The work of time is crucial in the becoming and the affirmation of things; hence, they get redefined indefinitely. Sometimes, they degrade, other times they are intentionally being altered in order only to efface traces of their past. Things like the Shinto shrines (1) and the ship of Theseus (2) get rebuilt, renovated, and restored as part of their identity. The alterations enable a preservation of traditional technologies, construction knowledge, and possibly an approximation of their essence.
The relationship between tradition and change has always been complicated by the fact that change is itself a tradition. Change is put to use in the most pragmatic manner; it is a permanent source of power like a perpetual motion. 1
(1) The Shinto tradition honors ephemerality by extending their beliefs to the transmission of knowledge. It is believed that the knowledge, not its vessels, have to be treasured. The poetic beauty of the transient accounts for much more than tangible heritage. For example, in architecture, the wealth of society is not transmitted through what was built, but how it was built. The Shikinen Sengū ceremony celebrates the rebuilding of shrines every few decades as it serves to maintain the longevity of the Kami deity within the shrine. Communities gather, disassemble and rebuild shrines to pay respects and to transmit traditional crafts through generation. Physical degradation is inevitable and necessary to commemorate aging cycles. The only constant is change.
(2) Heraclitus famously said “one cannot step into the same river twice”. He assumed that neither I, nor the river, nor the Shrines, nor the Ship of Theseus are the same as yesterday. Our identity is fluid, our composition changes, that is undeniable. But identity isn’t undermined solely by the composition of our parts. The material out of which the ship is made is not the same thing as the ship, and the ship without its planks isn’t the same thing either. There is identity beyond change.
Many of us spend our lives trying to escape the thought that we are not eternal. In pursuit of infinity, we transpose knowledge from one vessel to the next. We have intermediaries, such as ships, shrines, and bodies. We organize periodic transfers of information. We hide deities and gods within things. But in the end, “the hand may shape the flower, but it is still a flower.”2