#44 Zen Garden

For some inexplicable reason, I have more than just a passing obsession with carefully laid out rocks.

Now, in case you’re thinking about what a strange and rather sad obsession this is, let me just say… you’re not wrong.

It takes a special kind of person to have the ability to derive so much pleasure from pieces of nature that can’t be smoked. Yes, that kind person is me, but you’d be surprised at how many other normal-looking people also flock to famous places to silently ogle for an hour at raked sand.

Zen gardens are definitely very high up there in my favourite kinds of Japanese landscape (yes I have mental list of such things), which is quite impressive if you think about the kind of things Japan offers – glorious snow-capped mountains, miles of cherry blossoms along riverbanks and huge cities glowing with the neon lights of urban life.

Zen garden near Koya-san, Wakayama prefecture

I can’t say exactly what it is about these gardens that get me going except that there’s something about the fact that even though they are man-maintained, they still have a strong sense of natural beauty and an air of tranquillity about them.

Unlike gardens one might find in Britain (the kind I’m more used to seeing) Japanese gardens don’t try so hard to aim for perfection outside of nature’s ability to create it. This is a generalization of course, but it’s not uncommon in England to find hedges that are trimmed to at perfect right angles (and/or any ridiculous bear/snowman/phallis shape), red roses cross-bred for generations and lawns trimmed more carefully than one would their fingernails.

The Zen garden of Ryōan-ji, Kyoto

Whatever the reason, I for one really appreciate the thought that must have gone into arranging the gardens, even though to the untrained eye they may look as random as having been offloaded from the back of a truck. For example, in Ryōan-ji (pictured above) there are fifteen stones carefully placed so that no matter from which angle you can look upon the garden, you will never be able to see all of the rocks at the same time.

There are many interpretations but to me it simply means “that’s life”.

And if that wasn’t enough to blow your mind, I checked out Wikipedia (my reliable source for everything I know) and found this utterly fascinating piece of knowledge:

According to the researchers, one critical axis of symmetry passes close to the centre of the main hall, which is the traditionally preferred viewing point. In essence, viewing the placement of the stones from a sightline along this point brings a shape from nature (a dichotomously branched tree with a mean branch length decreasing monotonically from the trunk to the tertiary level) in relief.

The researchers propose that the implicit structure of the garden is designed to appeal to the viewers unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes. In support of their findings, they found that imposing a random perturbation of the locations of individual rock features destroyed the special characteristics.

For that kind of genius the I give the Anonymous who designed Ryōan-ji a non-patronising slow clap of respect.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Suzie Bee
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 02:31:50


    Love this blog. I came to it via your other one (searching for something related to minimalism… I forget what…) and am delighted to find such a great foreigner-Japanophile’s guide to Japan! I love it and am dying to go one day.


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