Wednesday 30 December 2015

Still It Rains On

Still it rains on,
Buckling river rises -
Tonight the owls are silent.


Saturated earth cannot hold more.
At the tipping point, both this and that.

Swollen clay
Slick to the hands
Now raising a cup formed by process
Born of transference
A voice formed.

Forming a beat
A pulse of emptied intervals –
Crossing the meniscus between worlds.

So, you come to find source;
Touch the base,
the fine hem,
the original face.
Yet, time rolls within itself
Fractal light implosion
the falling veil,
the breath of vision.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Sabi, Time Passed and Time Passing in the Japanese garden.

An aspect of sabi is in  the quality of 'naturalness in the garden
Sabi 錆 can be likened to a ‘sister-concept’ of wabi 侘び,[1] the pair are closely woven into the fabric of aesthetics in Japan, and hence they can both be applied to the qualities and appreciation of gardens. Whereas wabi is derived from a “feeling of loneliness, or poverty”; sabi , encompasses a sense of unpretentious imperfection, a knowledgeable artlessness in the execution, and a feeling of the inevitable passage of time. Donald Richie[2] states that the etymological root of the term is derived from the verb sabu (‘to wane’), and susabi (a noun meaning ‘desolation’). The term sabishi, meaning ‘lonely’ is still in use in modern Japanese. From this we can grasp that the term sabi, is particularly concerned with expressing a state of change or alteration that is governed principally by temporal processes. Following the example of Matsuo Bashō, the term became associated in the eyes of poets with the notion of bleakness, desolation and the incomplete; but the negative connotations were tempered by a modulating qualities of stillness, connectivity and potential. Qualities that arise because the term is rooted in an observation derived from natural processes (as opposed to speculative philosophy), and recognition of the cyclical movement from fullness to emptiness to fullness.

Sabi is a mood qualifier, the term identifies a fleeting, sometimes barely perceptible moment.
A garden may be perceived to be imbued with the spirit of sabi, it is frequently a quality associated with the Tea garden, or roji. This is because Tea masters, such as Takeno Jōō and Sen no Rikyu, favoured what became known as wabi cha, where great emphasis was placed on the refinement of the tea ceremony towards simplicity and a positive lack of ostentation. Therefore a garden expressing a sense of sabi is a garden lacking in pretention, and a space that exudes a positive connectivity with what may be interpreted as ‘naturalness’. The roji is in essence elemental, a path that guides the tea participant towards the tea house. The spirit of the path is derived from the imagery of a way leading to an isolated rustic mountain dwelling or lodge deep in the countryside. A tea garden that displayed grandiosity, cleverness, or ostentation would not imbue the tea participant with the correct desirable emotional qualities, which would aid him or her to participate in the tea ceremony in a state of mind conducive to calm equanimity. This observation illustrates well the fundamental notion that the Japanese garden is intended to influence the emotional and spiritual state of the observer. It is something that much attention is paid to in the construction of the garden, from the choice of materials, to their relative dispositional relationships in space. All design concerns are geared towards how the garden interacts with the viewer, of recognizing that the garden and viewer are intimately bound together. The one complimenting the other, as yin and yang are not separate entities but aspects of a whole.

The apparent simplicity of architecture in the garden hides a complex appreciation of what is simple.

Stone lanterns were introduced into gardens by Tea masters.
Sabi can be seen in the use of secondhand materials in the garden, miegakure. That is materials that have acquired the patina of age and use being especially prized. Rocks with a scattering of lichens or mossy growths, stepping stones that reveal aspects of long term wear or have been weathered to soft edges (as opposed to the sharp break lines of freshly quarried stone), or stone lanterns with perhaps signs of damage that have been ‘healed’ by long term exposure to the elements. Plant material that displays a sense of maturity, or has an aged quality is also likely to display a sense of sabi. One only need to recall the sense of walking through a woodland of mature trees, it is not just the height and mass of the trees that impresses the senses, but the very atmosphere of age, of time passed, that can hold us in awe. It is noticeable that when creating traditional gardens in Japan what is sought is at the time of ‘completion’ of the garden (construction phase), the garden already has a sense or impression of being aged. Likewise, it is often the case that trees in a Japanese garden are ‘odd shapes’, leaning one way or another, there may be gaps in the canopy cover and so on. Contrast this to trees available for garden creation in the West which are uniformly bolt upright with an even spread of branches forming the canopy. It is very difficult to purchase suitable trees for Japanese gardens in the West, there is simply too much regularity to their forms, or one could say ‘a lack of sabi’.

The elegant forms of garden trees revealed by empty space is an expression of sabi.
The 14th C Japanese poet Kenkō wrote: “In everything no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting and gives one the feeling that there is room to grow.” [3]

Irregularity, or a sense of incompletion, gives, as it were, something for the imagination of the viewer to grip on to. It bestows a sense of time passed and hence an awareness of time passing, of process, movement and transformation. In this Beauty, however fleeting it may seem, is captured and brought into the light to be experienced. Perfect symmetry, or a flawless form, is a closed entity, one that does not allow for engagement by the one experiencing it. This is the case for the senses, sight, sound, touch, taste, as much as it is for the imagination. If there is no space for the imagination to engage with, the viewer or the experiencer will remain on the ‘outside’ of the experience. A separation occurs which cannot be bridged, subject and object will remain in opposition, and the essential interdependence of subject and object will not be recognised.

The apparent randomness of a stepping stone path reveals sabi.
Sabi can also be noted in seasonality, the passing from one season to the next. Each season has its own particular qualities, spring with its fresh growth and quality of re-awakening, summer has the quality of reaching a peak of development, lushness and plentitude, autumn brings colour into the trees as if they were making one last exuberant display before falling, winter reveals the garden retreating into itself, with-drawing back from whence it emerged. With each turn of season there can be a certain wistful feeling as we are reminded of the passing of time, and so reminded of our own mortality. Yet, beyond this, we can recognise that process, a seamless process is active, of which human beings as much as any other being or material is subject. As much as we notice the passing of time, we can be aware of a deeper movement, which is ‘beyond time’ as revealed through non-relativistic conception. This mode of perception allows us to feel deeper the quality inherent in the Japanese garden where we become aware of a ‘timelessness’ both outside and within ourselves. Sensitivity to qualities, such as sabi, allow us to enter and engage with Japanese gardens more thoroughly, to see beyond form, and experience something of the unfathomable essence of what is before us.

[1] Sabi  or ;  see also blog post, Wabi; Spirit Unbound 17/11/13.
[2] Donald Richie, ‘A Tractate On Japanese Aesthetics’. Stone Bridge Press, 2007.
[3] The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō (Essays in Idleness). Translated by Donald Keene. Columbia University Press. 1967.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Sometimes You Wait In Vain

Enfolded within hills
Trees skeletons stripped bare,
The river runs on
Ghost music in flow,
Always onward, always onward.

Immersed in water soaked air
Yet proud in immobility
Sentinels march in silent step
Hailing the gathering inward
Deep to earth-breath stilled.

Firewood gathered in
Stacked under cover –
Deep night & lost for sleep
Listening to the rodent’s rasp
Of the shelter that holds me here.

The turn of the wheel
One click at a time
Between, an infinity of air –
Motion within such stillness.

This morning the pheasant
Came to visit.

The cats spent the afternoon
Stretched out by the fire.

By nightfall rivulets of rain
Had gathered into river threads.

As I waited in vain

For a poem to arrive.

Sunday 22 November 2015


Ryogen-in is one of the Daitoku-ji  sub-temples in Kyoto which contains one of the very oldest surviving karesansui ('dry landscape)  gardens, reputedly by Sōami (相阿弥, ? - 1525), an influential figure in the Ashikaga shougunate, and is also reputed to be the creator of Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺) or the noted ‘Silver Pavillion temple’ in Kyoto. It is thought the temple was founded in 1502.  or There are in fact five gardens in total that surround the temple building, every scrap of available ground has a garden.
The 16th C garden to the north side of the temple.
The oldest of the gardens, Ryugin-tei (龍吟庭), (literally, ‘The Dragon Song Garden’), has a tall narrow stone set with a slight lean to the right side which is a representation of Mt Sumeru or Shumisen 須弥山, the sacred mountain at the centre of the Buddhist universe, scattered below this dominant stone are a number of ‘lesser’ worlds. The ground is now entirely covered by a carpet of moss, originally, it would have of been at least part surfaced by white gravel, there are a small number of tight clipped azaleas that wrap themselves about the stone arrangements. The stones have been carefully placed to generate a rhythmic movement. Though not particularly large the stone arrangement has a depth and quiet grace to it that rewards careful attention by the viewer. Viewed from the verandah the stone arrangement resembles a landscape scroll painting, as if the viewer were looking down onto a distant landscape from a great height. The foreground of the composition is a sea of moss, that lends a gentle emotional quality to the composition. The garden is on the north side of the main building, which is the side of the temple associated with the living quarters and study of the monks who would have inhabited the temple. The north side of the temple building was also known as the ‘private’ side of the temple, as distinct from the south facing side which was known as the ‘public’ face of the temple. The principal reception rooms and worship hall featured on the south side.
The central portion of the rock arrangement representing Mt Horai.
Other delights at Ryogen-in are the ‘Garden of A-Un’, a wonderful linear composition representing the yin-yang forces , the In breath and the Out breath. It is also a statement regarding the very essence of meditation, which is at the very core of Zen Buddhist practice. The linear strip of garden between the building and the boundary wall is a magical play of defying the very tight physical space in order to create with an engaging narrative. To the right side as viewed is a low flat stone with gravel raked steeply about it. It seems as if the stone representing the in-breath was being gently drawn into the earth. To the extreme left is a foundation stone (originally from Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s Jurakudai palace) that has a pronounced stub showing where a large wooded pillar would have been located. This stone represents the out-breath flowing into the world. Between the representations of the in-breath and out-breath is a small low stone that is the point of equilibrium between the two opposing movements. The linear raking pattern of the gravel holds the entire composition together as well as providing a visual means of connecting the two extremes.
The stone representing the in breath is to the extreme right.

The pillar foundation stone represents the out breath.
The tiny tsubo niwa (or courtyard garden, literally a garden space created in a gap between architectural structures) that is known as the ‘Totekiko’ garden, contains no plants at all. Nothing but seven stones and gravel, it is claimed to be the smallest garden in Japan. It is intended to represent a stone is cast into water and the resulting ripples caused. It may also be likened to the sudden awakening of a Zen adherent suddenly breaking through the limitations of dualistic thought. This tiny ‘garden’ space holds a powerful artistic arrangement that truly belies the apparent limitation of the physical space it occupies.
The stub niwa represents a stone thrown into water.

The modern garden (built 1980) to the south of the main building, is a representation of Mt Sumeru, a Crane isle, and a Tortoise isle, three elements that make up a representation of a Buddhist representation of paradise. The tortoise and crane (see the author’s blog post ‘Symbolism and Reference in the Japanese Garden’ 12/06/2015) are common references to the notion of paradise as is Mt Sumeru or Horai. It is interesting to note the differences between the south and north gardens. The most obvious point is that the north garden has a quiet, detached, quality. Whereas the south garden, though containing less in the way of stones, seems to be striving to make is narrative quality known. The stones representing Horai in the central section of the arrangement are indeed quite tall, and the vertical axis certainly makes a visually very strong statement. It is almost strident compared to the quiet subtlety of the older garden on the north side.

The modern garden on the south side. The stone group in the moss on the left is a turtle, the central group Mt Horai, and the Crane isle is on the right.