Sunday, 8 February 2015

Zen And The Japanese Garden. Part 2/3

A key figure to begin to begin to understand the relationship of landscape (and by extension gardens) to the individual in the Zen context is Dõgen. In his ‘Landscape Sutra’ ((Sansuikyõ) he sketches out his thinking. The text opens with the following commentary: “ Mountains and waters right now are the actualization of the ancient Buddha way. Each abiding in its phenomenal expression, realizes completeness. Because mountains and waters have been active since before the Empty Eon, they are alive at this moment. Because they have been the self since before form arose they are emancipation-realization.
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 in the mountains.”[1]
Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan
Dõgen states from the outset that the landscape in which people live can be interpreted as an expression of Buddhist perception. Furthermore that he does not perceive any separation between the individual and landscape. It is in and through the landscape that the individual can achieve enlightenment (“soaring in the wind”). This view had already by Dõgen’s time had a long tradition both in Japan and also in China, where the landscape was deeply associated with religious and artistic practice. The landscape was the abode of divine connection and spiritual practice, across East Asia it was in the landscape itself that people communicated with the deities, and through this identified both specific landscape locations (sacred mountains), as well as landscape in general, with the confirmation of political, moral and artistic development. In Japan the animistic religion Shinto that was already centuries old by the time of the introduction of Buddhism, was essentially practiced in the landscape, and was closely associated with agriculture. In Japan and China, the landscape was the prime source of imagery of the poetic traditions, and in China landscape painting was also regarded as one of the most profound medium of artistic expression. Dogen  comments: Mountains have been the abode of great sages from the limitless past to the limitless present. Wise people and sages all have mountains as their inner chamber, as their body and mind. Because of wise people and sages, mountains appear.

Huang shan mountains, China
The gardens of the tradition in Japan are expressions of nature, their form and content derived from nature. In the opening sentences of the Sakuteiki  (‘Records of Garden Making’ compiled in the 11th century), can be found the exhortation: “Visualise the famous landscapes of our country and come to understand their most interesting points. Recreate the essence of those scenes in the garden, but do so interpretively, not strictly.”[2] This principal has underlain all garden creation in Japan and continues to this day, as a garden apprentice it is one of the first lessons one learns. Following this basic assumption the gardens that appear in Zen temples are essentially interpretations of the natural landscape, condensed and concentrated in their expression.
Landscape painting by Guo Shi

Much of Zen landscape iconography was drawn from Chinese (especially Sung dynasty) sources through both poetry and paintings. The monks of the temples of Kamakura and Kyõto were city bound; they lived most of their lives in an urban setting. Yet, important to them was the notion of the reclusive hermit who lived out a life far from urban centres. This cultural and philosophical model had had a long precedent in China, and there were certainly individuals there and in Japan who retired from society to live deep in remote mountain areas. Landscape was associated with a spiritual and moral purity that could be corrupted or distorted by metropolitan life, hence the term arose, ‘the dust of the world’. The Sung dynasty poet Yang Wan-li wrote;

“The flowering plum grove is like a recluse.
Full of the spirit of open space,
Free from the spirit of worldly dust.”[3]

Yang-li and many others considered it possible to connect with the greater landscape by recreating landscapes through gardens. The elements that went into creating gardens could contain and express symbolic content that went far beyond the apparent limitation of form. Zen monks who engaged with creating gardens realised the potential of this way of seeing. By integrating images of nature into their urban bound lives they were able to benefit from the idea of nature itself, and so imbue their lives with such qualities. Also, in doing so, they were conceptually able to overcome the dualism of city versus nature. In creating gardens, however small, they could ‘live in nature’, and assume some of the qualities of the mountain hermit whilst living out a life of spiritual practice and culture in the midst of a metropolitan area.

Ryogen-in, Kyoto 16th C
This is in line with the Zen concept of ‘attaining in the mind’, that is being able to fuse subjective and objective conceptions of the world within a singularity of the perception of the individual. When something is ‘attained in the mind’, then there is no objectification, no separation into ‘here and there’, no duality exists.  This way, the inherent ego driven dualism is overcome and the individual is freed of the constraints of dualistic thinking, he or she escapes the clutches of samsara into liberation (nirvana). In this way the Zen adept looking at a courtyard featuring only arranged stones and raked gravel, can see beyond the apparent forms before them. They are free to infuse the scenery through their own imagination. Rocks can become mountains, islands or even continents. The lines of the raked gravel can become as flowing water, streams, rivers or oceans. Once the separation between the viewer and the garden is dissolved then a freedom is attained, the garden is born again as refined landscape, sacred internalised landscape. A landscape through which the viewer can move at will, creating and recreating scenery of which he or she is indisputably the co-creator; as the one dances with the other in a cosmically inspired dance of creation. 

Daigo Sambo-in, Fushimi.

[1] Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma. Trans Arnold Kotler and Kazuaki Tanahashi

[2] Sakuteki.  Visions of the Japanese Garden. Takei and Keane. Tuttle. 2001

[3] Quoted in Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan. Joseph Parker. State University of New York Press. 1999.

If you enjoyed this blog then try my Facebook page, Robert Ketchell Garden Design. Feel free to leave comments there. Good gardening. If you enjoyed this, or any other post, please let me know! If there are specific aspects of the Japanese garden tradition you are interested in, please let me know. Thanks.

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