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The Beauty of Japanese Gardens

Can a Japanese garden be designed for the needs of a culture and changing times, and still respect the original tenets of Japanese garden design? Japanese Garden designer, Edzard Teubert examines this possibility through exploration of Japanese history and philosophy.

 first_light
Photo by Christian Martini

Patterns of living : 

Japanese garden design was traditionally passed from generation to generation as oral family transmissions.  Very little is written as a means of communicating this valuable knowledge to others.  Today, it is slowly being translated into terms of aesthetics, meaning, behavior, cognition, health, and personal needs. These ideas are benefiting hospitals, schools, workplaces, even city planning, resulting in ergonomic living and cultural integration of green spaces that are tailored to people.

As population density increases and natural spaces decrease, what will people do to come into touch with nature? 

Will they get in touch with that shrinking natural green space?  It's not just about endangered species, it is about an endangered experience – a healing resource that studies show directly affects crime rates, personality disorders, and stress related problems in all ages.

A common reason to ‘build a Japanese garden’ is because it fits into small spaces.  More important is the intrinsic ability of the garden to give a feeling of morality through philosophical belief, perhaps through patterns of comfortable recognition. 

These senses affect our thinking and emotional response to surroundings.  It is universal to all peoples through our common need to feel nature and experience beauty.


Go to the pines if you want to learn about the pine; or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn.

  Matsuo Basho - 17th century


Gardens & Philosophy:

Norinaga Motoori (1730 – 1801) indicated that, in looking backwards throughout Japanese history, there was no set doctrine in Japan.  He suggested that if the foreign ideologies of Confucianism and Buddhism were removed from Japan, the ‘original and refreshing way of Japanese thinking would be found’.  Going further, Motoori pontificated that the pathos of nature is the essence of the literary arts (referring to the pure emotion of human beings).

 

 


The Intent:   At the same time, gardeners already held the idea that the garden should be designed as an expression of an Author.  This is currently referred to as the ‘Author’s Intent’. The ‘Author’, then could be Nature itself, an individual, an ideology, even a clan or community ideal.  This provides the basis of ‘what is authentic’ in a Japanese garden.  This indicates that a garden is authentic when it is expressed to the Author’s Intent.

But, what is the Author intending with his expression? And how is this articulated? Which has precedence, the physical items and layout, the translations and concepts in the design?  Or would it be the final emotional expression in the manner of pruning or maintenance?  Can these even be separated?

The Learning:   What is being learned from the experiencing of the garden itself?  Should anything be learned at all?  If one wishes, there are many lessons to be learned from the Japanese garden.

It is a learning tool with interwoven philosophies that have become cultural to the Japanese people. The fundamental idea is that a garden instills the thought of beauty in the mind.  As the garden is seen through the different lenses of the mind, understanding of these fundamental ideals will lead to cultural rejuvenation and beauty will emerge.

The Beauty:   However (there is always another ‘however’ in learning about gardens), there is also the concept that the garden should be appreciated without thought and merely for its beauty alone.  Beauty, as an ideal, is interwoven throughout Japanese culture.  The philosophical origins of Shinto combined with Buddhist thought allows for the acceptance that also combines the Confucian and Taoist ideals.  Many would say that Japan’s religions have founded the garden. While this may be true on one level of thought, understanding that philosophical beliefs are not necessarily religious in nature will provide a broader understanding for garden appreciation.

The cultural philosophies also include ideals of art such as pottery or poetry.  This is exemplified by Fujiwara Taira’s rewrite of the tenets of ‘fundamental taste’ in acceptable forms of Waka poetry. Philosophical thought is also cultural thought, whether of religious origin or not.


 

Edzard Teubert shares these points of view as a Japanese Gardener. He is also the Primary of Fuzei Gardens in Alberta, Canada.

Edited by Don Pylant, Japanese Gardening Organization


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