Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Religious Thought and the Gardens of Japan. Part 1

Water, light and plants
All cultures that have developed a tradition of the creation of gardens, can trace the origin of such garden making back to a source idea of the re-creation of Paradise, or a paradisial state of being. The notion of ‘Paradise’ is a symbolic projection onto the material world of an ‘inner state of being’, which is both idealistic in scope and ambition. The connection between the notion of the garden as representing Paradise and human society is perhaps as old as human culture itself. This is just as relevant to Japan, as it is to any other culture where gardens have been created. The idea of Paradise underlies the notion of the garden is as pertinent today as it has been at any time in the history of human culture. One may even argue that in this modern age it is even more pressingly relevant than it has ever been.

The garden corresponds to the idea of the temenos, or a sacred circumscribed space because it is understood to constitute a spiritual entity; whole and complete within itself. In Japan, perhaps more than anywhere else, religion (as a formalisation of the idea of spirituality in society) has had a profound influence on the development of the garden culture that has emerged over more than 1500 years of development. Indeed, it is in the grounds of Buddhist temple complexes that the most distinctive gardens, which we may associate with Japan appear. The karesansui, or ‘dry landscape’, gardens, which are such a characteristic of Zen temples, may have been an idea that emerged originally in China; but it is in Japan (at the Kyoto Five Mountain Zen temples in particular) that this form of garden was to develop into the distinctive art form that we know today. All gardens are obviously subject to influence from social and economic forces, as gardens are after all, a mirror of social and political aspirations. What one may detect though in Japan is a continuity and a cohesiveness in the influence that the primary religious forces were to bring to the gardens.
Kibune Shrine, north of Kyoto, the stones encircle a Sakaki tree. This evocation of sacred space was the work of the garden creator Shigemori Mirei and was constructed in the mid 20th C
When we speak of the influence of religions on Japanese gardens, there are three principal threads, Buddhism, Shinto and Shamanism. Further, one can also find further traces of elements of religious influence from continental China, namely Taoism, and Confucianism. It is important to understand that when we speak of the influence of these various religions on the gardens, it is not simply a question of the influence of religious practice on the physical forms of the garden, but perhaps even more crucially, what religious or spiritual thought and awareness was to bring to the perception of landscape as a whole. In both Japan and China, the gardens are intimately associated with the landscape; indeed, the gardens were to develop into a synthesis, a distillation, of the very notion of landscape itself.

Before examining in more detail the role of the various strands of influence of religion on the Japanese garden culture it is worth pointing out the notable eclecticism in Japanese thought in these matters. Buddhism, which was officially introduced to Japan in 552 AD, was integrated into an already existing complex set of native beliefs rather than superseding them. It is perhaps partly a reflection of the character of the Japanese people of the time that this was done without overt conflict. Where disagreements occurred it was more due to political interests and competition for influence, rather than due to any profound sense of doctrinal conflict. Buddhism by its very nature is an essentially syncretic religion, and sought to adopt and embrace the native forms of religious belief.

Mountains and Water
Huangshan Mts. Anhui Province, China
Shamanistic practices probably arrived in Japan with the very first settlers to reach and explore the islands, and shamanism has lingered as an undercurrent of spiritual belief in Japan right up into the modern era. Both Shinto (which is generally held to be the native religion of Japan, and likely actually developed out of shamanistic origins) and Shamanism share a number of characteristics that have a bearing on perception of the garden culture. Principal among these is an intimate connection inherent in both practices toward nature and elements of the natural landscape itself, as it was in the landscape that ceremonies and rites were practiced. It should be noted that the term for ‘landscape’ in Japanese, sansui, is composed of two characters san, indicating mountain, and sui, indicating water. In this way the entire complexity of the concept of landscape can be reduced to the interaction of these two most fundamental elements, as well as underscoring the importance of both concepts to gardens.

In Shinto, kami (usually translated as ‘gods’ or ‘sacred spirits) are worshiped. Among the objects or phenomena designated as kami are the qualities of growth, fertility and production; natural phenomena, such as wind and thunder; natural objects, such as the sun, mountains, rivers, trees and rocks, as well as certain animals and also ancestral spirits. Much the same can be applied to Shamanism too, whereby many of the same phenomena are regarded as being potentially sacred. For example, trees and rocks are of particular importance as they were held to be the abode of sacred spirits. In this context these elements are charged with a profound spiritual resonance.
Ancient cherry encircled by a rice straw rope designating the tree as being an abode of kami
One of the prime characteristics of the Japanese garden is in its use of stones, particularly in the manner of setting upright stones as principal features in the layout of the garden. The setting of stones is regarded a crucial measure of the skill and sensitivity of the garden creator, and the arrangement of the stones (ishigumi) is seen as being the very skeleton of the garden itself. The prominent siting of garden stones emphasises their importance, and in the garden context stones are usually to be read as representing mountains.
Zuiho-in, Kyoto, the powerful rock arrangement represents Mt Shumisen

Mountains, given their physical vastness, the difficulty of access, inspire reverence and adoration, and sacred mountains are found in virtually all cultures across the world. In Japan there has been a very long established practice of mountain worship. Mountains were revered for their shape, as in conically shaped dormant volcanoes such as, Mt. Fuji (also national symbol), Mt. Chõkai, Mt. Taisen (both in Honshu) and Mt. Kaimon (Kyushu). Mountains were also worshiped as being watersheds or sources of streams (these sacred waters are known as harae-gawa, ‘rivers of purification’), a connection that was particularly important for an agrarian society. Thirdly, mountains were closely connected with ancestral worship, as it was believed that mountains were a point of transition between this world and the afterlife. Mountains have been at the heart of the sacro-religious life in Japan since the earliest times, and every religion established there has developed its own connections and symbolic associations with mountains.

Given the importance of mountains in Japanese religious life, one can begin to understand that stones representing mountains in the garden context will assume a depth of meaning that goes far beyond merely ‘placing rocks’. Stones can become infused with significance, symbolism and will be resonant with meaning to the knowing. They become manifestations of the sacred themselves, or hierophanies[1]. Stones (and other elements deemed as heirophanies) are not revered for simply being stones, but for what they are perceived to express and to contain. Contained within the world view of both Shamanism and Shinto, the landscape is seen and interacted with as a living being, which supports the local population both materially and spiritually.

Water is a most primal and a fundamental element that allows life on earth to exist. In Shinto water is understood to act as a purifying agent (a notion that underpins a prime role of Shinto itself. Entering a shrine a worshippers will rinse both their hands and mouth before proceeding to offer prayers to the deities. The same practice is undertaken in the Tea garden (chaniwa), where participants to a tea ceremony would expect to make the same ritual ablution at a tsukubai, or crouching basin, before entering the teahouse. In Chinese traditional belief, bodies of water were the abode of dragons, whilst the mythology of dragons is exceedingly complex in China, an important point lies in the belief that dragons acted an intermediary between heaven and earth (hence also often associated with rain). Much the same ideas are held in Japan too, where dragons are regarded as water benevolent deities associated with good fortune and the benevolence of heaven being bestowed onto the earth. Dragons are often evoked in temple names, such as in two notable Kyoto temples, both sites of historically significant gardens: Tenryū-ji 天龍寺 ‘Heavenly Dragon Temple’, and Ryōan-ji 竜安寺 ‘Dragon Peace Temple’.
Dragon and Tiger representing yin and yang energies. Fusuma painting Manshu-in,  Kyoto.

Prior to the official adoption of Buddhism in Japan around the mid 6th century AD, there already had been considerable effort put into creating agricultural and ritual landscapes. With the introduction of rice growing culture by 300 BC[2] people would have learned to modify the landscape to make such cultivation possible, and land would have been cleared and levelled and water flows controlled. During the Kofun period (250-552 AD), ritual landscapes were being created primarily around large stone lined tombs covered by substantial earth mounds and the mounds themselves were surrounded by ponds. Also in the Nihon Shoki[3] it is noted that hunting parks had been established by the late 6th century AD after the Chinese model for the use of the Imperial family, though these may have been more in the way of exclusive land preserves set aside for Imperial usage.
Islands in the pond of Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto
This then was the environment to which Buddhism into Japan in the mid 6th century, initially through the medium of Chinese and Korean priests and craftsmen. The earliest attempts at creating gardens proper in Japan were attempts to recreate the idea of landscape as a sacred entity, albeit in a form that could be modified to suit a more ‘domestic’ situation. These forms of gardens in Japan (initially created for Imperial residences, and then in the grounds of properties of members of the aristocracy closely associated with the Imperial lineage) were of the ‘pond and island’ model. The word used for gardens at this stage was shima (island), which indicates something of the importance (and novelty) of this type of garden. Within the gardens, elements such as stones would have been erected and no doubt given particular symbolic importance. From other sources, such as the Sakuteiki [4], we can understand the gardens that developed were generally modelled after the conception of the creation of varying types of landscapes, nearly all of which would have had ponds and islands in them. These early gardens were created specifically with the idea of creating an environment that would prove attractive to various deities being addressed. Gardens were being created that could satisfy a dual purpose; on the one hand, the gardens provided aesthetic pleasure through their link with Nature, and then again the gardens, in their semi-public role as a stage for ceremony, also acted as a bridge, or point of transition between the secular and spiritual worlds. One should point out that in Japanese conception, there is a seamless transition between these two functions.




[1] A term coined by Eliade. ‘The Sacred and the Profane’. Mircea Eliade, 1957.
[2] For a long time the earliest evidence of rice farming was dated to around 300 B.C. which fitted into models that it was introduced when the Koreans, forced to migrate by upheaval in China during the Warring States Period (403-221 B.C.), arrived in Japan at around the same time. Later a number of Korean objects, dated between 800 and 600 B.C., were found. These discoveries upset the neatness of the model. Then in the early 2000s, grains of wetland rice were found in pottery from northern Kyushu dated to 1000 B.C. This called into question the dating of the entire Yayoi period and caused some archeologists to speculate that maybe wet-land rice farming was introduced directly from China.

[3] The Chronicles of Japan, an official history complied by 720 AD

[4] Sakuteiki – ‘Book of Garden Making’, the oldest treatise on garden creation written mid to late 11th C. Takei and Keane. Tuttle 2001.


Part 2 of this post will follow shortly.

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