Japanese Gardens-Natural Thus-ness








To speak of Japanese gardens, we must first mention the possible originators of the art of gardening in the East and their masterworks, starting with the Chinese and the garden-parks of ancient China. In the culturally significant year of A.D. 607, the same year which saw unprecedented contact between the Chinese and Japanese courts, the emperor of China was building the grandest garden-park which had ever been constructed in the history of the world, discounting, if one is so inclined, Eden. The authority backing this project was emperor Sui Yang Ti, and the emperor’s park would become known as the ‘Western Park,’ a humble name belying its revolutionary size of seventy-five miles and the million-odd workers who were employed on average, breaking ground and planting trees in the great facsimile of nature just outside of the Imperial capital, Lo-yang.  Earth and rocks were moved great distances to create hills and mountains, and thousands of tons of ground were removed and ported to different sites to make room for the five lakes and the four ‘seas’ which would be dispersed throughout the grounds of the park. The nation’s most respected and skilled geomancers, or individuals who understood the flows of energy connected with landscapes and the interchange of elemental factors, to design the layout of the park and organize their efforts with the landscapers and laborers. The park, once it was completed, housed a few hundred species of animals, birds, and reptiles, as well as being the place where emperor Sui Yang Ti’s concubines lived, about twenty of the most beautiful woman in his domain, whom he would visit at his whim, framed as they were by the grand project which would seem such an effrontery to the peasant’s who were taxed for its construction that the Sui dynasty fell ten years after the park’s completion.
Into the setting of this monumental, renaissance undertaking stepped the first official embassy from the then relatively primitive island nation to the East, Japan, under the diplomatic leadership of a man named Ono No Imoko, who had been sent to discover all he could about the civilized developments of China’s much older culture. Ono No Imoko was a relative of the then-reigning monarch of Japan, Princess Suiko. One can assume that as the envoy walked the streets in the capital, he gaped, completely amazed at the towering structures of the government, the columns of the Halls of State, and strolled the construction sites which would eventually coalesce into the largest garden the world had ever seen, awed despite his own lofty heritage. The audacity of a society creating something that was, until that point, in Japan, the sole domain of the gods, human-formed earth. He was surely astonished at the concept. Regardless of whether or not one takes this perspective, roughly four years later, in A.D. 611 in Japan, the first lake garden was already being built in front of the imperial palace.
 Another possible interpretation of events leading up to the modern Japanese garden calls for the recognition of the common route of cultural exchange between the islands of Japan and the continent. This view holds that gardens were introduced through the Korean peninsula even before the voyage of Imoko to the Sui capital. This perspective is almost wholly based on artifacts unearthed around the ancient capital of Nara, garden statues which were composed of elements which were too alien to have originated in Japan. The similarity to Korean statues of the sixth century, the time most of these statues date from, connects this theory with a tentative feasibility. Finally, the last possibility, but not the least likely, is the original discovery of gardens by the Japanese. Theirs was a natural religion, after all, and the worship of nature involved in Shinto might have had its earliest beginnings in the construction and upkeep of small gardens meant to glorify the beauty of nature and the gods housed inside that beauty. This theory is possibly verified by the archaic etymology of the word ‘niwa,’ which is the original Japanese word for garden, coexisting today with the Sinoi-Japanese word for garden, ‘Teien.’ The hypothesis goes on to argue that the development of Japanese gardens took this original foundation, derived from their religious inclinations, and combined it with the influence flowing in unchecked from the Western Asian landmass.
China’s gardens, however, were much larger than anything found before, something which would go on to inspire the development of their Japanese counterparts. They were an almost necessary expression of the dazzling variety of flora found in ancient China. Though at the onset of agriculture many species appear to have been lost in pursuit of progress, literally millions of species becoming extinct and replaced with fields used to cultivate grain and thus human life, China still remains the spot on earth which has more species of trees than all the rest of the temperate world put together. An interesting causal relationship to note, to be sure, but perhaps not the only inspiration which led the Chinese to develop such magnificent gardens.
The other factor that might have made the warlords of China plan and construct such massive gardens would be the need to imply their individual greatness. This could have feasibly reached a point of competition which would have resulted in the ridiculously large, 200 li gardens of the distant past, which are even still spoken about in enthusiastic garden circles. Needless to say, the vastness of such projects, and the raw materials and labor required to create such masterpieces, were beyond the limits of Japanese resources. However, the tendency of Chinese governing bodies to rely on superb organization when attempting the undertaking of large national projects was something that the Japanese could adapt to their own society.  So they began to do what they do best, refining and altering the concepts which originated from alien cultures, making them shaded the color of the Japanese cultural aesthetic sensibility. It was during this Era of cultural development that the Japanese borrowed the Chinese notion that huge garden grounds and lakes were a suitable setting for the abode of a nation’s leader, an earmark for divinity, something which surrounded the descendant of the divine in the creations of the gods.
With this basis in mind I must point out that this paper is specifically directed at an exploration of the concepts, aesthetic principles, symbolism, and design of Japanese Zen gardens. These gardens, rather than being intended to support the greatness and flatter the ego of awesome imperial powers, are meant to be reflective areas removed from the hustle and bustle of the world, a place for introspection and appreciation of the beauties of nature. Upon entering a Zen garden, the individual is expected to shed their worries and leave stress at the shoji leading inside. Once inside, one can begin to form thoughts of an objective nature about the path of one’s life and the choices suddenly apparent before him or her. Thus, before I attempt to reach into the collective spirit of humanity and explain my own experiences with Japanese Zen gardens by describing universal experiences along with my own and comparing them, I will describe some of the notions which lie at the foundation of these works of art.
Zen gardens are meant to be places where people can connect to the reality of the world around them, evoking an emotional response as surely as the works of a master painter or sculpture, driving deep inside the viewer’s psyche with an immediate, resonating force. Works of art, be it a finely crafted table or a perfectly performed chado ceremony, seem to obscure the self-centeredness of the individual ego and call out to all confused sense of singularity, asking it to join in the cosmic dance. The individual, when confronted with the Zen garden, must stop and ask him or herself, ‘Where is it I fit in, in this picture?’ It is this question which might lead the individual towards the path of understanding which culminates in enlightenment, seeing the all-ness of things, the here of now, recognizing the universality of nature, earth, sky, man, and spirit. It is inside a garden, a peaceful retreat from the bustle of crisscrossing lives lived at fast paces where one finds a calm tranquility of the collective spirit, that individuality is forgotten in awe of natural systems. People remember that they are, in fact, quite small. There are a number of principles which have been developed over the centuries in order to best construct an atmosphere which is conducive to this process.
Japanese Zen gardens are representations of the complex construction of the universe and people’s place inside that structure. The elements of nature are visibly present, symbolized by various aspects of the garden in a way that leaves the interrelation of them up to interpretation by the viewer. One can come to his or her own understanding of a Zen garden, thus defining the universe in their perspective’s idiosyncratic terminology. The path one walks into a garden, or Roji, is not merely a functional trail into a place to observe beauty; it acts as a metaphorical transformation of consciousness, going from the mundane of the regular world across the river Styx to find one’s self confronted at every bend and turn in the path with an apparent truth about the connections of humanity with the rest of the natural world. No human life follows a straight line towards the goals he or she sets for the future. All face unexpected twists in the road of experience, which usually end up offering vistas into previously unanticipated and unexplored areas of possible life. These bends are representative of pauses in the growth and decline of life, the inevitable peaks and valleys of experience, during which the individual stops and looks directly at the intangible ‘face’ of his or her surroundings, occasionally finding the least obvious reality around the corner. The path is always zigzagged, leading the traveler indirectly towards the epiphanies which will come, in a way making these understandings more the individual’s and less the responsibility of the creator of the garden, implying a responsibility of the seeker to find the proper place in the garden where one will realize the message of its creator, or the purpose of his or her own time on the planet. The Zen garden is a place which belongs to everyone and no one, like earth itself, simply waiting to be introduced to anyone with the time and the inclination to discover themselves inside their leafy boundaries.
The first principle associated with Zen gardens is the concept of Fukinsei. This is a principle regarding spatial organization, which states that the allocation of objects is always asymmetrical, implying irregular division whether in the second or third dimension of a composition that is in question. Whereas in the west, symmetry in all things points our societies towards bilateral and radial division – both in the development of ours arts as well as in the basis of our perspectives on reality – even numbers, and regular spacing in the composition of our works of art, architecture, and gardens; in the east, it is the polar opposite which holds true. Thus the Eastern aesthetic of asymmetry might seem slightly amiss to the eyes of a Western Viewer who is experiencing the imbalance for the first time. This is, however, the way nature designs its own scenes, causality creating masterpieces that are nothing if not chaotic, though it seems that nature, and the Japanese garden, somehow find pattern within that anarchy. I like to look at this concept as a way of providing a place for the individual who will contemplate the piece – be it painting, ikebana, or Zen garden – inside the composition, accommodating the necessary factor of the observer inside the work, something which much Western art might be thought of as leaving out, perhaps being seen as trying to exist on its own. The fact that the entrance of an observer into the artwork, be it garden or painting, balances that work out is quite interesting, especially to my Western mind. An understanding of this principle is necessary for the Western observer to comprehend, rather than dismiss, irregularity in Eastern composition as purposeful expression instead of shrugging it off as misperception of bad composition.
The second principle, Kanso, is a return to the simplicity of nature and the solitude of a mountain stream, as opposed to the ardent ornamentation of the already beautiful to the point of garrulity. The expression of natural order found in the Zen garden is a truthful expression of the creator’s vision of ideal reality, reserved in its statement, far from the ornate. Kanso means something fresh, neat, clean, but never fastidious. It is that form of cleanliness which grows from a cycle, from birth, life, and death, something which is clean because intervention in the garden is purely perceptive and the individual can view the garden in altering states of atmospheric condition, expecting the trees to be one autumn older each year, knowing the sunlight will hit the rocks under that one maple tree in a slightly different way the next summer evening one finds him or herself their. It insinuates blunt representation, never over embellished, but rather allowed to exist in the modicum of beauty in which it is found in the real world. Compositions based on the principle of Kanso are never aggressive in their call for examination, relying more on the beauty inherent in all things than the added floridity of many Western compositions. The Ryoanji garden, which will be discussed in greater depth later, is a perfect example of Kanso.
The third principle, that of Koko, relates a feeling of the dignity of all living beings coupled with a kind of maturity. This principle pairs the weathering of age with the visible element being drastically reduced to create a minimalist view of the piece. Koko is, as all the principles mentioned in this segment of the paper are, quite interconnected with the other principles, and it is when these Zen principles are in place together that the beauty of Zen art comes into focus. Koko is the absence of the sensuous, and, being so far removed from the West’s drive towards obesity and indulgence in all things, it might come off as a relatively stern or acetic experience. Koko involves the bare bones of reality, laid out for inspection by those entering the garden. This principle is related in the rigid lines of the sand lake, and the crucial pruning of the trees, created to impart the architecture of the universe without the build up of lush abundance. The venerable stones, trees, and worn pathways are all examples of this return to simplicity.
The fourth concept of Zen aesthetics I will discuss in relation to the Japanese garden is Shizen. Shizen is the naturalness of something manmade, in short, or rather, the rawness of nature paired with the accidental, something created with purpose to resemble but surpass the natural order by the hands which lay its foundation. Shizen denies self-consciousness in the creation of a garden, insinuating that the act of creating will follow a plan naturally that is similar to that of natural biospheres. This principle has a sense of artlessness, naiveté, the absence of a pretentious artificiality which would destroy the innocence of the experience with the abundance of mind put into the composition. The sense of spontaneous organization which is found in the ‘niwa’ is a direct culmination of the practice of this principle.
Yugen is the fifth principle, and it is a hint at the shadowed profundities which can be found lurking in the reflections of the lake, the obscure corners of the garden where a small shrine hides itself away over the centuries, the path winding up to a spot from where the entire garden is suddenly thrust into one’s view. Yugen implies the extra sets of meanings found in the symbolism of the rocks, sands, and plants of the garden and there relative positioning, somehow seeming to remind one of the interactions of humanity and the community of beings floating across the surface of our reality without ever dipping very deep inside.
The sixth principle is Datsuzoku. This can be seen as a fertile field of creativity, an exposition that surprises the observer with its transcendence of traditional conceptions, breaking the laws of conformity with the blatant introduction of something foreign to the scene. As a Westerner views a Zen rock garden, made up of sand and rocks and little else, this might be construed as a successful use of Datsuzoku. Also, the revealing or unraveling of universal truths through the ethereal transmitter of a Zen garden is a surprise to any people or person who encounters it.
Finally, Seijaku is the seventh Zen concept. Seijaku connects the above six principles and blankets them in a tranquility of spiritual forces, a reservoir of experience sleeping soundly at the bottom of a lake of water or sand, waiting for the perceiver to tap its flow. Disturbances issuing form the outside world cease to exist in the Zen garden, and the renascence of this feeling at dawn and dusk every day, and in early spring and late fall, reflect the impressionistic nature of the feeling, putting the mind in a place where the sensory organs are working minimally while allowing the spiritual inflow of peacefulness proceed undisturbed.
Though the number of principles might seem a bit superfluous, especially pertaining to the fact that they are connected to Zen, and their exact meaning might seem rather vague, it is important for the Westerner to remember one thing when considering them. As with the symmetrical design of gardens and our ordered form of art, in the West the individual, equipped with his or her society’s method of disseminating information, tends to break down and analyze personal experience through art in terms of aesthetic and design principles, significantly obvious symbolisms, and the ability to understand a piece, or lack thereof. In the East, however, the basis for appreciating and then evaluating art proceeds from the emotional reaction of the individual, and the feeling of immediate understanding, which is something actively defying description. It is the essential rather than the technical facets of the composition that call the attention of the Eastern beholder. This is the main thing to remember when entering a Japanese Zen garden; let it affect you without trying to understand why it has such an effect. The objective beauty of the garden will overpower the individual’s subjectivity, if given the opportunity.
Now that I have discussed some of the principles of Japanese Zen gardens, I will move on to explore of what the traditional form of this garden consists. The foundation of the Zen garden can be made up of any of the following, or a combination of them; a flat plane of gravel, uniformly distributed, or the same level surface made up of beaten earth or a manicured lawn. Composed around and on top of this surface are a variety of elements, utilized depending on the character of the creator and the message he or she is attempting to convey. These include, though in contemporary gardens are by no means limited to, the following.
To begin, I feel I must speak of the place rocks have in the Japanese garden. Rocks are commonly referred to as the bone structure of the garden, providing a sense of the place being grounded in the tangible world, immovable and permanent, like the concepts they symbolize. While large rocks represent mountains, waterfalls, and various other landforms in a directly metaphorical sense, underlying these interpretations exists a second level of meaning. This second tier of symbolism relates to the virtues of humankind that rocks are best suited to represent, such as stoicism, centeredness, humility, self-confidence, and true perception. Finally, lonely on a tier all its own, the rock as a being made enlightened through his or her own effort, or lack thereof, is the highest sort of symbolism connected with the stones found in Japanese niwa. The stasis they maintain throughout the changing seasons and the turning wheel of time seem to imply a kind of acceptance of reality the way it is, a moving on from earthly desires and a discovery of their true place in the system of the universe, at least this is what they relate to me in their bedded existence. Rocks are placed in the garden for a variety of purposes in conjunction with the intended experience of the viewer upon beholding the garden as a whole. They are a form of enticement and reinvigoration, a concrete symbol of intransigence caught between constantly shifting patterns of foliage and weather. Snow may alight on top of the stone, but the snow will melt and the stone will remain the same. This, I believe, is a perfect metaphor for the lessons we as humans can learn from rocks. Rocks were originally held as sacred objects in the Japanese aboriginal religions, housing complacent gods as they watched the folly of humanity unfold around them. When placed in a formation involving more than one stone, the rocks are arranged so that the energy is circulated and balanced, and the rocks seem to be frozen in the middle of an intense interaction in which their true nature can be perceived. Often, rocks are arranged in triads, the trinity representing a variety of ideological concepts to the Japanese person, such as that of heaven, earth, and man, or beyond the direct translation of symbolism concerning tangible reality, relating the interconnectivity of mind, body and spirit, or in my own humble opinion, the collective conscious, the universal pattern, and the un-named other floating on the outskirts of perception, like the face of the ‘father’ in Christianity, constantly referred to yet never beheld.
There are a few basic rules one can follow in the placement of rocks in groups. Horizontal triad rock formations consist of three rocks forming a triangle with a horizontal plane as a base. Interestingly, these formations are traditionally shaped like the Chinese character ‘Ehin,’ meaning articles. Buddhist triad rock formations are made up of three stones creating a triangle on a vertical plane of perception, with the base of the composition resting on the ground. This placement is termed Buddhist triad rocks because the three stones resemble three Buddhist deities often depicted in religious statuary, with a single towering divinity sandwiched between two deities of lesser height, producing an effect similar to the ‘trinity’ of Western religious art. The simple though effective horizontal, vertical, and diagonal groupings of stone might be metaphors for the flow of energy through the garden, the paths of life we as humans chose to follow, or the directions in which we may find our selves within the confines of the garden. These linear formations are called ‘Oshakei’ in Japanese, and they can be created with a sense of refinement that seems the ultimate expression of the Zen principles listed above, working in conjunction with one another, lacking any extensive ornamentation. Triangle are utilized, some scholars believe, due to the fact that they have a stable base though are pointing in a definite direction, like trail markers on the path of life, either pointing to a place in which the individual can find peace or simply, and profoundly, pointing up. Here we might remove ourselves momentarily from the Eastern perspective and remember one of the Works of renaissance artist Raphael. In the ‘School of Athens,’ the center of the composition depicts the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle. They are eternally caught in a debate about the nature of inquiry into the truth of reality. This rift between their equally respectable views is symbolized by the directions their hands are respectively pointing in, which is taken to mean the places where they believe the truth of the universe can be sought and eventually found. Plato points up in the picture, indicating the intangible, the divine, and the use of higher perception in the pursuit of ultimate understanding by motioning towards the unknown and the unreachable. This is the passionate, romantic view of the pursuit of truth, with Plato claiming that only when we transcend the false information that he describes as the shadows on the wall of the cave of our senses, can we know reality. Aristotle, on the other hand, points out, into the world, naming this reality we perceive as the only real possibility of finding anything concrete in our own interpretations of life and the truth therein. He represents the rational, scientific approach to the acquisition of wisdom, and after wisdom, true understanding of the nature of the pattern inside the apparent chaos of reality. Both views are equally beyond reproach, and interestingly, both views are symbolized perfectly by the grounded individuals, or rocks, as they direct the viewer up towards the sky or out into the ever broadening horizon.
As rocks provide a structure to any Japanese Zen Garden, a number of works have been devoted to the proper use of them in the building endeavor. A renowned creator of gardens, Sakuteiki, had some reasonably useful things to say concerning their placement. Beginning with the precept of insuring that the rock remains in the same position in relation to its orientation to the earth’s center, Sakuteiki went on the say that, ‘Placing sideways a rock that was originally upright, or planting upright a rock that originally laid sideways is taboo. If this taboo is violated, the rock will assuredly turn into a ‘rock of vengeful spirits,’ and will bring a curse.’ In other words, placing a rock half of which was submerged in the full light of day would not only be called ‘reversing the rock,’ but would anger the spirit of the rock, thus bringing bad luck. This attention to the delicate sensibility of the elements of the garden’s compositions allow one to infer that there is a vast difference in the purpose of the Japanese Zen garden and the ornamental, status-designating gardens of the West. While the latter of the two is more a manipulation f the natural world, the former is a conscientious construction of a home of sorts for the individually spiritual essences of the elements placed within that home, and the process of constructing that home so that it compliments the natural tendencies of those elements uprooted from natural settings and utilized in the composition. An oral tradition amongst some gardening families claims that originally, rocks were only to be used in the same geographical zones in which they were found, unless one would risk angering them and thus voiding the spiritual tranquility of the garden one is constructing.




                The next element of the Japanese Zen garden is, of course, plants. These are traditionally arranged with the concepts of Shizen and Fukinsei mentioned earlier, as pertains to the unpretentious composition and the seeming accidental appearance of plants in places one would not plant them if appearance were the only concern of the gardener. They are placed chaotically to suggest their natural habitat. They can be used to frame significant rock formations, surround lakes, and add color to a stretch of gravel. A single tree placed inside a wide stretch of gravel has the effect of austerity, subtle profundity, and other-worldliness associated with the principles Koko, Yugen, and Datsuzoku, respectively. It is through the placement of plants that a garden will either succeed in or fail at the attempted recreation of nature, of a place in which one might find him or herself. Plants are purposefully arranged unevenly, with graduating heights and intentional gaps, insinuating both the natural and the fresh while also asking the individual viewer to seek those places inside and ponder whether they should be filled or left naturally empty.
                Water is an important constituent of the Japanese garden, symbolizing constant motion, balancing the static nature of the stones with an ever shifting surface that is either deeper or shallower than the individual might guess. This is the caustic element of any garden, the metaphor of change morphing with the wind and the rain, manifesting evolution and implying the need for a personal revolution inside the individual who perceives it in its changing state. Besides the necessity of having water in any scene which is attempting to reflect nature realistically, the trickling sounds of water, the reflections of the world found on its rippling surface, the border of rocks lining the pond are like a symbol for the balance sought after in a truly complete understanding of the nature of the universe.
                If rocks were to be called the skeleton of the garden, then earth is the meaty flesh of the body of the garden. The meeting of individual with earth is a pure elemental confrontation, recognition of the rawness of the real inside our often fanciful initial interpretations of the Japanese garden. This element I proclaim to be an awakening element for those who have become so caught up in the beauty of the plants and the overall composition that they forget that the plants must die, dissolve, and return to the dirt from whence they came. Earth in a garden is a constant reminder that one day the garden will no longer be there, though, in a sense, the only changes will be the transformation of all the constituent elements into their initial, fundamental forms.
                Bamboo must be taken as an individual element of the Japanese Zen garden, separated from the rest of the garden’s flora due to its fundamental role, which only it can fulfill. Bamboo is an important, and crucial, constituent of Eastern societies. It is used for a wide spectrum of purposes, and it is the subject of innumerable works of art as well as being the key component of many forms of construction. An aura of respect has developed around this simple plant due to its usefulness and its hollow inside, which implies humility, Bamboo is thought to be the plant most resembling the proper virtues of Eastern masculinity. In Japanese gardens, the plant conforms to these expectations, being used as the raw materials for fences which dapple light and thus conform to many of the Zen principles, or used as a water spout through which the constant evolution of the nature of reality is symbolized. Bamboo is thought of as having a clearly definable character consisting of a desire to be used and a humility in regard to the high demand for it as a basic component of the Japanese garden.
                Alongside the above-mentioned natural elements of the Japanese Zen garden, there are a number of equally important aesthetic and utilitarian manmade components of the composition of a garden. These include: stone water basins, which act as focal points of a scene, and were traditionally incorporated in the garden in response to the rise of the tea ceremony in Japan, acting as places for ritual purification of the hands and mouth before the special act of drinking tea was undertaken; Lanterns, which were originally intended to light the paths of the garden at night or to illuminate the place where the water basin was placed, and which, in their modern forms, I see as symbolic of the intention of the creator of the garden to enlighten the inner sanctums of the individual who peruses the Japanese garden; stepping stones, which, along with their use in the entrance path, relate the intended time a viewer is meant to contemplate a specific scene by their zigzagged or straight placement; bridges, which besides being functional are metaphors for the connections of modern humanity with the natural world, and the place of the Zen garden in this ‘bridging’ of the two dynamically opposed perceptions; and finally, edging, usually in the form of roof tiles or stones placed along paths and around sand oceans, perhaps, in addition to their functional purposes, meant to convey the separation of the truth and the human psyche which is made apparent and then combated inside the confines of a Zen garden. The manmade elements of a Japanese Zen garden are key to the experience of the garden as a whole, because they are the hints the creators of the garden have left to us, echoing down through the centuries, showing us what to focus our attention on and reminding us why we are in the garden in the first place.
                Now that I have described some of the principles and the basic elements of the Japanese Zen garden, I will attempt to define my own experience with this medium of human expression that uses above all others the natural world as its mode of relation. Over the course of three months, I have explored a number of the famous and some of the unknown versions of the Zen garden found throughout the ancient Imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto. On this journey I have made into the world of the Zen garden I have been constantly amazed, and have felt a profound sense or resonance within them, when simply pondering their meaning in my life and in the bigger picture of the interaction of humanity with the rest of the living world they describe so perfectly in a metaphorical sense. Of these numerous gardens I have visited, which include those found at Ginkakuji, Ryoanji, Nannaji, Daikakugi, Tenryuji, Fushimi Inari Ginja, Kamigamo Ginja, Shimagamo Ginja, Ginkakuji, Kiyomizu Dera, Kozanji, Kitano Tenmagu Ginja, Hirano Ginja, Myorenji, Nijo castle, the Imperial Palace, and Toji – the ‘ji’ at the end of some representing the fact that they are temples, and the ‘Ginja’ at the end of the rest meaning that those are Shinto shrines – the ones which had the most affect on the way I looked at the ever clarifying form of Japanese culture were Ryoanji, Ginkakuji, Tenryuji, and Kozanji.
Kozanji temple can be found deep in the mountains of Takao, north-west of Kyoto. Situated in the middle of what has become a tourist spot for religious enthusiasts who seek out the numerous temples located thereabouts and explore them equipped with handbooks and cameras, Kozanji retains a distinctly rural air about it, despite the fact that it houses some of Japan’s national treasures on its modest grounds. The temple itself, originally named Shingonji Toganobo, was founded in 774 A.D. by an imperial decree. During the Kamakura period Abbot Myoe, 1173-1232, gained the patronage of cloistered emperor Gotoba, 1180-1239, and of other influential families such as the Konoe, Takatsukasa, and the Saionji, and was consequently able to refurbish the ancient temple grounds. In 1206 the temple received an imperial sanction and was renamed Kozanji. One of the most striking examples of architecture, and the oldest building of its kind, dating form the time of abbot Myoe, is located on the grounds of Kozanji; the Sekisui-in. This building is necklaced with ancient shrubs and trees as well as a small viewing garden set around a miniature pond. The garden is in the tea ceremony style, meaning it was constructed to be viewed from an angle relative to the tea house on the opposite side of the pond from Sekisui-in.
Throughout the time I was there, I saw three other individuals wandering around the paths that run through the gardens, and none of them were fellow Westerners, a fact that surprised me after never having failed to encounter them at every other temple I mentioned on the above list. I arrived tuckered out, having just rode a bike with no gears uphill for about four or five kilometers, and the first thing I noticed about Kozanji that I really liked was the austerity, simplicity, and subtle suggestion of the sacred that the entrance epitomized. A plain set of stone steps leading straight off of the scenic highway up into the mountain forest. I walked up this flight, and found myself looking into a world of quiet solitude, shadows swaying with the trees in the wind pushing through the valley from the river basin of Kyoto, leaves skipping across the ground in front of me as I walked down the strangely straight stepping-stone path towards the main compound of the temple.
The entire scene was surreal, adding Datsuzuko to the already mentioned trappings of Kanso, Koko, and Yugen I had noticed when simply looking at the entrance to the temple, making Kozanji a personification of a number of the Zen principles combined and manifested in reality. There was a straight forward, unpretentious approach to the layout of the garden that led me through the grounds without seeming to point to any specific aspects of the garden as possible subjects for closer inspection. The individual was allowed to drift, as if disembodied, through the natural setting, framed, as it were, by the designs of the universe.
                Tenryuji can be construed as the polar opposite of Kozanji, though that polarity must be remembered as existing in a harmonious state, balancing the one with the other in a way that makes both able to exist inside the same set of dogmatic principles; simply the flip side of the same old coin. This temple is over a millennium old, and it harkens back to the Chinese influence on Japanese gardens mentioned earlier in the paper, replacing the refinement of its latter counterparts with sheer multitudinous variety, offering the viewer a plethora of stimuli in what seemed to be an attempt at making the earth seem to laugh. Again, this abundance of variety originates with the garden parks of China. In fact, there is a waterfall in the garden at Tenryuji, above which stands a pool of swirling rapids, and inside this pool there is a rock called the carp stone. This rock is several feet in length and is supposed to relate an ancient Chinese proverb referring to the Yellow river. The tale goes that once a golden carp succeeds in ascending the rapids in the upper Yellow river, it becomes a dragon after gaining the top. This story came to be a allegory for the pursuit of greatness in human life, and because of the influence of this proverb, the rapids at that section of the Yellow river in China are named the ‘Dragon’s Gate,’ a name which also claims this smaller version of falling water in Tenryuji.
Tenryuji, located in the Arashiyama District of Western Kyoto, was a truly invigorating experiential confrontation with the culmination of the artistic form of the Japanese Garden. The grounds were packed with weekend garden connoisseurs, snapping photos of everything that moved and remained stationary, chatting as they strolled the immaculately abstract pathways which wound half way into the mountains behind the temple. The center piece of the garden itself was a lake, bordered with small stones that signified the dichotomy of the tangible and the intangible, surrounded by maples the leaves of which were changing into spectacular shades of red and orange. The trees seemed to have been arranged so that the viewers eyes would begin at the lake, and the reflection of the trees in the lake, thus averting the individual’s eyes upwards, then following the formation of the trees on the mountainside all the way up to the sky. This was achieved through the zigzag effect mentioned earlier, a visual cueing that guides the eyes upwards and into the distance. Though this specific scene seemed to me to be lacking in simplicity, austerity, and silence, the profusion of color and the mirrored vibrance of the natural composition in the lake all reminded me of the Zen principles of Shizen and Datsuzoku, which I find it intriguing to mention together. These two principles, the former related to natural order whilst the latter is associated with the otherworldly, were in Tenryuji perfectly melded into a comprehensible form. The garden there seemed like the state of the primordial forest’s soul, like the viewer was temporarily allowed to observe the permanence of joy that living things exude into their environments, the state of perpetual celebration that things nearing the end of their lives, such as the leaves on the trees, find themselves in despite the approaching transformation. I was overjoyed at understanding this concept, though I am not certain it is what the gardener intended to convey. That is one of the beautiful concepts of the Japanese garden; the individual can interpret it as he or she sees fit. The following image is a view of the lake at Tenryuji as the leaves reach the peak of their coloring during the last days of their lives painted by the inimitable Yoshida Chizuko, preceded by a photograph of the lake..







                The garden at Ginkakuji, a temple located in Eastern Kyoto, around the northern entrance to the philosopher’s walk, resists verbal description. Yoshimasa, grandson of the builder of the golden pavilion, or Kinkakuji, and Eighth shogun who saw under his rign the brilliant height of the Muromachi period and the ravages of the Onin war, had Ginkakuji constructed. The place was originally named Higashiyamadono, meaning Eastern Hill Villa, and it was constructed using largely salvaged materials form the war-torn grounds of a historically great garden palace called the ‘Flowery Palace.’ The above mentioned original name paralleled the original name of the temple his grandfather had built in north-western Kyoto, again Kinkakugi, and it was through this connection that Higashiyamadono came to be known as Ginkakuji, or the ‘silver pavilion,’ thus balancing his grandpa’s ‘gold pavilion.’ Interestingly, the ‘correct’ name of the temple today is Jishoji, a title which was Yoshimasa’s spiritual name, and one which was given to the estate after it was made into a memorial to the Eighth shogun’s death. Opinions over the last hundred years or so have al conclusively agreed that the garden itself was designed by Saomi, one of the talented men Yoshimasa surrounded himself with at all time, a fellow connoisseur of the arts. The young designer was from a family of artists who had served Yoshimasa’s grandfather in the construction and composition of the Golden Pavilion, and it is claimed he at least helped Yoshimasa compose the elements of the garden, a task which traditionally fell to the person who sponsored its creation.
I arrived at the temple gates, again, by bike, wondering if the fact that I exerted myself before each visit to a garden skewed my view of the gardens themselves due to the particular mind state I was in. Deciding to ignore this question, I bought my ticket, an act which though seeming opposed to the mission of the garden as a public place designated for introspection and natural examination – a kind of place that does not really exist in the West – I understood was necessary in this day in which even temples are taxed. As with most temples, paths shaded by carefully pruned, venerable trees stretch out into the surrounding environs, beckoning to the individual to follow them towards whatever it is one is seeking inside the garden. The aspect of Ginkakuji that changed my perspective on Japanese gardens in general was the ‘rock’ garden. This, it turned out, had no rocks, and it was designed based on a deceptively simple concept. Several rows had been made with small cusps of sand rising out of the uniformity to mark the boundaries between them. The rows stretched away form the viewer towards the tree tops, and above them, the distant horizon. The rows alternated in shading, going from plain white sand to darker earth, something that appeared to be constantly wet and of a brownish color. My interpretation of the composition was immediately complex, and it may seem far fetched to anyone who has never seen the garden for him or herself. I took the image of an evenly divided plane of earth, split between darkness and light, and leading towards the horizon, as a route to attain enlightenment itself. The shading of the rows of sand are symbolic of the polarized harmony which Eastern philosophy holds as its mainstay, and the fact that they are repeated over and over imply the continuity of this realization on a daily basis for the individual perceiver to finally comprehend the reality of the truth. The shades signified the ‘dark’ and ‘light’ sides of human nature and experience, the yin and the yang which balances all aspects of reality. Once this realization had been achieved, the garden was saying to me, one could begin the journey beyond the garden, or tangible reality, and that was a journey which would not stop at the horizon indicated by the spot the rows of sand pointed at, but would continue into infinity, a pilgrimage into the unknown, which is inherently, and perhaps ironically, known so well. The experience was subtly profound, which is a form of Yugen, and thus very, very Zen.
                Finally, I have the privilege of speaking about my experience with the masterpiece of human expression known as Ryoanji. I think I will begin by saying that in my humble opinion, this temple and its grounds are by far the most beautiful landscape ever created by the hands of humans. Doubtless, this is an arguable statement, and again, it is my own opinion, based on my limited experience. In 1450, the powerful warlord Katsumoto acquired an estate near to Kinkakuji, on which one of the old lake gardens of earlier times was still barely kept from being completely overcome by the surrounding forests and the lack of caretaking. On the hill behind the lake, Katsumoto rebuilt a crumbling old temple called Ryoanji. The Onin war of !467-1477 saw the destruction of all of Katsumoto’s estates, including Ryoanji, and upon the end of the war and the death of Katsumoto, his son and heir, Masamoto, reclaimed the grounds of the lake garden and rebuilt the temple of Ryoanji again. All records indicate that it was at this time, 1488, the Zen rock garden presently in position was initially constructed.
 If ever I have encountered a place which so defies description as to almost make it unthinkable to even attempt it, that place is Ryoanji. Nevertheless, I find myself departing towards just such a mission. Bear with me as I try to describe the unsayable.
After buying my ticket at a relatively modern building contrasting sharply with the gate into the compound, I walked north into the garden-park and was almost instantly stooped in my tracks by an expansive lake stretching out, in repose, before my observation point on the path encircling its mirroring waters. The path was like a covered bridge constructed of foliage, letting in the afternoon rays of the autumn sun through its semi-permeable membrane of leaves, making slatted shadows lay across the trail’s beaten earth and the carefully cultivated moss covering much of the ground, half obscuring the composed tranquility of the surrounding trees in shadowy mystique. Water lilies bloomed in abundance just at the surface of the lake, spreading out in umbrellas of plate shaped green providing gloomy respite for the giant Koi gliding through the depths.
As I continued my circuit of the lake, the focal point of which was a small island near the center crowned by a small Shinto shrine and a few austere, discretely silhouetted trees, I found myself emerging into small clearings where alternate perspectives of the lake were offered to the discerning critic. The fascinating aspect of this approach to the presentation of the lake I took to be the obvious correlation between the individuals walking the path and the various visual interpretations of the lake offered to those individuals, placed in spots which would conform to a variety of tastes. From one side, the mountains to the north west of the temple grounds rose up beyond the lake, shown in rippling transience upon the glassy water of the lake, creating a kind of balance between the path towards understanding pointed at by the mountains aimed at the sky, and the other road to wisdom centered in ripe experience of tangibility and the superfluous energies of the earth, the center of which the mountain’s reflection motioned the onlooker into. This particular view point seemed to be designed for the garden walker who wanted to find a way to reach a heightened state, as it offered two possible routes towards a realistic understanding of nature.
The other view point I found to be relative to this understanding of the placement of perspectives so that they are best suited to afford the viewer insight took the opposite approach. From this other stance, at the northern edge of the lake, the only thing visible beyond the lake was the broad, limitless sky, and its vibrant mirrored self found inside the lake. Rather than speaking of routes to that intended understanding of reality, here was an image of the truth in its polarized harmony. The reality of the sky which few understand and none can directly experience, and the facsimile of the sky inside the lake, the latter of the two being closer to what we, as humans equipped with maladroit perception and a tendency to take what we sense as definitive reality, take for our actual environment. It was a metaphor for the act of looking beyond the mirror of the sense to attempt an exploration of that which requires no mental filter. I personally found this latter perspective of the lake much more gratifying.



I continued to stroll leisurely through the park, experiencing a kind of awe at the masterful rendition of Datsuzoku and Yugen found there, feeling that I was trespassing on ground which had been transplanted from some alternate reality, one which had never been tampered with by the stressed constructions of frantic humanity. Everything about the place, from the branches on the trees seeming to hold interesting dialogue in the slanting rays of light, angled towards each other in agreement or completely at odds with their neighbors and gravity into the realm of extreme asymmetry, to the patches of moss which looked to be miniature biospheres operating without concern for the bumbling primates hulking past their small, perfect universes. The paths through the grounds of Ryoanji were made up of the bare essentials, as determined by the capricious hand of nature, quiet, simple, and humbly picturesque. Nothing seemed amiss, all coming together into an almost palpable essence of a holistic environment living symbiotically with compassionate human devotees. It seemed I had suddenly stumbled upon the errant Garden of Eden, tucked away in a nook of Central Honshu. Finally, the path I was walking led me up to the doors of a regal temple. I took of my shoes and entered, waiting to behold the next set of scenic poems I knew must surely await me inside.
                I could not have begun to imagine what awaited me once I had gained the inner courtyard of the place. A broad expanse of raked gravel took hold of my vision, punctuated by five groupings of weatherworn stones, each group of which was framed by petite moss growths. The following is the first perspective of the Zen rock garden I was offered as a seeker of understanding, seen as it is initially perceived from the point where the individual leaves the confines of the temple and embarks on the journey into the symbolisms of the most beautiful manipulation of nature yet accomplished by human kind. One will immediately notice the rocks are found in asymmetrical groups of three stones in the foreground, and two sets of two in the background, with all the groups arranged seemingly erratically in correspondence with each other, as most living beings on the planet often find themselves at different vantage points from others.


This is, to be sure, an artistic collection of rocks stuck in the ground, and while I could on for pages debating the significance of the different groups and their interconnectivity, I will focus on a single grouping, the centerpiece of the sand ocean, as it were, in my dissertation of the aesthetics utilized in the Ryoanji Zen Rock garden. Let me sum the garden up as a whole in terms of Zen principles. The garden expresses Fukinsei clearly, not only in the arrangement of the groups of stones and their respective positions around the bed of gravel, but in the contrast of these idiosyncratic formations surrounded by parallel lines of sand and in the slight slant to the height of the wall surrounding, which increases minutely to resemble a distant horizon, letting asymmetry confuse the mind with a perceptively symmetrical line. The garden is the epitome of simplicity, and thus Kanso, relying on little more than rocks and moss in the formation of something that transcends the daily experience of humanity. This transcendence, the fact that simple rocks planted in the ground can make a human being look at them for hours on end astounded by the beauty of their spirits, is otherworldly, breaking with ideas of conventional beauty, and thus a perfect example of Datsuzoku. The rugged appearance of the stones, the austere setting of the white gravel, and the maturity of experience one claims when encountering the garden as a whole, all reflect the gardens successful capturing of Koko. There is no sense of strain when one contemplates the composition of such a scene, no thought of pretension when something of such natural beauty is laid out before one’s eyes, and thus the garden embodies Shizen. The profundity of the place cannot be understated, and to say that Ryoanji’s rock garden is one of the prime examples of Yugen extant in Japan, and thus the world, in modern times would not be hyperbole. Finally, the stillness of the elements of the garden, their mute immobility, their eternal seeming presence, blankets the scene with a sense of Seijaku. This garden is the definition of the combined forces of all the aforementioned Zen principles, composed in a gentle, delicate perfection that I personally believe to be one of the most beautiful things one can see made by humanity. The Japanese Zen garden is concerned with the rhythms of motion and the flow of energy permeating the small spaces they fill. Rhythm is attained in this version at Ryoanji by  the alternating upward and outward motions of the rocks placed in their groups, seeming to shout the line from C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Last Battle,’ “Further up and further in!”  The general motions of the rocks, though it sounds a paradox, also alternate between particular groupings; starting from the left, the first moves upwards, the second outwards, the third again upwards, the fourth again outwards, and the last maintains an indefinite stasis. Inside these groupings, the individual rocks alternate using the same methodology of balancing their apparent motion. It was certainly a master of perception who created this magnum opus of solidified movement, the rocks he placed seeming to channel energy in certain directions, hinted at by the slightest incongruity in the surface of the stone. It seems blatantly obvious that if even a single stone were moved a hairs breadth in any direction, the scene would be irreversibly changed. The effect is like reading a whole philosophy trapped beneath layers of granite, like hearing the archaic Hebrew poet sing out his praises, proclaiming, ‘Be still: and know that I am God.’
The formation I will speak of out of the five found in this garden is the one located at the center of the five, where the energy compounds upon itself and seems to be channeled upwards from the tip of the largest rock in this triad. The formation is a vertical triad, and the rocks are not hard to imagine as Austere Buddhist deities, there age and asceticism having a sobering affect on the childish self-centeredness of individuals who know of nothing but their desires. The three rocks almost seem to point towards each other slightly, as if they are speaking in hushed tones about the gaggle of humanity on the wooden observation deck making such a fuss over their complacent existence. The rocks are small, medium, and large sized, with the largest one sporting a ridge at its crown that points again at that symbol of enlightenment found upwards, the purity of the blue sky, the source and the destination of all this mess of matter through which we incessantly wade.
The small rock, which is closest to the viewer both in position and temperament, looks to be huddling under the protective wings of the other two rocks, waiting for the understanding it knows will issue from its older brothers to awaken its inner confidence and acceptance of reality as something which is not yet known, but not frightening in that lack of acquaintance. The small stone is the novice, the boy whom while at play, stopped suddenly and asked himself ‘who am I.’
The middle stone, having straightened out its inner mind and not slouching anymore under the constant assault of reality, leans straight towards the largest stone, waiting for the rock to finally speak the one thing it has been pondering since the beginning of time. This stone is symbolic of the one who, having began the journey by questioning him or herself, has found something or someone who they know to be able to lead them towards a possible truth.
The large rock, robustly corporeal, emitting a feeling of such-ness or thus-ness that seems substantial, speaks volumes in its slow motion levitation towards the upper spheres of understanding, which can be seen as the top of the rock shifts over the millennia upwards into the atmosphere of truth. This stone is the master, the one others follow towards wisdom and transcendence. Thus the formation of these three rocks can be construed as a chart of the stages of the road to enlightenment. Here is an image.


Here my paper finds an end, and the reader, if thus inclined, finds a beginning. The individual, equipped with the Principles of Zen aesthetics, the traditional elements of the Japanese garden, and the all important notion of creating a space which offers a wide spectrum of possible, personal interpretations, as well as a few examples of the art of the Japanese garden perfected, can embark on the journey of creating a garden of his or her own. Keeping in mind the concepts of Fukinsei, or asymmetry, Kanso or simplicity, Koko or essentiality, Shizen or naturalness, Yugen or hidden profundity, Datsuzoku or otherworldliness, and Seijaku or repose, the reader can successfully attempt the creation of their own designated place of introspection, their own personal Eden, their own Japanese Zen garden. I wish you luck on your journey into understanding. The following sketch is one way of planning a garden, but remember, as the ancients who attempted to paint dots as randomly as possible on a piece of paper discovered, a pattern always emerges regardless of the feeble machinations of humanity, so let go of the outcome and a representation of the essential nature of reality will emerge in your composition, perfectly suited to your inner being.

‘Whatever the tasks, do them slowly
with ease,
in mindfulness,
so not do any tasks with the goal
of getting them over with.
Resolve to each job in a relaxed way,
with all your attention.’
                             Thich Nhat Hanh





He who plants a garden,
Plants happiness.
                                               -Chinese Proverb