Sunday, 12 May 2013

Gardens and the Idea of the Sacred

In the East gardens have always been linked with the sacred and its manifestation in society. Even where the gardens were being created in association with secular buildings, that is outside of temples and shrines, they still retained a significant element of the sacred in their development. Partly this was possibly due to the profound influence of art on the development of the painting tradition in both China and Japan. By the 11th C in China landscape painting had usurped portraiture, and the depiction of people in general as the most important aesthetic motif in painting. Painters returned again and again to depicting mountain scenery, and humans where they were depicted in such paintings were mostly shown as relatively tiny, insignificant, figures dominated by the scale and majesty of the landscape. The landscapes were not accurate topographical representations, as the painters sought rather to strive to depict  the ‘essence’ (shen) of landscape itself. The transference of emotion between nature, art and man, which had up until the Sung dynasty (11th C) been important, now became the dominating principal, and by extension was a measuring stick by which the success of an art work was to be judged. The painters reinforced the notion of the supremacy of landscape in the Orient as the means of conveying spiritual ambition. This idea was to be readily accepted by the garden makers in Japan, where Chinese art was collected and studied avidly. 

“The mountains provide protection, the streams give moving energy, the ocean extension, the earth support. The spiritual beauty of nature, the brightness and darkness of yin and yang, all this can be represented within a few feet. But if one does not carry in one’s heart the hills and valleys which are represented, one cannot achieve this.”  Hsüan Ho Hua P’u (artist, Sung dynasty, China)

This, in a simplified form, was a key part of the aesthetic package that the Japanese received with the transference of knowledge from China, and these ideas would remain as the bedrock of the whole process of creating gardens in what was to become the Japanese tradition. Given the particular continuity of development in Japan of the garden tradition it may even be found being expressed today. So we can see that a fundamental tenet of the Japanese garden is the expression of the idea that the sacred is part of the fabric of the garden. Landscape represents an idealised state of being, as well as providing a model of the path towards that ideal condition. Hence it was into the mountains, and to far flung isolated places, such as mountains and islands, that determined seekers of the deepest spiritual truths ventured in order to pursue, what would be for them, the purest, most direct, interaction with Nature.

This also accords with a Western (Christian) notion of the garden representing paradise, or an ideal state. Indeed, both the western and eastern traditions of creating gardens may be traced back to the same primordial roots in Mesopotamia around 5000 BC. Garden creation is indeed a very old art form that has occupied an important place in human society over a very long period. When we look at the Japanese garden tradition over its temporal entirety what we find is that the essential values of the garden as sacred space have been retained in a relatively ‘pure’ form. That is, those values are as vital to the notion of the existence, and to the aesthetic content, of the garden today, as they have been at any point in that long history.

This latter point is important, as I believe it gives us a valuable indication of how we may approach the Japanese garden today. As technology threatens to divorce us ever more from the natural environment, our need to reconnect with Nature and the environment becomes ever more acute.  We may understand the Japanese garden as being an attempt to create a concentrated vision of Nature, filtered through human consciousness and re-created in close proximity to where we live. The Japanese garden tradition has been very alive to the psychological potential of a garden space. Thus we may benefit from interacting closely with a garden, when we see beyond the garden being simply a way of ornamenting space, we may find the garden has the potential to 're-energise' our lives. Thus a study and appreciation of the ‘Japanese garden’ may bring us full circle, back to recognising our place in the wider world. Idealistic it may seem, but without ambition and a sense of direction we will most surely be condemned to wander in circles.