Zen Gardens and the Western Aesthetic

After Buddha’s death his students decided that to continue the Buddha’s work they must gather the teachings and sayings of Buddha into a body of text, which body became called the Pa 11li Canon.

This was the first branch of Buddhism, but soon a division occurred about which scriptures in what order were important and how they belonged in the teaching of Buddhism, and from this split several branches emerged.

Soon after, another rift occurred – groups of students and teachers who believed that ‘The Way’ was to meditate – to do as Buddha practiced and not to rely on what he said, separated from the other branches of Buddhism.

Meditation, or Dhyana, became the focus of this branch. This school spread to and was inculcated into China and Chinese philosophy where it became known as the Ch’an sect. This spread to Korea, then Japan, (in Japanese Ch’an is pronounced Zen) where it was embraced, took root and began to have and continues to have a tremendous impact on Japanese thought and all aspects of Japanese life and within many other cultures as well.

The basic belief and practice of Zen is that the truths Buddha discovered were already within him but buried beneath confusion and illusion. He remained in a state of meditation, determined to see and understand or die. Thus followed his Enlightenment and soon to follow was the beginning of Buddhism.

Masters of Zen, then, apply techniques for revealing the hidden truths in students through meditation, choice of location for a lesson, a sudden sound or act some other stimuli that jars the student from his illusions and gives him a Satori, or glimpse of truth.

In so far as Zen ga8ardens are concerned, the effects of this teaching in Japan, where Zen Buddhism grew and for which it became the focus of Zen, can only be explained with some understanding of the geography of Japan.

The center of Japan is dominated by a huge, steep and forbidding mountain range and it became the custom, the aesthetic and ‘mind-set’ of the Japanese people to regard mountain landscape scenes, which they could not help but do, as scenes or paintings, not as experiential. Thus many of the paintings of the time were like those of China depicting misty mountain tops shrouded in a mystical atmosphere.

Because of the huge mountain range that runs through the center of Japan creating small river valleys and coastal plains, about eighty percent of the population of Japan lives in about three percent of the land. Populated areas are crowded and when changes in thinking or customs within the government, the military and the religious leaders occur, as happened with the importation of Zen Buddhism, they spread quickly, and thoroughly.

First within and around the Zen monasteries then among the people, practitioners sought to create and express the fundamental harmonies and truths of Zen in the small plots they possessed. Accustomed to relating to beautiful landscapes as distant scenes, this is what they attempted to create within their own small spaces – beautiful, yet more importantly – truthful scenes in which there is a balance and harmony and interior reality within the relationships created by placement of the various elements.

The practice of creating gardens became a teaching – the attempt to sift through all the illusionary impressions and arrive at a clear vision of a truth, expressed, for example, in a grouping of stones or stones and a body of water or the arrangement of plants, the goal always being to achieve and express understanding or some level of enlightenment through the objective or ‘true’ relationships created within the garden.

Through the influence of Buddhism, Zen practitioners mastered the art of creating gardens designed to evoke particular emotions in very small spaces using only what was necessary to do so. – They sought to cut through the illusory and arrive at the kernel, the essence. That is the practice of Zen gardening.

Adapted to the West, however, and taken up by such as you and me, the options are greater. We can take the fundamental principles, and must if we wish to create truly successful Zen gardens, miniature gardens, container gardens or miniature landscapes, but we re not restricted to only those mountain or river valley scenes, or indeed, to any particular sort of scene at all.

It may be a mistake for a Westerner to attempt to emulate the Japanese aesthetic, as our sense of beauty is of a different kind, however it would be more a mistake to eschew the techniques, the philosophy and the mastery of the Zen Garden creations in the expression of our aesthetic in these miniature landscapes.

So, whether making a Zen garden with rocks and sand, or a miniature landscape or a miniature Zen garden with rocks, plants, etc., our goal should be to create a scene which evokes particular emotions – the sense of harmony, peace, serenity, etc. by the creation of real, objective, not arbitrary, relationships between the elements we chose to use. This is not only the practice of Zen gardening, it is in fact, the goal of any attempt to create a beautiful landscape or garden. This is the concept of unity – the harmonious, (real, not arbitrary) relation of each part to each and of each to the whole – the essence of the Zen garden and the ultimate aim of any landscape design.

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