Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The Grass Cottage

An enduring impression of the Japanese garden comes from its re-creation of an idyllic landscape setting.  However mannered or sophisticated the design might be, the garden remains grounded in the idea of connecting humans with the idea and the physical context of Nature itself. Nature and the landscape were seen in Oriental thinking as being the place where humans found themselves.  As Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) wrote in his address known as the Sansui Sutra ('Landscape Teaching'), "because mountains are high and broad, the way of riding the clouds is always reached in the mountains; the inconceivable power of soaring in the wind comes freely from the mountains."  That is to say, it is by recognising our place in landscape that enlightenment or insight may be sought and found.

The notion of the 'Grass Cottage' (Sō-an) can be traced back to the work of Po Chui (772-864) one of China's greatest poets. Po Chui's description of his country residence on Mt Lu, to which he retired during times when he was out of political favour, bear the hallmarks of what was to evolve into the Japanese tea house (chashitsu). "Three spans, a pair of pillars, two rooms, four windows. ... I put a door on the north side to let in cool breezes so as to fend off oppressive heat, made the southern rafters high to admit the sunlight in case there should be severe cold. The beams were trimmed but left unpainted, the walls plastered but not given a final coat of white. I have used slabs of stone for paving and steps, sheets of paper to cover the windows; and the bamboo blinds and hemp curtains are of a similar makeshift nature. In front of the house is about hundred square feet of level ground. A terrace covers half, with a pond of lotuses and fish, banked by bamboo and wildflowers, nearby runs a stream among rocks, pines, and cedars." In Japan where it is common practice to name buildings, tea houses are often designated by the suffix -an meaning hermitage.

The image of the rustic retreat lies deep in the heart of Cha no Yu (Tea ceremony), where the tea house becomes a place detached from the travails of the everyday world. Here the tea garden is a path, the means by which we may be able to transit from one state of being to another. Hence in this instance the garden is operating as a medium of transcendence, transformation and re-connection.

In addition both Taoist thought and Buddhism also encouraged the transcendence of the everyday world (that is the world of the senses and emotions), and via this route the idea was drawn into the manner and purpose of the Japanese garden.  Rather than being a negative form of escapism, retreat or 'retirement'  was seen as a valid means of seeking the truth beyond the veil of illusion and the temporal distractions of the everyday world. This idea has also prevailed in all cultures and can also be found in religious thought of many complexions.

 Please comment. If you found this, or any other post of interest, it is always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks, Robert Ketchell

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