Thursday, 13 June 2013


Ryoan-ji, Kyoto. The righthand section of the arrangement.
One of the most familiar images of Japanese gardens is of the karesansui garden at Ryoan-ji, with its fifteen stones set in a ‘sea’ of raked gravel. The temple  attracts thousands of visitors each week, and yet somehow amid the coming and going it maintains a stately, enigmatic dignity. Not that this is a new phenomena, the garden has attracted visitors  ever since it was first created possibly in the early 1490’s. In due course , the garden has attracted a reputation of every shade of opinion, from the uncomprehending  dismissal to highest praise. Lorraine Kuck refers to the garden as ‘a sermon in stone’, “undoubtedly one of the world’s great masterpieces of religiously inspired art.” Whilst the garden has spawned many imitations in many places, it has seemingly never been bettered. If nothing else then its can be said to be the most iconic of all Japanese gardens. And it deserves that status. There is debate among garden scholars in Japan which questions the early date of the garden, some argue the that composition we see today is of a later period, possibly late 18th century. 
Ryoan-ji. Looking towards the central section from the left.
Scant clues remain as to who the designer or creator of the garden was, there are the remains of two names cut into the back of one of the taller stones, though whether ‘Kotaro’ and “Hikojiro’ were responsible for the garden cannot be taken with any certainty. Whoever was responsible, for surely it was ultimately the work of one person, he produced an undeniable masterpiece of landscape art. Perhaps it is fitting that the author of the work remains anonymous, for the greatest art transcends the individual ego and is capable of speaking directly to the heart of the viewer. A sense of anonymity pervades the whole garden despite its overwhelming popularity, we do not know who the garden was designed by, or for whom. Most likely, as the temple is part of the Zen Buddhist school, the garden would have of been created as a aid to spiritual contemplation for the monks, the whole project suffused with a desire to explore spiritual knowledge through art. The later has been a profound contribution to the cultural achievements of Japan.

Ryoan-ji, the left hand section.
Inevitably the garden attracts and continues to attract explanation, as to its ‘meaning’ and significance. When confronted with the physical presence of the garden the viewer may be initially struck by its sheer blandness. The stones used in the composition are not stones of any particular intrinsic beauty, they are simple ‘field boulders’ that were probably collected nearby, nor are they extravagant shapes, that may suggest anthropomorphic forms to the imaginative eye. There is no vegetation within the garden space, the air about the stones is completely clear. The gravel surface is raked in fine even lines that do not deviate from the straight. Everything is simply as it is. Of note s that wherever along the verandah one views the garden usually one of the fifteen stones is obscured from the line of sight. This has lead to the observation that "the viewer becomes the fifteenth stone".

It is interesting that the garden is difficult to take in visually as a whole. Thus the eye is drawn to 'read' the composition much as if one were viewing a scroll painting, with the eyes scanning across the picture. The most natural sequence to do this is to view the garden from left to right across the courtyard area which is about 24m wide. The spaces between the groupings of stone feels enormous, as if one were travelling vast distances. The use of empty space is a most significant aspect of the whole, and relates to the concept yohaku, which is a term given to the use of empty space or 'white space' seen in East Asian paintings. There are many significant allusions to the Japanese style of painting known as  haboku sansuiga ('broken ink painting'), which arose in the middle ages in Japan, where ink was literally splashed across the paper allowing for spontaneous effects to occur. The painter Sesshu was a master of this style.

Sesshu Toyo 1420-1506
The original composition would have incorporated aspects of shakkei ('borrowed scenery'), which are now obscured by trees. The venerable boundary wall has been designated National Cultural Treasure status. At it‘s inception, the garden would have of been less introspective than the garden that we see today, with age it has become more introspective. The compelling beauty of the garden lies solely within the relationships between the groups of stones, and between the stones themselves. The placement of the  stones seeming random, and yet creating a sense of absolute order and knowingness. Only the slight rise and fall in rhythmic tension between the stone groups animate what is otherwise a perfectly still scene. For once we are not invited to view the garden as a representation of Nature, and thereby  contemplate our relationship with Nature , but to know that experience directly without any intermediary. It is a place here the garden is a prism held up to the light of our experience of landscape and our most intimate relationship with that landscape.
The garden attracts visitors by the hundreds, if not thousands, each day.

“Heaven and earth and I are of the same root,
The ten-thousand things and I are of one sustenance.”
                                                                                      Seng-chao (384-414)

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