Tuesday 30 July 2013

Of Poetry and Japanese Gardens

Poetry, in both the classical Chinese forms as well as the native Japanese forms have for long had a bearing on gardens. The influence has not it is true been quite as direct as Chinese landscape painting though it should not be underestimated as an influence on the development on the garden tradition. The concise nature of poetry and its propensity toward suggestion rather than narrative description has meant that  it has often been used to generate the evocative nature of the gardens themselves.

On the desolate stony shore
Of the garden lake, where he once walked,
There grows alas weeds,
That grew not there before.

This poem from the Manyöshu, compiled in 759, is one of several that feature in that important collection, which strongly evoke garden images. From such sources we can create an impression of the kind of garden that existed in the earliest days of garden building in Japan. Likewise in this poem, also from the Manyöshu, we can gain an image of a rocky shoreline to the pond overhung with Pieris japonica.

In the shadow of the rocks
The pond water
Glows with the colours
of Andromeda flowers.
Must these fall ?

What is also revealed here is the manner in which nature, and thus the garden was being appreciated; that is the fleeting, transient quality of beauty of the flowers being set against the rugged, dark stones of the shoreline, itself being observed as shadow. This, observation of the ephemeral nature of the phenomenal world is seemingly a constant theme of  writers particularly in the Heian period. An observation that is recorded with an eye that sees beauty within the futility of desiring to imagine one can do other than respond to nature's movements. It is an attitude that has persisted right up into modern times. in some respects. The garden is also being portrayed as an extension of Nature into the domain of man, where the relationship is one whereby man appreciates, understands his role in relation to Nature, and accepts it for what it is, without necessarily seeking to apply an illusion of dominance over Nature. 

As Ivan Morris writes: " They (members of Heian society) strive to blend themselves with the nature that surrounds them, believing that thus they can learn to understand themselves and those about them. Sensitivity to the subtle moods of nature was an essential attribute of 'good people'. Without such sensitivity it was impossible to enter into 'the emotional quality of things', which was regarded as the basis of aesthetic, and even, moral awareness. ". The garden as metaphor, expressing a vision of Arcadia through the created landscape, blending earth, water, stone and plants is in another way of creating poetry . A sentiment Lancelot Brown might have of approved of. 

Poetry is also associated in the practice of naming pavillions and other architectural features in the garden. Katsura Rikyu is a example of this practice, where the 'Gepparo' pavillion ( literally the 'Moon-Wave Tower') is so named after a poem by the Chinese poet Po-Chü-i, which describes the moon as a " jewel flickering in the heart of the waves ". The practice became wide spread from an early date in Japan, and is adapted from the Chinese practice which linked garden architecture as a means of linking poetry and garden scenery. The use of poetry in the garden was a means by which the imagination of the viewer could be encouraged to take flight whilst viewing a garden.

The haiku (17 syllables, set in three lines) was developed from the fifteenth century onward as a distinct poetic form.  It is interesting that the haiku with its emphasis on brevity and exploring the extremes of suggestibility, came about at a time when the greatest of karesansui ('dry landscape')gardens were being developed. Whilst there would be no direct link between the two events, their shared concerns are indicative of shared patterns of the expression of experience. In haiku fragments of an image are gathered in a projected space about which the reader's mind builds a more complete pattern of cognition of the image. In the karesansui garden, the same practice is utilised, except stones are placed in the garden space in a pattern of relationship to one another that also allows the viewer to enter the picture. As the haiku becomes an object of meditation, so too is the karesansui  garden. They are both attempts to cut direct to spiritual truth, stripping away all but the absolute essential elements. Superfluous elaboration in expression serves to repress the potential for suggestion, and thus hinder the  engagement of the imagination of the viewer.

Autumn wind-
the mountain's shadow

This latter aspect is exploited most fully in the karesansui form of garden. The garden of Ryoan-ji with its fifteen stones set in a courtyard bare of anything other than raked garden, is the garden as a haiku poem. This latter aspect is exploited most fully in the karesansui form of garden. The famous garden of Ryoan-ji temple with its fifteen stones set in a courtyard bare of anything other than raked garden, is the garden as if a haiku poem. Very often , in the karesansui garden the components of the garden are pared down to the minimum required to represent a scene. The landscape is sketched in with fewest possible brush strokes, this deliberate economy of form, allows the maximum degree of  engagement of the imagination of the viewer. The discipline of the gardener's hand , allows the viewer a creative role in 'completing the garden'.

Poetry is used as a means of directing the thoughts and heart of the person observing the garden deeper, beyond the world of material phenomena into the mystical, non-intellectual reality of Nature. The presence of poetry in the garden, as part of its fabric, reinforces the impression that the garden is a world set apart from everyday reality. In the garden Nature is represented as a 'super-reality', as much a state of mind as a place in nature. As the poet sets out to condense his vision of Nature into a different kind of reality, so the garden designer also attempts to create a world in which the viewer may gain experience of Nature in a more concentrated form.

When we leave behind,
The Three Worlds' Abode of Fire,
Storm and passion tossed
Entering the Dewy Path,
Through the pines a pure breeze blows.
                                                       Sen no Rikyu

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Sunday 28 July 2013

Voices Underwater

I wanted to fold into you
Press beyond dream and need,
Know nothing of one, nor the other –
Just find the words to a song
I knew before I was born.

The air is thick
We breathe as if under water,
Voices hushed
And trees bending as river weed -
Words born before language arrived.

Four notes
Played in their own time and space
Flowers born into the light,
Timid, hesitant, undemanding –
Beauty needing to be known.

At some point in the night
I reached across to touch your skin
Just knowing your presence alive,
Sufficient for the dream to cascade
Into cadences of light shading into light.

Dancing lightly in winter’s eye
Scarce time to learn of regret
It will end, transform itself into spring –
Finding another path to the beginning.

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Saturday 27 July 2013


Daisen-in, a sub-temple of the Daitoku-ji temple compound, contains one of the finest gardens in Japan.  It is important historically and artistically; in it one can read almost the entire canon of achievement in the Japanese garden tradition.  All the symbolic effects influenced by the aesthetics of painting, and the art of creating illusory representations of space, are brought together in one small area.  The temple of Daisen-in was founded in the Muromachi period as a temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, 1509, by Kogaten Sotan (1464-1540), the abbot of Daitoku-ji and a figure of great standing.  He was widely revered for his determined personality, and his admirers included the Shogun Yoshimasa, as well as important persons in the Imperial court.  Sotan needed his contacts to achieve his aim of building Daisen-in, as the country was wrecked by civil wars that did not leave Kyoto free from lawless destruction.  Daitoku-ji itself had been completely razed in 1468 as a result of these wars. The garden of Daisen-in was laid out between 1509 and 1513. 

From the roofed corridor with a bell-shaped window the viewer looks down to the 'Boat stone', as if standing in the prow of a ship The 'Boat stone' is just emerging in the bottom right corner of the photo. 
The Boat stone resembles a Chinese junk, and is mirrored by the arrangement beyond it.
Sotan retired in 1509 and it is generally thought that the L-shaped garden was laid out to adorn his retirement quarters.  The plots are long and narrow; that to the north is approximately 5 x 10m while the eastern section is about 16 x 4.5m. In the corner at the right angle rise the tallest stones in the garden, which give the impression of towering mountains; one of these stones is referred to as Mount Horai (Shumisen).  To the right of these rises a 'dry' mountain stream, narrow and precipitous as it tumbles between rocks.  The stream is crossed by a flat stone bridge, set at the level of the veranda of the building, and then widens to flow south.  At about the midpoint the 'water' runs over a flat-topped stone, set almost at ground level, before disappearing under a (later) corridor which connects the Abbot's quarters to the main building.  The stream continues past a stone shaped like a boat (funeishi) before finally disappearing beneath the veranda.  It emerges into the southern garden which is flat and entirely covered with white raked sand broken only by two conical mounds.  This section of the garden is referred to as the 'Universal Sea', an image that is maintained by the surrounding double-banked hedge, which may be read as a symbolic representation of waves.  The scroll-like effect of the garden is broken only by the roofed walkway, with its typically Zen-inspired bell-shaped opening, which dates from a radical restoration of the garden in 1961, based on plans from the later Edo period; it is doubtful whether this walkway existed in the original scheme and it certainly interrupts the visual flow.  Nearly 100 stones are set in the garden, in compositions which derive from Chinese landscape painting.  The famous panels in the rooms facing onto the garden feature landscape paintings by Soami.  The composition includes crane and tortoise islands, reinforcing the underlying symbolic content with its allusion to the paradise motif.
The tall stone on the left is Mt. Shumisen
It is always difficult to be sure how important the symbolic content, as to garden design, although it is clear that the Daisen-in garden can be read as symbolic in its entirety.  Clearly symbolism was of concern to garden designers in their use of motif.  However the greatest artistic triumph of the garden lies in its unequivocal relationship with Chinese landscape painting, and as such the garden can be recognised as a masterpiece.  Its present popularity is well deserved even if distracting to the visitor attempting to view the garden in peace and quiet.

South garden representing the sea. The double hedge to the rear represents waves on the sea.

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Thursday 25 July 2013

Clouds Of Becoming

Stones dark stained
mosses so verdant now –
dharma rain falling silently.

As one heart 
speaks to another,
the blossom remains
 on the tree.

Each breath

each moment of bright hope,
even the longing
becomes a song.

As I drift away
on this slow boat,
perchance we may meet
if only in a dream.

The bowl
now empty and cool,
taste lingering on.

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Tuesday 23 July 2013

The Origami Of Words

Sonarities echoing
between glass slab walls,
there is urgency in these numbers
lives blind criss-crossing
as thin streams of coincidence,
mere wisps of smoke
on a windy day.

An infinite series of folds
In the unmade bed.
Over there,
Mountains stretch
Distance beyond distance.

Every element
releasing its own song,
the poet too
reaching for his sword.

Mountains, shrouded by mists,
rising beyond curtains of rain,
the body dissolves, atomises,
fragmenting on return
to constituent elements.

Among ancient walls,
The heart may find calm,
As mountains rise and water flows.

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Monday 22 July 2013

Cloud Towers

Summer grasses
Dried now to silvered russets,
Footsteps marking the beginnings of a path-

A pigeon half hidden
Among the folds of the chesnut's leaves-
Cloud towers rising in aspiration spent.

The jackdaw's bright eyes
Revelling in its intelligence
"Come dance with me. Come sing with me" -
No words, no barrier.

Even gripped by heat
Nothing lays still too long.
Where once snow lay
Now a paper trail of the discarded.

Between words
The poet,
Two flies at rest on his knee.

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Space In The Japanese Garden

The use and manner of the employment of space as a design element in the Japanese garden is one of its defining characteristics. Space is as important a design constituent as the trees, water, rocks or any other of the physical components of the garden.  It is a vital aspect of aesthetics that is prevalent in all of the Japanese ( and Chinese) arts, and demands a sensitivity to that which is being implied within the work, without all the possible consequences of an action having to be explicitly stated. This process then engages fully and directly the imagination of the viewer in the perception and appreciation of the work in question.  

The Japanese use the character 間, to represent the english word 'space'. It represents not simply a fixed gap between things, but the interval between things, in other words, space is not a concept defining something empty, but space is associated with the edges of that which defines it. Hence the notion of space is not seen as being static but more as a process, something that is in a continuous process of movement and transformation.

To understand the manner in which space is utilised in the garden, it is important to appreciate that the garden is composed of a series of overlapping or interlocking views. This concept holds true for both gardens that are seen from a limited number of  viewing points ( such as from a veranda or within in a room, where the view of the garden is framed by the architecture) or gardens that are seen from a variety of viewpoints ( as may be the case in a Stroll garden).  A view is composed of three distinct components: namely, foreground, middle ground and background. Whilst each element will have a distinct character in its own right they are intended to be taken together  as a whole, as each aspect supports and enhances the others. Therefore the space between each of these components assumes a degree of importance both in aiding the definition of one aspect  from another, as well as helping to define the visual characteristic of each component.  The space between each is referred to as yohaku or ‘white space, a term borrowed from Chinese landscape painting. An alternative term is kuudan, which also refers to the ‘negative ‘space between physical elements in a composition.  The same concept is employed in ikebana (flower arrangement), where the space  between branches in an arrangement is considered important in creating structure, balance and definition in a composition.  Equally, it is employed in ink painting,  sumie, and also calligraphy, shodo

The concept of Emptiness is one of the central notions in Zen Buddhism, and moreover is one of the key ideas in all forms of Buddhist thought. If Emptiness relates in any way to absence then it is the absence of everything including the idea of emptiness itself. Within this notion of emptiness is the potential for everything to exist, it so becomes an infinite potential. Emptiness is a point of transition between things, revealing the notion of all things being interconnected through the idea of change and transformation, as yin becomes yang, and yang becomes yin. The one penetrates the other in a continuous process to the extent that there is ultimately no 'one' and no 'other', everything coexists within a non dualistic universe.

The use and definition of space in this manner allows the designer (and viewer) to exploit a sense of rhythmic movement in the composition.  Space is opened and closed as the viewer moves himself, or simply alters the direction of his view of the garden area. This alternation is an example of practice of concept of Yin ( in) - Yang (yo), which is an expression of the perceived universal movements that underlay the functioning, development and continuity of all living matter. Rhythmic movement also enhances the experience of the garden to the viewer by providing an underlying sense of structure to the composition. It allows for the viewer to ‘measure’ himself against the garden and there by understand something of his relationship with the garden as a whole.  To begin to fulfil this engagement with the garden the imagination of the viewer requires just sufficient information to  begin to imply or suggest form within the garden space, the balance of the composition may then be completed within the viewer himself. The use of ‘empty’ space allows for the possibility of internalisation of the composition within the viewer.  It is in this manner that the viewer becomes an integral part of the totality of the composition. 

There is a perceived optimal spacing between groups of components that make up a garden scene, the precise nature of which will depend to a certain extent on the intention of the designer. Expressed simply, too close a spacing, and thereby a denial of ‘empty space’, will result in a cluttered arrangement of design elements that may not allow for a clear comprehension of the scene. Equally by the over use of ‘empty space’ then the perception of cohesion between the various elements of the composition will be lost, the rhythm of the composition will break down into a series of sterile staccato expressions that do not contain the vital constituent of inclusiveness. The totality will be lost. The designer in the course of creating the work seeks to find the point at which the maximum degree of dynamic tension may be generated, a study of the rock composition making up the garden of Ryoan-ji reveals this very clearly. Generally this point (of  maximum dynamic tension) is found at a position where the introduction of any  further additional space between the design elements will create separation and opposition. The designer experiments with the placement of the elements ( rocks, planting etc. ), constantly shifting the relative position of the elements until his intuition, experience and perception reveals the point where maximum tension is generated.  It is not a definable state, rather it relies on the  sensitivity of the designer to succeed, though to the eye that is used to working in this manner it becomes immediately apparent when there is a degree of  connectivity and at which point this connectivity begins to break down. This holds true for the placement of elements both in the horizontal plane as well as in the vertical plane. 

The language of the garden is the language of nature, it is challenged, tested, refined, and experimented within the context of the assumptions and intention of the designer. Space thereby  becomes a malleable component, the solid forms that make up the garden scene are cut and carved into and so become defined by the use of the ‘empty spaces’ which hold the composition together as a whole. The resulting dynamic relationships that occur energise and inform the composition, also influence critically the relationship between the garden scene and the viewer.  The use of space in this manner prevents the composition settling into a series of prescribed movements which would lead to a rigid structure which does not allow for the integration of the viewer into the totality.

“It is delusion to think that the pure world of paradise and the profane world of the present are different. The distinction between holy purity and defilement,too, is but a delusion. Both are only groundless imaginings that spring into the human mind.” Musō Soseki (夢窓 疎石, 1275 – 1351) 

Daigo Sambo-in

This garden set in the grounds of the Buddhist Shingon Buddhist temple a few miles to the south of Kyoto was once part of the home of one of the most powerful political  figures in Japan’s history, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Set in an area long famous for its cherry trees, the temple was evidently a favoured place of the Shogun Hideyoshi who it is recorded to have visited the temple a number of times. Hideyoshi who rose from humble origins to become the supreme political master of Japan had a base at the nearby Fushimi Momoyama Castle. 

The site dates back to the Heian period, and formed part of extensive property holdings of Daigo-ji temple. By the beginning of the sixteenth century the temple had fallen into a state of disrepair, and it was after a chance meeting between the Shogun and Gien, the head of Sambo-in temple, that sufficient funds became available to set about restoring the former glories. In the spring of 1598 Hideyoshi decided to hold a cherry viewing party on the site. It is said that there was only six weeks available to prepare the temple building and garden for the event. The cherry viewing was a great success and the party lasted a number of days. In the aftermath of the festivities work proper began on the construction of the grand stroll garden, with upwards of three hundred workmen toiling under the direction of Yoshiro, a master gardener who had himself risen from humble origins as a kawaromono (literally the 'riverbank things', an underclass in society that dealt with tasks such as butchery, tanning, burial of the dead etc). In fact many highly skilled gardeners were to emerge from the kawaromono, and they formed the beginnings of a professional group of landscape gardeners.

The Fujito stone can be seen centre background

The garden like its patron is an expression of richness and extravagance, the huge number of stones in the garden set about a convoluted pond with a number of islands. An interesting feature is the earth covered bridge that takes the viewer across the pond, without necessitating a change in the texture of the path. The garden is composed of a number of interlocking vistas that are unfolded before the viewer as he moves about the garden. The pines planted on the islands are thought to be over 500 years old and are probably part of the original garden layout. A remarkable feature of the garden is the placement of a large rectangular  stone, set into the background of the composition, known as the ‘Fujito stone’. The stone, one of the first to be brought to the garden was purchased by Hideyoshi (in itself noteworthy coming from a man more inclined to procurement by threat), for the vast sum of 1000 koku  of rice. A koku being sufficient rice to keep a man alive for one year.

Hideyoshi was never to see the garden completed, as he fell ill and died in the early autumn of the year following the great cherry party. His gardener Yoshiro continued to work over the design of the garden until its eventual completion in 1618. The garden was duly hailed as a masterpiece and Yoshiro was given the honorary title of ‘Kentei’, meaning “Excellent Gardener”. The garden reflects well the personalities and temper of the particular period, which was very much one of extravagant display, and richness. Not a period of simplicity and restraint the period was a very much a reflection of the tastes of the character who dominated the times. 

Saturday 20 July 2013

Keeping Clear Space

Even half a moon
Is enough to wet the sky –
Deep blue northern night.

Clouds blowing across the sky
Winds pushing their tails along
Even when there are no poems
Nothing remains the same.

Even here
Bathed in solitude,
Crows calling each other home.

Distant mountains
Softening into blue haze
The wind the wind
Restless as ever.

Wearing the sighs of the world
The old walnut tree flexes to the wind.
Shift, change and adapt,
Motion never ceasing.

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Saturday 13 July 2013

Releasing The Breath

Wind among the trees
Sounding as if a river flowing,
Tasting joy and vunerability
In equal measures.

Diving naked
Nothing but the bluest of seas -
The swimmer swallowed.

Beyond the giving and receiving,
Swimming away from the shore -
So learning to swim again.

Each raindrop on the windscreen,
A fragment of the sky.
Some holding where they are,
Others running as thin streams.

So to discipline the heart
In the ways of heaven and earth,
Releasing the breath
Even though no rain is forecast.

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