Monday, 9 February 2015

Zen And The Japanese Garden. Part 3/3

All gardens are modelled after the notion of the garden representing paradise, or an idealised state of being. This idea is inherent in the Zen garden as with every other type of garden. Given the Zen viewpoint outlined above then one can understand that the Zen garden (that is a garden created through a Zen perspective) will be rich in potential to communicate and ‘interact’ with the viewer. The garden will become a perfect vehicle for symbolic content, and that through the inclusion of symbolic content the experience of the garden can be enriched even further. It should be noted though that any symbolism expressed in a garden is only as a finger pointing out a direction, in itself the symbolic content has no concrete reality nor absolute meaning. Several Zen temple gardens in Japan today are associated with symbolic content. The garden at Daisen-in (part of the Daitoku-ji complex in Kyõto is a case in point. Initially laid out at the beginning of the 16th century, the stonework of the garden is a masterpiece of garden design. Drawing much on the concepts of Chinese landscape painting, the garden layout has a powerful imagery that seems to be associated with a depiction of the types of landscapes so beloved by Sung painters. Today the visitor to the garden is regaled with the interpretation of the garden being symbolic of the passage of the individual through life, as represented by the birth of the flow of water high in the mountains as it subsequently makes its way to the sea. Every stone grouping and many individual stones that make up the bulk of the garden are ascribed symbolic content or ‘meaning’, and the visitor may well come away with the idea that a Zen garden is primarily composed of symbolic content. It must be said that it is highly unlikely that this was in the minds of the original creator or creators of the garden. Far more possible is that they sought to create a general notion of landscape, to express something of the quality of Chinese landscape painting. The role of any symbolic content in a Zen garden is to be a finger pointing, directing attention inwards, not to present an external idea or interpretation of the garden in the mind of the viewer. Many contemporary garden creators have adopted the notion of the garden holding symbolic content. Shigemori Mirei, a well known 20th century garden creator responsible for revitalising the garden tradition in the modern era, created many karesansui gardens, which often carried as their principal modus symbolic content, he realised the narrative potential of the karesansui garden.


The Zen garden is not the romanticized vision (mono no aware) of landscape as espoused by the Heian era (785-1185) courtly poets, but a vision that saw landscape as capable of expressing profound spiritual teaching. Mono no aware was a term that can be translated as the ’pathos of things’[1]. Though the term had a Buddhist resonance, in recognizing the fragile seasonality of all living things, its emphasis is on the emotional response of the viewer, for example the brief glory of cherry blossom. The Zen view penetrates even deeper than emotion, attempting to see the landscape beyond apparent form. In the Zen view all matter seen with even a trace of ego-mind is an illusion. Absolute reality lies beyond the complexity of such a view, indeed it cannot be expressed by an intellectual process which inevitably brings its own limitations and parameters. Musō Soseki (夢窓 疎石, 1275 – 1351) the greatest Rinzai teacher of his day wrote the following poem, entitled’ A Rhyme on an Artificial Mountain’:

Without a speck of dust
A high peak rises,
Without a drop of water
A loud waterfall plunges.
On one or two evenings
The wind and the moon
Enable the right person
To create and play within the scene.[2]

The artificial mountain of the title refers to a ‘mountain’ in a garden setting. In the Chinese garden this could literally be a piling up of stones to make a tall mountain-like feature. The Japanese preferred to make a similar statement of intent, but by using single pieces of stone standing upright, or stones grouped into arrangements by the mystic numbers 3, 5, or 7. By opening the poem with the line, “Without a speck of dust”, Musō indicates the scenery being observed has been created by an enlightened mind, and hence the scenery is able to take on a transcendental aspect and become an extension of sacred space.

When the mind sees without discrimination, sees beyond the limitations of duality, then it is possible to see a mountain in a stone. To see a ‘high peak’ rising out of a garden stone, and likewise to see, hear and feel a waterfall without the presence of water. An arrangement of stones that simply suggests a waterfall would require insight to allow a viewer to see and hear as a ‘loud waterfall plunges’. It requires effort and to a certain extent training to look at landscape in non-conceptual ways to fully grasp what Musō is saying. More than to just grasp intellectually the concept, but to see a stone and experience a mountain; to see a dry waterfall (such as the one at Tenryū-ji temple, reputedly designed by Musō) and experience the full knowing of water flowing. To the Zen mind, to see things as they are, in their ‘original state’, is to grasp something beyond duality, beyond relational forms. It is to intuitively see and grasp the essential nature of the object in question. To see something in an undifferentiated state, is not to apply judgement nor discrimination, as these attributes are something we bring with us, they are not part of the original state.

In the final two lines of the poem Musō indicates a way to approach a garden landscape.  The broad undifferentiated gaze ‘enables the right person, to create and play within the scene.’ The ‘right person’ referred to here is someone who has grasped the actuality of non-duality, someone who sees without discrimination. Furthermore because this person sees in this way then they become enabled to ‘create and play within the scene. That is they are able to conjure mountains out of stones, to create in their own imagination, landscapes that can be traversed, explored, discovered and enjoyed, every bit as much as if one were travelling through nature itself. In the liberation from duality comes a sense of play with the very nature of perceived reality, an educated person such as Musō, brings to the play a deep knowledge of Chinese poetry and literature, as well as a appreciation of his own native landscape settings. Just as a child can take beach sand and pebbles and construct a world of its own making, one that is as embodied as a landscape untainted by a speck of dust.

Zen recognizes that essentially any work of art is “a subjective projection into the world of an artificial reality.”[3] A stone is not a mountain, nor raked gravel flowing water. What is important is the heart-mind that sees beyond apparent form in whatever guise it may appear. Zen is saying all apparent notions of reality are ultimately illusory. Yet the illusion can be turned upon itself, by recognizing the illusion the viewer comes closer to seeing ‘true’ reality. In this light even ‘ true’ and ‘illusion’ are themselves subjective terms. When a viewer sees through such paradoxical notions, then he or she steps closer to seeing all things as inseparable and wholly interdependent. The garden one looks at is an extension of oneself, and the viewer is another element of the garden. All matter, animate or inanimate are patterns of energy manifested in form. Form appears to the mind, and is so created by mind. Yet mind and form are also inseparable in their interdependence.

“One should not take outward beauty for reality. He who does not understand this mystery will not obtain the truth.” [4]

Daichi-ji, Shiga Prefecture
“One particle of dust is raised and the great earth lies therein; one flower blooms, and the universe rises with it. The inner treasure is the essence of the mind, the Buddha-nature or spiritual consciousness, that which sees and grasps things without deliberation or definitions.” ”[5]
Ryugin-an, Kyoto






[1] The World of the Shining Prince. Ivan Morris. Oxford University Press, 1964.
[2] Translated by Sharon Nakazoto
[3] Parker, see above.
[4] Ching Hao, Sung dynasty painter, 10th C
[5] Yüan-wu (1063-1135), Chinese Zen teacher Sung dynasty.


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