Saturday, 7 February 2015

Zen and the Japanese Garden. Part 1/3


Zen and the Japanese Garden

Of all the forces that have gone into the creation of the Japanese garden tradition one of the most potent is the influence of Zen Buddhism. It has profoundly shaped both the gardens and also the manner in which they are perceived. For many people what constitutes a Japanese garden (sparse planting, raked gravel and minimalistic stone arrangements) is actually some version of garden themes as developed in two great centres of the Zen in Japan, Kamakura and Kyõto. The influence of these gardens has spread world wide, and examples can be found today on every continent of the globe.

Ryoan-ji, Kyoto. 
Zen, (Chan, in Chinese, ) was introduced in China around AD 620 from India by the itinerant monk, Bodhidarma. In China, Buddhism came under the influence of the local philosophical traditions of Taoism and Confucianism, both of which had been long established there, and influenced the language of transmission as well as the organization of its institutions. A characteristic of Zen is that it tends to disregard reliance on scriptural transmission of ideas; rather it approaches the notion of transmission as a direct process from teacher to student. Ritual forms can serve to create a distance or separation between the individual and his experiential environment. Zen places a greater emphasis on the relative importance of action over words. It regards its approach as engaging directly with the true nature of mind, unhindered by ritual or doctrinal interpretation. Zen is personal and subjective; it seeks to connect the individual directly with the macrocosmic universe. Overcoming dualistic perception of one’s world is a core Zen concern.  In the transmission of Zen teaching the master points the way to a student, it is then up to the student to breakthrough habitual patterns of perception to achieve the goal of enlightenment (satori).

Zen in Japan essentially revolves around two schools or approaches, Rinzai  (臨済) and Soto (曹洞). Rinzai was introduced into Japan by the monk Eisai (1141-1215) during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), and slightly later in the same era a student of Eisai, Dõgen (1200-1253) who travelled to China to study is credited with returning to found the Soto School. The differences between the two schools are slight, and depend on variations in approach; for example in Rinzai, there is the use of koans (rhetorical, and sometimes seemingly nonsensical), questions that are intended to shake the student out of intellectualism. Soto does not use koan, and is more strongly focused on the relationship between student and teacher to gradually bring the student towards enlightenment. Rinzai favours a ‘sudden’ breakthrough to enlightenment (satori); in both schools meditation (zazen) is of paramount importance to spiritual practice. Zen was able to begin to gain a foothold in the national consciousness through its appeal to the samurai or warrior classes that it gained political ascendency in Japan from the 12th century onwards. They saw in its appeal to direct action a resonance to their own outlook on life; ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’.


The rise of the samurai, as a political force on the national stage, challenging and then superseding the entrenched power bases of the aristocratic families whom had for centuries ruled Japan, was a evolutionary force, one that built on an earlier models. The samurai class were keen to bring their own identity, but also sought to emulate many of the cultural ambitions of the aristocrats that they had overthrown. The adoption and promotion of Zen Buddhism was one means by which they could both seek to impose their own political and moral codes on society, yet also retain a degree of continuity with the past.

One of the prime movers in this transition was the Ashikaga family lead by Ashikaga Takauji, who in 1336 after a protacted struggle proclaimed himself shogun, or ‘supreme ruler’, this initiated the Muromachi cultural period (1337-1573). Until this time Zen culture had been principally centred in the city of Kamakura with only a foothold in the capital Kyõto. With the ascendency of the Ashikaga family, Zen became established in the centre of political and cultural life of the nation. During the Muromachi era Zen Buddhism developed its own uniquely Japanese flavour and flowered as a major cultural force in Japanese society, due to the adoption of its ontological view by many of the ruling elite.

Ashikaga Takauji
Zen temple complexes in Japan were laid out after the architectural model of such temples in China, and it is often referred to as garan (伽藍).  The principal structures aligned on a north-south axis feature at its core the Abbot’s quarters or hõjõ, around which have developed a series of smaller sub-temples known as tatchū (塔頭)[1].  These tatchū became centres of cultural life depending on the inclination of the monk who resided there. They were a meeting place for the study of poetry, paintings, as well as the practice of tea and philosophical debate. Many of the tatchū were to have gardens developed principally on the south side (known as the ‘public face’ of the temple), the reception rooms overlook a courtyard space  known as yūniwa(夢庭 ). It is in this formal space that many gardens have been created, a great many of which are in the karesansui style so associated with Zen temples. To the north side of the main building are found the living and study quarters of the monks, and here too small gardens can also be found. Given the modular nature of Japanese architecture where individual buildings are interconnected by roofed corridors, there can often be several spaces that lend themselves to gardens. Given the close association between Zen and tea culture (cha no yū,茶の湯) one of these garden spaces will likely be given over to a tea garden (chaniwa, ), with its stepping stone paths and minimal evergreen planting.

Korin-in, Kyoto
In Zen temples, gardens are of clearly of importance in the context of the overall architectural layout. In these institutions there developed a particular style of garden that was to influence the garden tradition of Japan as a whole, and it is this style that has, in particular, come to be so closely associated with the global image of Japanese gardens in the late 20th and 21st centuries. This is the ‘dry landscape garden’, or karesansui niwa (枯山水庭). Perhaps the most famous of these gardens is the garden of the abbot’s quarters at the sub temple Ryõan-ji in Kyõto, which is familiar from many tourist brochures and garden images of Japan. This garden receives thousands of visitors every week who come to see and experience one of the greatest examples of garden as art to be created. This powerful work has intrigued and puzzled literally millions since it was first created. To more fully understand this work, and others like it we need to look more closely at the relationship between Zen and the natural landscape environment, and also to see how Zen monks expressed themselves through the medium of art. Karesansui gardens are an extension of the Zen perception of both landscape and art, and in understanding that filter one can begin to approach the essence of Zen teaching itself.


Ryoan-ji, Kyoto. Detail




[1] The principal buildings are; on the north south axis: main gate (sanmon三門 or 山門), zendõ禅堂or the meditation hall), lecture hall (hatto 法堂), the abbots quarters (hõjõ 方丈). On an east-west alignment are; the monks bathhouse (yokushitsu 浴室) and sutra depository (kyõzõ 経蔵)





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