Friday, 27 June 2014

Are Japanese Gardens Good For Our Health And Well-being? Part 1


Even before one considers the implications of the ‘healing garden’, there seems to be a naturally arising synergy between the concept of the’ Japanese garden’ and the ‘Healing garden’. In the Far East a relationship with Nature and the natural world has for centuries be seen as something that brings a cornucopia of benefits to humankind, among these is the profound realisation that health is influenced by contact with landscape and nature. It is a measure of the alienation inherent within modern society, particularly in the developed world, that we even consider and acknowledge a split from nature. This alienation occurs on many levels from physical separation, through reckless economic exploitation, to an increasingly barren spiritual dimension to our relationship with Nature.  Gardens are an outreach of the landscape in which we reside, and upon which we depend for our existence. Of interest is the fact that broadly speaking the Japanese garden tradition has maintained its link with the original concept of what the garden represented.

In all societies where the creation of gardens has been undertaken the notion of the garden representing a paradise can be found. Paradise in this sense is an idealised relationship with the landscape and environment. A relationship that is mediated through consciousness, and reminds humans of both our place and responsibility in relationship to the environment we inhabit. Thus paradise has a spiritual but also a practical dimension woven into the dynamic of our interaction. The earliest examples of  niwa  (gardens) created in Japan from the 8th century onward, were places created to attract the gods from their abode in the heavens, in order that humans could gain both a sense of physical well being, as well as  moral authority from the relationship.



The Sakuteiki (‘The Record of Garden Making’)[1] is one of the oldest manuscripts that addresses the creation of gardens and was compiled in the mid to late 11th century. During the Heian period (794-1184), a critical turning point in the development of Japanese culture as a whole, there was a broad scale re-assessment of cultural elements that had been brought to the Japanese island from Korea and China, out of this process a more clearly distinct Japanese culture was born. In looking at the Sakuteiki from a perspective of ‘the healing garden’, we can find many references to actions that are advisable in promoting and protecting good health and well being, as well as taboos on actions that may have the opposite effect. We should understand that underlying this perspective was the notion that the landscape itself, and all elements of the landscape were animate. A rock or tree was infused with the same primal force or energy (chi) as a human being. This perception was not unique to Japan, it also found expression right across SE Asia, as well as being common in Europe.


In the Sakuteki one sees that stones and their placement held a central position in the art of garden creation. In chapter 8 it is recorded that “stones are imperative when making a garden” (senzui wo nashite ha kanarazu ishi wo tatsu beki), also the author writes in several instances the phrase ishi no kowan ni shigahite (“follow the request of the stone”). Stones were regarded as being the holders of energy, their seemingly unchanging nature and form endowing them with the quality, and power of the eternal. In the section of the Sakuteiki that deals with taboos, there are quoted instances of the setting of stones that will attract malevolent forces to the garden and thereby to the occupiers of the household.

“Do not set a stone by the southwest column of the house. If this taboo is violate, the household will be unceasingly plagued by disease.”

“Using a stone that once stood upright in a reclining manner or using a reclining stone upright is a taboo. If this is done, that stone will become a ‘phantom” stone (reiseki, literally a ‘spirit stone’) and will be cursed.”

“ Do not set a stone that is higher than the verandah in the immediate vicinity of the house. If this rule is not obeyed, troubles will follow one after the other, and the master of the household will not live for long.”


The Sakuteiki is a complex document that draws on Shinto beliefs (the native religion to Japan), as well as being overlain by Taoist and Buddhist perceptions of nature (both imported from China). What has been quoted here is a very narrow selection of examples that may suffice to illustrate the perception of an intimate and conscious relationship between gardens and wellbeing. Although the document is over a thousand years old, it still has the ability to speak to us today. Encoded within what it has to say are perhaps universal truths that speak direct from the garden to the heart.


One characteristic of the Japanese garden tradition as it developed over time is the importance of the role of the viewer. The viewer, ‘the one who perceives’, arguably becomes the experiential hub of the garden. In Zen Buddhist circles the question is debated of the existence of the garden without a viewer. Without the viewer, does the garden still exist? The integration of the viewer into the very fabric of the garden closes a circle, bringing with it a sense of completion. With the closing of that particular circle then energy can flow from the one into the other, in much the same way that yin (Jap, insei) also contains an element of yang (Jap, yōsei). Thus the garden is an anthropocentric experience that generates an intimate relationship between viewer and garden. There is a flow of energy between the two, an interactive energy that is dynamic not static. If it were a static relationship it would generate a negative response in the viewer.



The world we inhabit is a vast, infinitely complex matrix of electromagnetic energies that we are constantly receiving, interpreting and responding to. Electromagnetic energy is generated at a cellular level by all animate things. This of course includes humans and other animals, but also all other forms of life including microbes and plants. Inanimate things are also capable of generating magnetic fields, they may be very subtle, but they do exist and are part of our perception to the environment. Further to this all animate being are sensitive receptors of fluctuations in the energy field that surrounds us constantly. As John Pearce Chilton remarks, “Our bodies and brain form an intricate web of coherent frequencies organised to translate other frequencies and are nestled within a nested hierarchy of universal frequencies.”[2] Therefore the manner in which the Japanese garden is organised will determine to some extent the way in which we respond to it. Our response to, say, Katsura Rikyu (a stroll garden) will differ greatly from our response to Ryoan-ji (a karesansui or ‘dry landscape’ garden). In the reception and perception of environmental energy patterns our own internal energy fields shift and alter. As that occurs there are alterations to our physiological state as well as our emotional state. Additionally as we alter the focus of our awareness from thinking to receiving external sensory there are alterations to the cardiac cycle, and there also follows a series of alterations to our physiological, emotional and cognitive functioning. The full complexity of what we receive and respond to is infinitely vast, just as it is infinitely powerful and subtle.


A garden is composed of a complex pattern of sensory experiences; we respond to both the physical elements that compose the garden, and we also interact with spatial relationships within the garden. Further to this we are also affected by temporal cycles expressed through a garden. Gardens reflect the seasons, as well as the particular points of the day, in which the garden is being experienced. All these different cycles are nested within one another, interacting with one another. The sum total of this multisensory, non-linear experience becomes our perception of the garden.



[1] Sakuteiki (Visions of the Japanese Garden), Jiro Takei and Marc P. Keane. Tuttle. 2001
[2] John Pearce Chilton. ‘Evolution’s End’. Harper. 1992.

Part 2 follows shortly.


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