, unpretentious, and aged. So, at the heart of Kintsugi is Wabi-Sabi, and at the heart of Wabi-Sabi is Zen Buddhism. The problem is that there isn’t a Western correlate to this Eastern concept. The thing is that Wabi-Sabi might translate into English as “simple blossoming”, “flawed art”, “humble aging”, or a number of other terms. No matter what though, as the story goes, in the 16th-century, while on a journey through southern Japan, one of the greatest proponents of Wabi-Sabi, and a renowned master of the “Way of Tea”, Sen No Rikyu was invited to a dinner where the host tried to impress the sage with an elaborate and expensive antique tea jar from China. However, Rikyu barely noticed the perfectly symmetrical vessel at all. Instead, he spent his time admiring a branch swaying in the breeze outside. As a result of this, in despair at Rikyu’s lack of interest, once he had left, the devastated host smashed the jar on the floor. However, knowing what to do, some of the other guests gathered the fragments and lovingly put them back together Kintsugi-style. Then, the next time Rikyu came to visit, the pleased philosopher turned to the jar and exclaimed:
“Now, it’s magnificent.”
With that being said, I think there is a deeper lesson here. Maybe the logical extension of this is that people can be defined by their faults, in a positive way, if they so choose. Think about it. Presumably everyone, no matter who they are or where they live, is at least a little bit broken in some way or another. So, their fragmentary parts of self need to be joined together in a new way, potentially through exoteric and/or esoteric forms of alchemy, complete with precious metals, be they corporeal and/or spiritual in nature. In fact, when you get right down to it, if I’m not being too presumptive, surely everyone has some kind of physical and/or mental scars from something that happened to them during the course of their life. More to the point, they don’t have to hide those scars from the rest of the world. Instead, it’s possible to proudly display the damage that’s been done to them, while simultaneously rejoicing in the work that it takes to repair themselves. In this way, that which is broken can be made into something more than just that which is fixed, including the broken world as a whole, if we so choose. In the end, it would seem that this is the power and promise of Kintsugi, writ large.