The meaning behind the Japanese Zen garden
Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello / TheGuardian :
There is beauty and tranquillity to be found in Zen gardens. But these enigmatic spaces also express the highest truths of philosophy, write Steve John Powell and Angeles Marin Cabello. For most gardeners, stones – along with slugs, blackfly and weeds – are a pest, something to be eradicated. Yet in Japan, some of the most astonishing gardens consist of nothing but rocks and stones. As 19th-Century writer Lafcadio Hearn wrote: “to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand the beauty of stones.”
Rock and stones are vital elements in any Japanese garden, and the ultimate expression of the beauty of stones lies in the sekitei, or rock gardens, expanses of raked white gravel, dotted with strategically-placed stones. But there’s more to the gardens than mere beauty. Explorer and art historian Langdon Warner (the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character) observed that Japanese gardens are designed “to express the highest truths of religion and philosophy precisely as other civilisations have made use of the arts of literature and philosophy”.
Sekitei first became popular in the Kamakura Era (1185-1333), following the arrival of Zen Buddhism from China in the late 13th Century. These gardens continued to develop in the Muromachi period (1333-1573). Zen emphasised the importance of meditation, as well as a simpler, more mindful outlook. During the Muromachi period, Zen-related arts, including calligraphy, tea ceremony, flower arranging, martial arts and landscape gardening blossomed.
Previously, the gardens of the Heian Era (794-1185) were lavish recreations of Buddhist visions of paradise. Lords and ladies of the Imperial Court would go boating there amid the sumptuous beauty. But in the Kamakura Era, the balance of power shifted, and the samurai-warrior class rose to prominence. Zen was quickly embraced by the samurai, who identified with its emphasis on simplicity, self-discipline, and the importance of meditation to find one’s true self, undistracted by ostentation and worldly possessions. Some samurai also devoted themselves to the Zen-inspired arts of tea ceremony and landscape gardening, like Ueda Soko (1563-1650), who not only founded his own style of tea ceremony, still practised today, but also designed the fabulous Shukkeien Garden in Hiroshima. It may seem strange that fierce warriors should also be into tea and gardening. But as Trevor Legget wrote in the book Introduction to Zen Training (Tuttle): “Many warriors were men of culture, poets and artists, with their work often illuminated by their Zen training.” Zen isn’t just sitting cross-legged and meditating (which is zazen, or seated meditation). All manner of activities, from sweeping the garden and chopping vegetables, to the tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arrangement), and landscape gardening are all considered practices of Zen discipline, aimed at focussing the mind and working toward spiritual awakening.
Japan’s leading contemporary Zen garden designer, Masuno Shunmyo, an 18th-generation Zen priest, explains this connection between Zen and the arts: “Through Zen ascetic practice, an emotion of the mind is found that can’t be directly exposed or understood. One must therefore discover ways to communicate this emotion to others. That is, ‘the expression of oneself’. The Zen priest has traditionally turned to such classical arts as calligraphy, ikebana and rock placement.”