A JAPANESE GARDEN HANDBOOK
PART ONE: DESIGN & CRAFT
Chapter 4: The Paradise Garden
In this Chapter…
- Paradise at Hand
- The Easy Way
- This Place Is the Lotus Land
- The End of the World
Paradise at Hand
Human beings have always had a fascination with utopia, and the Japanese are no exception. Dating from the Heian period (794-1185) and a little after, this mania manifested in the jōdo-teien (浄土庭園), or Pure Land Paradise Garden, a representation of the palatial pond garden of Amida Buddha, located somewhere far, far to the west, at the very rim of the world. Although the interest in Buddhist teachings concerning the Pure Land (Jōdokyō 浄土教) began during the Heian period, it was restricted largely to the aristocracy, and then predominantly as an aesthetic landscape ideology rather than a deep religious conviction. It was not until the Kamakura period (1185-1333) that jōdo Buddhism gained mainstream favor, and Jirō Takei and Marc Keane note that “despite the connection revealed between Amida’s paradise and garden design in other sources such as Heian-period paintings, there is no mention at all of Amida or the Pure Land in the Sakuteiki.”
The Easy Way
Jōdo-teien (浄土庭園) were first commissioned in the ancient capital of Heiankyō (平安京) by the Fujiwara regents, and were designed to emulate shinden-zukuri (寝殿造り) palaces of the early Heian period (794-1185). Sutras written between the second and fifth centuries speak of Amida Buddha’s vow to assist all sentient beings who place their faith fully in him to attain buddhahood. Shakamuni Buddha describes the paradise awaiting those who call on Amida as a realm of beautiful gardens and shady trees with glittering palaces set among terraces and lotus ponds. Today, Pure Land Buddhism is a loose term used to categorize any Buddhist sect that promotes the attainment of Paradise through direct supplication to Amida Buddha himself. The Japanese know this supplication as tariki (他力 “another’s power”), and the Tendai (天台) school of Buddhism systemized these teachings in the text Ōjōyōshū (往生要集 Essentials of Rebirth) by Genshin (源信 942-1017), which sets out the articles of faith and rituals necessary to attain rebirth. Hōnen Shōnin (法然上人 1133-1212), and especially his apprentice Shinran (親鸞 1173-1263), went even further by claiming that any person who orally invoked the name of Amida Buddha by crying “Nembutsu!” (念佛) could be saved.
The Tokugawa-period (1603-1868) Zen monk Hakuin Ekaku (白隠慧鶴 1686-1768) reminds us in his homily Zazen-wasan (坐禅和讃 In Praise of Zazen) that the Pure Land is not so much a place as an attitude, and by that we are to understand that the construction of a Pure Land garden was no guarantee of finding utopia. Once again, the way is deceptively simple – and extremely difficult at the same time:
When you sit [in meditation] even once,
The merit obliterates countless
How can there be evil realms?
The Pure Land is not far.
At this very moment, what can be
Nirvana is immediate.
This place is the lotus land.
This body is the buddha body.
This Place Is the Lotus Land.
Properly speaking, the Western Pure Land Paradise is known as Amida-Nyorai-no-saihō-gokuraku-jōdo (阿弥陀如来西方極楽-浄土 “Amida Buddha’s Western Paradise Pure Land”; Skr. Sukhavati), and is usually presented in a garden as a middle island (nakajima 中島) in a large pond (enchi 園池), connected to the surrounding shoreline by several bridges that symbolize the potential for salvation. In particular, the pond represents the lotus pond in the original paradise where the dead are reborn. The sudden infatuation with paradise gardens can be explained by the Buddhist prophecy that an age of darkness and ruin would begin after fifteen hundred years of Buddhist law (mappō 末法). Because the apocalypse was calculated to arrive in the middle of the eleventh century, the aristocracy of the late Heian period (794-1185) began building Buddhist temple complexes around pond gardens in imitation of their private estates, the idea being to accrue much needed positive karma.
The most celebrated example of a jōdo-teien is at Byōdō-in, near Kyoto. Originally constructed as a villa for Fujiwara no Yorimichi (藤原頼通 992-1074), it was converted into a Buddhist temple in 1052. The main hall, known as Hōō-dō (鳳凰堂 The Phoenix Hall), and its reflecting pond were originally designed to symbolize the Pure Land Paradise of Amida Buddha, and the building houses a large statue of him. Members of the Fujiwara family would “sit across the pond to the east and look west at the seated Buddha, imagining themselves reborn in Amida’s “Western Paradise’.”
Another fine example is the jōdo-teien at Kōinzan Saihō-ji, in western Kyoto, designed by Musō Sōseki (夢窓疎石 1275-1351) in 1339. South of the hall dedicated to Amida Buddha in the eastern grounds of the temple lies the famous pond with islands of white sand which represent the Pure Land islands floating in a misty ocean. The pond, called Ōgonchi (黄金池 “gold pond”), is surrounded by a circular path leading through a mysterious grove of tall evergreens. The pond itself is shaped in the form of the character for “heart” or “mind”, a design known as a shinji-ike (心字池 “heart-character pond”; see “Shaping the Pond” in Ponds). The three islands - Asahijima (朝日島), Yūhijima (夕日島), and Kirishima (霧島) - are now covered in moss, hence the nickname Kokedera (苔寺 Moss Temple).
In addition to Saihō-ji, Jōruri-ji and Jōdo-ji also have celebrated jōdo-teien gardens. In northern Honshu, Mōtsū-ji, built by a Fujiwara prince named Motohira (藤原基衡 1100?-1157), still has remains of a jōdo-teien in the form of an old lake with a rocky shoreline and islands.
The End of the World
According to Buddhist law, Buddhism passes through three distinct ages during the two thousand years following the death of Shakamuni Buddha. The first age is shōbō (正法 “correct method”; Skr. Saddharma), the age of true law, or correct dharma. Shōbō corresponds to the halcyon days of Buddha’s reign, a Golden Age lasting between five hundred and a thousand years during which the teachings of Buddha are practiced diligently. The second age is zōbō (像法 “statue religion”; Skr. Saddharma pratirūpaka), an age of inferior, imitative law. According to some scholars, the era during which “people could practice the Way of Shakyamuni Buddha, but… enlightenment would not come” was thought to last one thousand years. The third and final age is mappō (末法 “end religion”; Skr. Saddharma vipralopa), an age of lawlessness, decline, decadence, and depravity. Calculations put the beginning of mappō at around 1052, and certainly by this time Heian culture was in decline, and a brooding pessimism infected the capital (mappō-shisō 末法思想 “end religion thoughts”). Together with the aesthetic emotion of mujōkan (無常観 “not everlasting outlook”; Skr. anitya), or the impermanence of all things, mappō-shisō served to infuse the court with a fatalism that led eventually to the demise of Heiankyō and the installation of the Kamakura bakafu (幕府) in the twelfth century. Some sources claim that this Closing Age is thought to last for 10,000 years.
The concept of mappō had a profound effect on Heian garden aesthetics, particularly in the choice of seasonal flora, which clearly symbolized the passage of the four seasons. “It is one of the reasons,” speculates François Berthier, “people [of the Heian period] were especially sensitive to the poignant beauty of spring flowers, which wither quickly or fall from the branch, and to the moving splendor of leaves, which, having flared into vibrant color, die with the advent of winter.”
“It was Magnus who first told me the story of the Garden of Eden… Eng, T. (2012). The Garden of Evening Mists: A novel. NY: Weinstein Books; p. 308.
…and Jirō Takei and Marc Keane note… Takei, J. & Keane, M. P. (2001). Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese garden. A modern translation of Japan’s gardening classic. Boston, Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing; p. 92.
Members of the Fujiwara family would “sit…” Nishi, K. & K. Hozumi (1996). What is Japanese architecture? Trans. H. M. Horton. Tokyo: Kodansha International; p. 19.
According to some scholars, the era during which… Hanayama, S. (1960). A history of Japanese Buddhism. Trans. K. Yamamoto. Tokyo: CIIB Press; p. 69.
Some sources claim that this Closing Age… Hanayama, S. (1960); p. 69.
“It is one of the reasons,” speculates François Berthier… Berthier, F. (2000). Reading Zen in the rocks: The Japanese landscape garden. Trans. with a Philosophical Essay by G. Parkes. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press; p. 18.
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