Monday, 2 June 2014

Energy and the Japanese Garden

Perhaps the most essential element of the Japanese garden has no taste, nor scent, it cannot be heard nor seen; nor does it have any distinctive form of its own. Yet when we study the form and the practice of the Japanese garden creation it soon becomes apparent that energy (気力, ki in Japanese, qi in Chinese) is the ‘raw material’ with which we communicate most directly with. Energy can be seen in two distinct forms; direct energy and potential energy. Direct energy can be observed in something that physically moves, in the garden we can experience this in the form of a stream or a waterfall, or over a longer period of time in the growth of a plant. Potential energy is perhaps more subtle, less obvious, as it represents the potential for movement, or the implication of movement. Something that is about to happen, something that is about to occur. This can be seen in a pattern, also in forms themselves. Potential is something that the eye/mind detects in a pattern or the manner in which form is organised, and onto which it projects future time and change.

One of the key design techniques in many Japanese arts is the use of asymmetry (不均斉, fukinsei), and this is applicable to Japanese garden creation as much as painting or ikebana (flower arrangement). Symmetry implies that there is a balance in the distribution of forces, what happens on the left side is equal to what happens on the right side. But because the two sides are equal, the potential for change is limited by the one side cancelling out the other. In the case of asymmetry there is greater potential for change as the inequality of balance leads to the mind to anticipate the flow or movement from one side towards the other. In the oriental mode of thought, yin and yang are in a ceaseless state of transformation from one into the other. In other words the process of life is transformation and change, not stasis.

In the Japanese garden all the elements that go into the construction of the garden are seen as being essentially patterns of energy, and the task of the garden creator is to bring together those energies in a harmonious manner. Hence there are no formulae to the creation of such gardens. The training of a gardener, and the mark of a great gardener lies in the sensitivity to the use and potential expressiveness of the materials themselves. What is their voice? What is their song? In other words in the ability to understand, appreciate and use the inherent energy of the elements that make up the garden. The garden creator becomes a conductor, as well as composer.

Raked gravel, Zuiho-in

Earth geomancy, or feng shui in Chinese(風水) (Fūsui in Japanese) is a complex system of concepts that seeks to understand the way natural phenomena operate. The interpretation of the results can be used to guide the way humans interact with their environment. In Heian period Japanese society (785-1184) geomancy was widely applied to the creation of gardens, this was particularly the case in the siting of streams. In the Sakuteiki (Book of Garden Making) which was complied around mid to late 11th century, instructions are given for introducing streams in the north-easterly quadrant of the site, flowing towards the south and then exiting via the south westerly quadrant. The intention of this was that the stream would ‘cleanse’ the site of malevolent energies. In the Sakuteiki a whole section is devoted to the subject of taboos. Many of the taboos concern the placement of stones, a way of understanding the role of taboos beyond mere repetition of superstition is to understand that the ‘incorrect’ placement of elements of the garden was deemed wrong because it would interfere with a harmonious flow of energy through the site. Gardens were seen as being capable of influencing the health and mental wellbeing, as well as the spiritual wellbeing of the owner and visitors to the garden. This concern still exists in Japan even if the understanding of such an application of the garden has been diluted by a transference of the appreciation of the garden to more aesthetic concerns.

Umekoji Koen
What can be applied broadly to the garden as a whole in energetic terms, can also be applied to individual elements that make up the garden. Thus rocks, water feature, plants, land forms and space itself, all can be interpreted as having an energetic value and potential. The manner of combining garden elements can enhance or diminish their potential effectiveness. We should perhaps not regard this as being some obscure and entirely esoteric Oriental practice, as it has become well accepted now that all things (animate and inanimate) have an electromagnetic field that can be detected. In subtle ways we as visitors to a garden are influenced by our emotional and incorporeal response to the environment and landscapes in which we move. What we ‘see’ is partially determined by what we ‘feel’, and mostly this interaction occurs outside of our conscious analytic mind. In the great Japanese gardens this sensitivity is expressed in a highly refined manner, and applied by a heightened intuitive sense developed through practice and observation.

Kaiuso Sanso

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