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Sunday, June 23, 2002

The nature of the Zen mind

Special to The Japan Times

Zen gardens, those wonderful treasures of Japan, can be enjoyed in several ways: as pure abstract works of art; as representations of Zen principles; or as tools to transport one's mind from the cares of everyday life to a higher state of consciousness.

News photo
News photo
The dry landscape garden of Ryoanji in Kyoto (top), created in 1499 and a gate at the Katsura Detached Palace, also in Kyoto

Japanese Zen gardens were originally inspired by sumi-e ink paintings and garden designs brought over from China after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods. Essential elements of these imports, such as the use of negative space, simplicity, rusticity, understatement and yugen (the expression of deep mystery), are all invoked in Zen gardens. It is important to remember, however, that while many things -- from garden designs to electronics -- have been imported to Japan, the nation has excelled at developing them to a level that often surpasses the originals. Though many of the concepts important in Japanese culture are not unique to either Zen or Japan, they are definitely more prevalent and powerful here.

A key difference between Zen gardens and their Western counterparts is that the visitor is not expected to enter the garden but rather simply to enjoy it from a designated viewing place. Also, symmetrical compositions are eschewed in favor of a taut yet fragile balance that takes a lifetime to perfect. A dark and heavy element on one side of a garden may be balanced with something light and empty on the other side, emphasizing the beauty of yohaku (extra white) or mu (literally "empty plus").

Zen gardens tend to be rather small, with the tiniest ones, called bonseki, created in small trays similar to bonsai (another import from China). The scarcity of land in Japan, coupled with its people's love of nature, has fostered a remarkable ability to express the beauty of the wild outdoors in small, confined spaces.

There are several types of Zen gardens, the most prominent being the dry rock type, called karesansui, literally meaning dry-mountain-and-water gardens. Gravel and rocks have been used to denote sacred areas of Japan since time immemorial, so the development of rock gardens to express Zen thought was an easy transition. These gardens seek to replicate the deep calm of pristine nature in a highly stylized manner. Water is often represented with sand or pebbles; mountains with stone; and islands with masses of moss or rock material.

An excellent example of this type of garden can be seen at Tenryuji Temple, the first of the five great Zen temples of Kyoto. Muso Soseki, a famous garden designer, transformed Tenryuji's existing garden into a Zen masterpiece with the addition of seven vertical rocks called Ryumon Baku (Dragon's Gate Waterfall). This arrangement refers to a Zen fable about fish that had the strength and willpower to swim up a waterfall. At the top, they metamorphosed into dragons. The story is supposed to inspire inner strength and discipline, central to Zen training. As part of the Zen daily ritual, this garden is raked in the image of a flowing river, complete with detailed water eddies. The power of this garden, however, emerges from its silence and ability to still the mind.

The garden of Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, created in 1499, is one of the oldest and the most photographed examples of Zen rock gardens. The wall that frames this small rectangle of raked white pebbles sets the tone of wabi sabi, expressing humble simplicity and the passage of time. Within the rectangle, 15 stones are arranged in seemingly random groups amid small ripples of circularly raked gravel. This wall is low enough to screen out the busy surroundings while allowing the greenery beyond to be incorporated into the composition.

Zen priests often used distant mountains and views as design elements in their tiny gardens, a principle called shakkei (borrowed scenery). In these gardens, minimalism is played out to the extreme and then broken by an artistic flourish or individuality typical of Zen, bringing a smile to even the most jaded viewer.

For example, a dry rock garden is often complemented by a lush green one, as at Koke Dera (Moss Temple), Kyoto's Saihoji Temple. The abundant and varied moss that has accumulated over the years is a successful joint venture of man and nature. This is also a stroll garden, another type of Zen garden, that attempts to create the illusion of a long journey within a limited space, which, in this case, wraps around a pond. Each turn or bend offers an opportunity to place a special object or symbol meant to keep the stroller's mind on spiritual matters. The origins of stroll gardens go back to India, where walking around a temple symbolizes walking around the spiritual center of the universe. This concept was adapted by the Chinese, who punctuated their stroll gardens with symbols of the Buddhist universe, purifying the mind with each encounter.

The sukiya aesthetics that blossomed along with the art of wabi-sabi tea had a significant influence on architecture and garden design as well. The garden was usually designed first, with careful consideration given to the existing landscape and trees, and the hut or house constructed later to take maximum advantage of the garden's beauty. This symbiotic relationship can be seen in the Katsura Detached Palace in Kyoto, which is more a collection of tea huts in a lovely garden than a palace. The rooms are sparsely decorated so the focus remains on the garden. The humble materials used, such as wood, bamboo and reed, are meant to please but not impress.

Zen also influenced another garden type, the tiny tsubo (3.3-sq.-meter) garden that is surrounded by the house and creates a ma -- a pause in daily life. The challenge here is to bring the infinite wilderness into a tiny space. The views into these gardens are cropped like a frame crops a photo, allowing a glimpse that may hint at the great outdoors, without ever showing the smallness of the space in its entirety.

Understanding the mind and nature is a hallmark of Zen. Nature is studied deeply and manipulated to its essence in Zen gardens. A young bonsai pine is raised at the verge of starvation, given just enough water to survive but not enough to grow. The roots are trimmed to slow its growth and train it in a certain direction. As the tree matures, branches are tied downward, imitating the drooping branches of an old tree, and then lifted at the very tips in order to express vitality. Nature is edited to perfection, and then perfection is edited back to nature, as when a priest sprinkles dry leaves on a freshly raked garden to break its perfection.

These precious Zen gardens in Japan are the essential counterpoint to its chaotic cities and concrete-covered cities. So how does one rise above the din of one to see the other? In Zen, there is a word for the art of seeing only what you want to see, with pure eyes. It is called mitate. Try it.

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