The Japanese garden has made great use of symbolism over a long period of time, and much of this symbolism is derived from religious sources. It is primarily intended to reinforce the sacred quality of the space itself, and also to direct the attention of the viewer. By identifying features within the garden through symbolic content, that is, by naming elements, one also seeks to impose order on an otherwise undifferentiated perception. The use of symbolism is also a means by which the garden space to communicates with the viewer. The garden is not a passive entity simply to be seen, but a space which engages the viewer, and the viewer becomes an element of the garden itself.
One of the most significant symbolic elements in the garden at the time was the placement of a feature known as Shumisen , or stone model of Mt Sumeru (or Meru). A shumisen was unearthed in 1902 in Asuka, near Nara, which was made up of three pieces and was carved with depictions of water and mountains, the likelihood is that it functioned as a water feature. Perhaps being sited in a prominent location in a garden space. It was certainly deemed important enough to have been noted in the historical record.
Mt. Meru is a mythic or cosmic mountain of great symbolic importance in classical Buddhism and signifies the axis mundi of the entire universe. Here the mountain signifies the ‘centre of the world’, as Eliade has remarked ‘the peak of the cosmic mountain is not only the highest point on earth, it is also the earth’s navel, the point where creation had it’s very beginning’. Its presence seeks to establish the garden as a point of contact between the mundane and transcendental worlds, and in so doing confers and reinforces moral, spiritual, even political authority on the persons most intimately associated with the garden itself. Even to this day one finds stones set in gardens representing Mt Meru or Shumisen, which underlines the continuity of symbolic expression in the Japanese garden into the modern era.
|The tall stone of the 16th C arrangement is usually referred to as a Shumisen stone. Ryogen-in, Kyoto|
The combination of the entrenchment and a continuing development of Buddhism in Japanese life, along with the establishment of a new site for the capital in 794 AD at Kyoto, was to lead to the emergence of the garden tradition as a fully fledged entity, where garden making could be a vehicle for expression of profound and complex ideas. In Japan, the garden was not solely a series of decorative features to enhance the outlook of domestic or public spaces; it was (and is still) also intended to be illuminative and inspirational. Entering the garden space, the viewer enters into a ‘dialogue’ with the garden. In this largely unconscious exchange, the viewer both enters the garden space and the garden occupies the imagination of the viewer. Thus the viewer is not a passive element of exchange, rather he or she becomes an active participant in a creative force. The garden becomes a ‘field of dreams’, yet also a proving ground for the emergence of consciousness into differing levels of reality to the simply mundane or everyday world of perception.
In the early 9th century two new schools of Buddhism were introduced into Japan by Japanese priests who had made the perilous journey to China in order to gain new knowledge. In 805 the Tendai sect was established by Saichō (767-822) based around the Tiantai tradition he studied during a visit to various centres of learning in China beginning in 804. Saichō founded as his headquarters Enraku-ji temple on the summit of Mt. Hiei to the north-east corner of the city of Kyoto, and he is also credited with being one of the first people to bring tea seeds to Japan. A year later the scholar-priest Kūkai, who had originally also traveled with the same embassy to China as Saichō, was to establish the Shingon sect on Mt Kōya to the south of Osaka following a dream. Among the new ideas these men brought back was the concept of the mandala drawing (concentric diagrams that may be used to focus attention in order to establish a notion and awareness of sacred space, and also as an aid to meditation and trance induction). The psychologist Carl Jung regarded mandala as being a representation the unconscious self, a map of one’s inner being, and as such the mandala symbolically can be read as a microcosm of the Universe. In this way, the layout of the temple complex (the buildings and its landscaped gardens) after the form of a mandala is a way of establishing the physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of space itself. Thereby all the elements set out within the delineated boundaries will assume a meaning charged with particular potency.
Thus we can see that the spiritual path (of whatever denomination) is a means by which mankind attempts to recognise and order the world he lives in. Beyond this is also a tacit recognition that all that appears before our eyes is but part of the truth that unfolds before us. In Buddhism the natural landscape has always occupied a special place, after all it was whilst meditating under a Bodhi tree (ficus religiosa), that Shakyamuni Buddha achieved a state of enlightenment. One of the core tenets of Buddhism is the goal of the eventual enlightenment of all sentient beings, and there has been historically a debate in Buddhist circles over what precisely is intended by the expression ‘sentient beings’. Is it intended to be taken literally, that is, only beings capable of independent awareness are capable of enlightenment? Saichō for one, wrote of rocks and trees equally being able to achieve enlightenment, and there are many other commentators who have set out an opinion that all beings and all things have the potential to exist in harmony with the Universe. Buddhism in Japan reflects the concerns and sensitivities of native religious thought concerning the environment. It was well placed to do so, as the Buddhist thinking that was brought into Japan, particularly from mainland China, was intimately concerned with the landscape. The landscape was seen and appreciated as being a location where an enlightened soul can recognise his essential oneness with the greater environment in which he exists. This notion of non-duality is one of the most fundamental concepts in Buddhism, and it expresses a clear belief in the interconnectivity and interdependence of all things. Delusion (that is separation from the ultimate truth) begins when man perceives he is separate (that is, in a dualistic condition) from the natural world he lives in.
Dogen (1200- 1253) who founded the Soto Zen sect of Japanese Zen, wrote an important text, Sansuikyo (‘Mountains and Water Sutra’), within which he states: “The mountains and waters of this moment are the actualisation of the way of the ancient Buddhas. Each, abiding in its own phenomenal expression, realises completeness. Because mountains and waters have been active since before the eon of emptiness, they are alive at this moment. Because they have been the self since before form arose, they are liberated and realised.” He goes on to remark, “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.” With these two comments Dogen seems to neatly encapsulate the Sino-Japanese perception of landscape. In the first comment, he establishes the potential for landscape to exist in a condition of absoluteness, and in the second, he shows the way the spiritual aspirant can realise enlightenment in that environment.
The essence of any search for meaning is to create order out of what appears to be unformed or chaotic. Landscape too is a mundane manifestation of a series of dynamic and highly complex events which in origin were non spatial. Forces of inexplicable power and force are liberated to unfold as forms, which then gradually disclose in themselves the quantitative order of their inner tensions. Everything changes in Nature, nothing remains static, one season morphs into the next, night follows day, which follows night. Everything is in a constant process of change and transformation. The expression of movement in the garden is a vital recognition of the forces of Nature. The merest glance or cursory experience of the Japanese garden reveals this, what appears to be still and unmoving, actually expresses movement, transformation and energy. Recognising the essential quality of movement and regeneration in Nature, and hence reflecting that in the garden, creates space for the viewer to become a part of that continuum. The symbolic content employed as part of the language of garden simply sets out further ways that the imagination of the viewer may engage with the garden.
The Japanese garden is landscape itself, landscape distilled to a creative essence, and concentrated in a form that can exist within the delineation of a domestic space. Landscape as seen and selected by an automatic response of the unconscious, which detects in it an affinity that gives one pause and allows us to return to it time and time again. This then is a question not of a projection but of analogy whereby the landscape is adopted by the spirit in consequence of an inner bond linking the character of the scene with the spirit of the observer himself. Subjectivism might occur, but only in the act of choosing one particular style of landscape over another. The evocation of symbolism shows us how we absorb the experience of an objective force and then render meaning from the experience. Recreating the object by filtering it through our conscious imagining. Signs and symbols allow us to engage or participate – thus we can become a part of the fabric of what is being created within us through our imagination. The duality between being ‘here’, and the garden being somehow separate or outside of ourselves (‘there’) is eroded and ultimately dissolved. When that process occurs we may begin to recognise our role as an active participant in a continuous and ongoing process of recognition, realisation and reconstitution.
The symbolism and language of the garden is rooted in the recognition of the garden as representing, indeed, recreating Paradise, there has been a consistency of expression of this ideal in Japan from the earliest attempts at garden making right through to the present day. The language of the garden is one that is derived from the natural landscape, perhaps it is through the profound interpenetration of the garden culture by religious notions which has preserved this consistency of thought. The gardens may have developed a variety of forms, but the underlying concerns have remained consistent through time. The perception of the garden, fuelled as it is by the accumulation of cultural memory and imagination, is one whereby man can recognise his essential self, as an active participant in an ongoing process of change and continuity.
 Mentioned in an entry for 612 AD of the Nihon Shoki, that a Shumisen was created by a Korean craftsman in a garden created for Empress Suiko.
 ‘The Sacred and the Profane’. Mircea Eliade, 1957.
 Contained within Dogen’s principal work, ‘Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma’. Translation by Arnold Kotler and Kazuaki Tanahashi. Dharma Rain (Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism), ed. Kaza and Kraft. Shambala Press, 2000.
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