Behind the image of the karesansui garden

The Kamakura and Muromachi eras hold the answer to my third question of dry landscape gardens – is there more to their compositions than the restraint and unnaturalness that they project?


The effect upon these karesansui (“withered mountain-water”) gardens from the practice of meditation from Zen Buddhism was profound. They were expressions of inner, hidden nature – of energy lines, rhythms, movements and forms that we do not see with the naked eye. The apparent paucity of plant life within these gardens may not necessarily mean that life is lacking – the gardeners aspired to give the rocks the appearance of an animate being. They aimed to emphasize and raise our awareness of the very life within and surrounding them. The processes we do not often see within our daily or whole lifetimes (either because they are too slow, or not visible to the naked eye): the mineralisation of rocks, colonisation by lichen and moss, seeping in of water through cracks and micropores, reactions between water, minerals and plants. Bacteria and fungi that may be present on the surface of the rock, but again are microscopic.  The rocks are actually teeming with life. They embody life itself, by providing the first platform of minerals needed for metabolic processes. So you see, a rock is not just a rock.  Is it a kind of metaphor that it requires some study of, and time spent with, these central parts of our world, to understand that they are not lifeless statues of cold crystalline structure but are actually the foundations of life? stones2_logo

Space was also an important feature – the emptiness and nothingness in which enlightenment is achieved. This was symbolized in the scarcity of plants and the sand-covered ground between the carefully positioned rocks. There is no proof, but it has been suggested that the composition of rocks, such as those in Ryoan-ji were linked to certain meditation practices, such as staring at a fixed point, to help form concentration. In a time in which garden designs may appear to be aesthetically very different and apart from nature and its own creations, the very driving force behind their conception was that man, nature and Buddha are inextricably linked. Each flows seamlessly into the other. In this time, there had (and perhaps still has not) been such a deep and vital understanding and connection with nature. In our present global state of environmental degradation, we can conceivably learn lot from this era in Japanese history. That the karesansui gardens appear so different from nature, but are inspired by its very essence, is really something to be marveled at. It is possibly creativity at its most insightful, and can be seen as man working in harmony with nature on a different level to previously. If we use our imaginations a little, perhaps they can also be compared to scenes of boulders and moraine in glaciated valleys, which are becoming an ever more frequent sight with climate change.


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