I always experience a mysterious sense of inner peace upon entering a Japanese garden; a sense of serenity I seldom experience in any other type of garden. This impression doesn’t descend upon me as much as it ascends from somewhere deep within me, as if I had crossed some type of mystical threshold between restlessness and inner harmony. Perhaps the origin of this metaphysical transformation is rooted in the spirituality and peacefulness I have always associated with Buddhism, Taoism and Japanese meditative traditions collectively referred to as ‘Zen’. Shamefully aware that my knowledge of eastern teachings and philosophy are predominantly informed by my youthful exposure to the adventures of Kwai Chang Caine (Grasshopper) of television’s Kung Fu fame, I decided to explore the history of Japanese gardens in the hope of discovering how they might exert their calming influence on my psyche. What I discovered was that my limited knowledge of eastern philosophies was eclipsed by an even greater misconception of Japanese gardens and their very deliberate 'zen'.
My greatest misunderstanding about Japanese gardens was a most fundamental one. Unlike other types of gardens with which I am familiar, Japanese gardens are not flower gardens nor are they plots primarily dedicated to the cultivation of plants. Rather, a Japanese garden is first and foremost a landscape garden. Some, like the Karesansui waterless rock and sand gardens, are devoid of plantings all together. Even among planted gardens symbolic inanimate objects feature prominently in the design of a Japanese garden’s layout, reflecting their spiritual importance in the cultural heritage and mythology of the Japanese. The goal of master Japanese gardeners is the creation of a harmonious landscape honoring the beauty and harmony among all the gardens constituents, a harmony capable of creating a ‘mood in the soul.’
‘Its artistic purpose is to copy faithfully the attractions of a veritable landscape, and to convey the real impression that a real landscape communicates. It is therefore at once a picture and a poem; perhaps even more a poem than a picture. For as nature’s scenery, in its varying aspects, affects us with sensation of joy or solemnity, of grimness or of sweetness, of force or of peace, so must the true reflection of it in the labor of the landscape gardener create not merely the impression of beauty, but a mood in the soul.’ L. Hearn, In a Japanese Garden, The Atlantic, 1892
Buddhism divides the world into things without desire (hijo), like trees, stones and water, and things having desire (ujo) such as people and animals. It is no doubt the master gardener’s very intentional inclusion of the spiritual essences of hijo in garden design that contributes to a Japanese garden’s unique spiritual 'feel'. The images in this post of hijo commonly found in Japanese gardens were captured on recent visits to multiple Japanese gardens. Each is paired with a brief description of their history, symbolic significance and contribution to the unique sacred nature of Japanese gardens. Some passages have been cited verbatim from a fascinating article by Lafcadio Hearn entitled “In A Japanese Garden” published in The Atlantic in 1892. Hearn’s prose is just far too beautiful to paraphrase.
I found in Hearn’s descriptions an explanation of the Japanese gardens’ unique metaphysical impact. Hearn explains that ‘The dead art that made the beauty of this place (garden) was the art, also, of that faith to which belongs the all-consoling text, “Verily, even plants and trees, rocks and stones, all shall enter into Nirvana.”'
And there it was. If even plants, trees, rocks and stones shall enter into Nirvana then there is hope for me. Even without my full knowledge of how or why, these gardens evoke a peaceful, hopeful mood in my soul.