Japanese rock gardens seem to originate from some old fantasies about nature. The Japanese idea of imitating nature by creating an artificial garden seems to date back to the Dark Ages. When the Vikings were raiding the coasts of Europe, the Japanese found great pleasure in creating artificial gardens with rocks, stones, plants, trees and water.
In the beginning, there was perhaps no more than a playful idea: the Japanese would make snowballs in winter and insert flowers with long stems into them to create ‘sub-gardens’ in their own gardens. They seem to have enjoyed creating microcosms within a microcosm. Playful notions like this became certainly more elaborate by the end of the first millennium.
In Kyoto, you would still find some well-preserved large gardens built originally by aristocratic dynasties before the end of the 12th century. Behind such aristocratic gardens lay the notion that man-made architecture should blend in with its natural surroundings. The notion of stillness and dynamics in mindfulness was not yet present.
The arrival of Zen in Japan changed this notion. The stark minimalism of Japanese rock gardens replaced the aristocratic style and was in vogue by the end of the 14th century. The psychological process of Zen, the mindfulness of the time, had made a major impact on the physical appearance of ‘new gardens’. Rocks, stones, pebbles, white sand and green moss became the major components. In this process, water became almost redundant.
Generally speaking, there are two different schools of thought, which influenced the construction of Japanese rock gardens.
One school represents the dominance of stillness and is represented by the gardens of Ryōan-ji in Kyoto. Ryōan-ji is a temple founded in 1450. Most visitors to Ryōan-ji say that the main garden, which is rectangular in shape, represents the calm ocean with 16 small islands scattered across it. It is remarkable that the garden, which does to use water as its component, creates a generally fluid and oceanic impression.
However, the mindfulness of Zen, which the designers of this garden intended to encourage, seems to come into play only when one takes the trouble to sit quietly on the wooden veranda overlooking the garden. (You are not allowed to step into the garden!) Some people say that the microcosm created by the rock garden creates silent music like a ‘sub-garden’ in the observer’s mind.
True, the measured distance between the scattered rocks seem to create physical rhythms, while the surrounding walls of earth seem to bounce the rippling rhythms back to the seated observer. The music, which is pretty much hidden under the dry surface of stillness, seems to echo through the subtle psychological tension created by the stark visual minimalism. Stillness and dynamics in mindfulness are side-by-side with each other.
The other school, which represents dynamics as opposed to stillness, seems to be represented by the gardens of Daitoku-ji, a temple founded in the 14 century. Compared with Ryōan-ji, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, Daitoku-ji in Kyoto is not so well-known to the world. However, the small rock gardens of Daitoku-ji often remind visitors of the rough ocean lying between Russia and Japan.
In Daitoku-ji, the white sands and white pebbles are raked regularly the monks to create the visual impression of streams, rivers, ripples and waves in the eyes of the observer. Since the designers of the gardens chose not to cut or polish the rocks, there is an impression of movement than a calm in their physical appearance. The rough edges of the rocks jut out here and there like the natural rocks of the Sea of Japan.
In Daitoku-ji, the existing collection of the rocks in the gardens seem to represent an eventful journey, an Odyssey, through the deep valleys and mountains. During this journey, the observer is invited to begin a brief but unique form of dynamic mindfulness, which is distinct from the initial impression of timelessness and a calm created by the more famous rock garden of Ryōan-ji. However, in Daitoku-ji, the dynamic journey of mindfulness, as the observer moves from one garden to another, seems to reach its destination in profound calmness, which is the starting point of the psychological journey in Ryōan-ji.
It appears that, in the design of Japanese rock gardens, stillness and dynamics in mindfulness are the two sides of the same coin. Where there is initial stillness, like Ryōan-ji, mindfulness soon goes into dynamics as if silent music is played by the rocks. Where there is movement, stillness soon comes into play.
This is one of the chief characteristics of cultural mindfulness in today’s Japan. Sitting in a cross-legged position in itself is not a requirement of Zen. Stillness and dynamics in mindfulness can be pervasive. It can be as fluid as the very old fantasies about nature.