THE ZEN GARDEN
To appreciate a traditional Japanese garden, one must first understand the beauty of a rock. Like every stone possesses a unique character and expression, its whimsical shape and the moss that grows upon it stimulate the imagination and unveil the beauty of the modest, the rustic, the imperfect, and even the decayed.
Among all Japanese gardens, Zen gardens are the most renowned. Mostly located in Kyoto and its surroundings, the Buddhist center of Japan and the origin of Zen gardens, they come in many different styles and forms but share the same purpose. They are all tools, vehicles for meditation and reflection. As such, they tend to be much more metaphorical than other gardens. The rocks, trees, pond, and milestones may seem natural and randomly placed, but they are carefully chosen and positioned. However, the Zen gardener aims to cultivate as if not cultivating, as if the gardener is part of the garden. In fact, Japanese Zen gardens appear assisted rather than ruled by the gardener.
You can stroll through a Zen garden, but more often, you are encouraged to simply look at it; viewpoints are meticulously directed. Here, at the Daitokuji temple, the garden is of a so-called flat style, appreciated from inside the building, in this case, the temple. One should absolutely not enter the garden, except with the eyes. Sitting on the veranda, you can observe the perfectly static yet natural image of moss, trees, and the bamboo forest in the background, which changes slightly depending on light, weather, and season. This has such a calming and meditative effect, freeing the mind from distractions and, in the best case, prompting profound insight. According to Zen Buddhism, we rediscover our lost but true Buddha nature by striving for a mental state free from material concerns.
The Japanese garden is often considered the aesthetic counterpart to the "Western" garden, being organic versus artificial. This may be true when compared to a French Renaissance-style garden, but other Western gardens actually share some principles with Japanese gardens. One such principle is the borrowed scenery concept, also applied in Florentine Renaissance gardens. Designers "borrowed views" when using background views from outside the garden, such as a mountain or the ocean, and transformed them into an integral part of the scenic composition. Another familiar element might be the panoramic walk, a path around the garden that creates the illusion of an extensive journey within a confined space, which, in this case, wraps around a pond. The same technique, albeit on a much larger scale, was used in English gardens.
What distinguishes the Japanese garden from the Western one is not so much its organic or natural appearance as its symbolic abstraction, and the ability to mimic the vastness of a broad landscape within a very limited space. An example is the use of white sand with a few rocks to suggest islands in the sea.
But the secret of the Zen garden lies in wabisabi. This Japanese word describes an aesthetic sensibility based on the appreciation of the transient beauty of the physical world. It is also the most difficult word to translate, and even the Japanese are not exactly sure what it means. As is typical of Zen: there is no truth, no perfection in form, only in the mind. Wabi Sabi. With its attention to the delicate subtleties, objects, effects, and environments of the natural world, wabi sabi promotes an alternative approach to the appreciation of both beauty and life itself. An approach that can serve as a launching pad or a bridge between the snares of the material world and the allure of a life of austerity and simplicity.