Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Why Do We Respond To The Japanese Garden?

The Japanese began creating gardens around the 7th cent. CE, it was part of a wave of influence that was streaming into the country via China and the Korean peninsula. The Chinese in turn, had been building gardens and modifying landscapes (sometimes on a considerable scale) for centuries before this time, and had developed highly sophisticated knowledge and techniques to do so. They also had developed a complex appreciation of Nature as represented by the natural landscape. It was in the landscape that humans sought spiritual inspiration and ultimately the place where rulers derived their authority. The emperor being a semi-divine figure went into the greater landscape (usually mountain areas) in order to communicate with and accept a transference of power from the heaven-bound deities. Ultimately, garden landscapes were created as places where ceremonies could be enacted that both confirmed and conferred divinely sanctioned authority on individuals. The garden was a re-creation of heaven itself wrought on earth as a location where man could fulfil his destiny as an intermediary between two boundless complimentary (and opposing) forces, Yin  and Yang[1]. Recreating the natural landscape in a refined and abstracted manner was a key element of the aesthetic structure of the garden from the very beginning. Of that natural scenery two elements that were to be incoporated into gardens stand out in particular, mountains and water. Indeed in Chinese (and Japanese) the written characters signifying ‘landscape’ is made up of just those two key elements, shan-mountain and sui-water, 山 水). Mountains, symbolising the aspiration of spiritual development (the movement towards heaven), and water symbolising the movement of the divine energy (chi or qi) through all that which appears to have form and substance. Therefore in the garden we have these elements referred to, stones representing mountains, and the pond (water) representing the potential accumulation of beneficial qi energy. In the garden situation, there is one further important element and that is enclosure, which represents both a separation from the mundane and the containment of the sacred worlds. Therefore Man as a creator of this world becomes both instigator as well as a participant.

Guo Xi  c. 1020 – c. 1090
Therefore in the East gardens have always been linked with the sacred and its manifestation in society. Even where the gardens were being created in association with secular buildings, that is outside of what perhaps may be seen to be their ‘natural’ home, in temples and shrines, they retained a significant element of the sacred in their development. Partly this was possibly due to the profound influence of art on the development of the painting tradition in both China and Japan. By the 11th C AD in China landscape painting had usurped portraiture, and the depiction of people in general, as the most important aesthetic motif in painting. Painters returned again and again to depicting mountain scenery, and humans where they were depicted in such paintings were mostly shown as relatively tiny, insignificant figures dominated by the scale and majesty of the landscape itself. The landscapes were not necessarily topographical depictions, as the painters sought to depict something of the ‘essence’ (shen) of landscape itself. The transference of emotion between nature, art and man, which had up until the Sung dynasty (11th C) been important, now became the dominating principal, and by extension was a measuring stick by which the success of an art work was to be judged. The painters reinforced the notion of the supremacy of landscape in the Orient as the means of conveying spiritual ambition. This idea was to be readily accepted by the garden makers in Japan, many of whom artists themselves, would have been conversant with the language of the painters. In that language they would find the justification and the means to lift the art of creating gardens to a similar level.
Saiho-ji, Kyoto
“The mountains provide protection, the streams give moving energy, the ocean extension, the earth support. The spiritual beauty of nature, the brightness and darkness of yin and yang, all this can be represented within a few feet. But if one does not carry in one’s heart the hills and valleys which are represented, one cannot achieve this.”[2]

Huangshan mountains, China
This, in a simplified form, was a key part of the aesthetic package that the Japanese would have received with the transference of knowledge from China, and these ideas would remain as the bedrock of the whole process of creating gardens in what was to become the Japanese tradition. Given the particular continuity of development in Japan of the garden tradition it may even be found being expressed today. So we can see that a fundamental tenet of the Japanese garden is the expression of the idea that the sacred is part of the fabric of the garden. This accords with the Western (Christian) notion of the garden representing paradise, or an ideal state. Indeed, both the western and Eastern traditions of creating gardens may be traced back to the same primordial roots in Mesopotamia around 5000 BC. Garden creation is indeed a very old art form that has occupied an important place in human society over a very long period. When we look at the Japanese garden tradition over its temporal entirety what we find is that the essential values of the garden as sacred space have been retained in a relatively ‘pure’ form. That is, those values are as vital to the notion of the existence, and to the aesthetic content, of the garden today, as they have been at any point in that long history.
Rozan-ji, Kyoto
This latter point is important, as I believe it gives us a valuable indication of how we may approach the Japanese garden today. As technology threatens to divorce us ever more from the natural environment, our need to reconnect with Nature and the environment becomes ever more acute.  We may understand the Japanese garden as being an attempt to create a condensed vision of Nature in close proximity to where we live. Thus we may benefit from interacting with the garden, when we see beyond the garden being simply a way of decorating space, and look at the garden to re-energise our lives. Thus a study and appreciation of the ‘Japanese garden’ may bring us full circle, back to recognising our place in the wider world. Idealistic it may seem, but without ambition and a sense of direction we will most surely be condemned to wander in circles.
Koto-in, Kyoto
Strangely enough, the greatest obstacle to a wider acceptance of this notion (beyond East Asia) may be the very term we use to describe these gardens; ‘Japanese gardens’. There is of course the slightly clumsier epithet, ‘Japanese-style garden’, which is actually far closer to what is being created outside of the geographical confines of the islands collectively known as Japan. Just as the Japanese absorbed the notion of creating gardens from China, then filtered that process and those ideas through the matrix of their own cultural awareness, then that is just what we are attempting to do too. There is no need to hold to any particular cultural or religious values to recognise this, as what is being proposed extends beyond the limitations of geography and culture. If we too recognise the potential for the garden to nurture, retain and celebrate the primacy and importance of our relationship with Nature, then we can begin to understand and appreciate the working of the sacred in our lives.

[1] Yin and Yang: according to Chinese cosmology are the two primordial forces whose interaction enables the existence of all things. Often interpreted as being polar opposites, i.e. male/female, high/low, hot/cold, etc.

[2] from Hsüan Ho Hua P’u (Sung dynasty)

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