The "Icon" Of All Spiritual Gardens
John Stuart Leslie
Making a garden in the traditional Japanese style may seem easy until you do a
little research and find out there is a lot underneath the surface that complicates the issue.
If you are the type of personality who simply
cares about what things look like, then you may not appreciate knowing about the historical evolution and
development of Japanese gardens. However, knowing the intent and purpose of a garden adds to its
In addition, if you prefer balanced, symmetrical
European style gardens, then Japanese may not be for you. They are diametrically opposed in design
Describing what Japanese gardens are not is perhaps a good way to start out. Here is a bullet
list to get the basics:
Japanese gardens (traditionally) do not have:
Borders or beds of
Symmetry: whether bilateral, radial or
Gaudy, bold “splashes of
Pink flamingos or other decorative elements;
Large expanses of recreational
What Japanese gardens do have
(traditionally speaking) is a reverence for nature. The use of natural materials dominates the elements of the
· Stone (in the form of boulders, rocks, gravel or
· Water (actual or symbolic), earth, trees and
· Manmade elements such as stone lanterns, bridges, water
· Enclosure usually formed by fencing, hedges or the architectural
Using mostly natural materials, the design
intent of a Japanese garden is to re-create and capture the essence of the natural landscape, whether creating
it onsite or using techniques like “borrowed scenery”.
There are several styles of Japanese garden
derived from the historical progression of their development. They are generally the
Karesansui (dry landscape);
The Hillside gardens began as gardens designed
to be viewed from certain vantage points such as the residences, or rooms within palaces of Emperors and the
like. These gardens incorporated waterfalls and ponds. Bridges were included to access islands created in the
At one point in history, islands were symbolic
of Paradise (Pureland Sect of Buddhism), or the afterlife, and the bridge was symbolic of the path of life, the
journey to Heaven.
There is a parallel here between the eastern
concept of Paradise and the western concept of the Garden of Eden. Both celebrate the virtues of the raw, pure form of the earth, of nature
itself. But in the western (biblical) version, that purity was lost
through the committing of sin.
Eastern thought at its roots especially
Taoism, reveres nature in its pure form. Nature is much larger than
mankind and in fact dwarfs man in the context of the Cosmos.
That relationship is more understood in the
east and is reflected in not only gardens, but other cultural endeavors including landscape painting, Ichibana,
Tea Gardens were a style of gardens that
originated from the importation of tea from China. As Chan Buddhism was introduced to China through one known as
Daruma, he also introduced tea so that the meditating monks would not fall asleep. The popularity of tea as well
as this sect of Buddhism was brought to
Japan, where it
was known as Zen Buddhism
Thus tea became very popular and developed into a ritualized social event utilizing a special
tea house. The invited guests would come through the garden before
entering the tea house separated by some form of fencing to divide the outer tea garden from the inner
They would then go through a ritualized practice of cleansing the mouth via the water basin
outside the entry and humbling themselves upon entering by crouching down low to enter through the small
doorway. At night, the paths were often strategically illuminated
using a stone or iron lantern.
Karesansui style gardens or “dry landscape” gardens were of a style that developed generally
at the same time as the Tea Garden era but were much more austere than and not as interactive as the Tea
Dry landscape gardens consisted of stones and gravel. The use of plant material was very
sparse if at all. The types and styles varied depending on what the layout of the stones and gravel was supposed
to symbolize. However, the idea was that the stones represented mountains, as islands in the ocean or a
lake. Gravel represented water as the ocean or
Sand was raked to mimic the ripples on the water’s surface or the ocean’s
waves. Course gravel was used to represent fast moving water as in a
stream, whereas finer gravel represented as calm pond and more tranquil feeling.
The fourth major style of
Japanese garden is the Strolling Garden. They were interactive, in that the use of stepping stones were
incorporated so people could wander and meander throughout the garden. This allowed for a much richer
experience as design concepts such as “seen and hidden” or progressive realization was
In other words, the paths were
purposely irregular and not so easy to navigate. This allowed the designer to manipulate the gait of the walker
so that they had to pause at key vantage points or to be made aware of a subtle message, otherwise passed
by if the walker was not in a state of mindfulness.
When you observe a Japanese
garden whether a photograph or in person, does you wonder, "What is the purpose of this place?" You would
probably know that it was a place constructed to be a "garden", but can you sense what the designer was
thinking? Does it contain the elements intended?
Your perception of the space
has much to do with your expectations of how a Japanese garden appears to you as well as how it makes you
feel. You may be turned off by a Karesansui garden, thinking "Where is the water, bridge and stone lantern?"
Conversely, do you need to be
informed that the rocks symbolize a turtle and a crane, and that the animals in turn symbolize longevity? Would
you have less of an enriching experience if you were clueless of the hidden symbols within the
There is a perception of a
space that people can sense that also cannot be (by most people) expressed in words. It is the same feeling you
get when you enter a restaurant, a hotel lobby, or any distinct space wherein you can say that it "feels good".
You can't really put your finger on it, but it "just does".
Whether a garden has "soul" is
not so much contained in the objects within the garden, but rather, one's sense of space and appreciation
for what they are seeing and feeling. Your ability to "feel" the soul of a place is in direct proportion to what
you are allowing yourself to feel. But you must be present -- be mindful.
There is always soul - or
spirit, contained in any garden. How you perceive that soul or spiritual energy, has much to do with your
thoughts and feelings at the time. In other words, if you are in a great mood, your energy level is high, don't
you think that you will see the good in the garden? You will be in alignment with that energy vibration that you
are sending out. You will especially
notice those certain features that resonate with your vibration.
There is much to see in a
Japanese garden, but what is captivating is to see into the mind's eye of its creator and grasp the intention
behind the physical objects within the garden.
Related articles: Zen Gardens