The rock garden at Ryōan-ji Temple, in Kyoto, Japan [14th-17th Centuries], continues to fascinate scholars, architects and landscape designers, and the lay public the world over. Even for people who know or care nothing for landscape design, or Zen Buddhism, it's a familiar reference symbol for Eastern mysticism and cultural paradigm. It's an artifact which could only have been conceived of in Asia, and is like a synthesis of several ideas about the East which have become familiar to travelers and thinkers since the "opening" of Japan in the latter half of the 19th Century.
While living in Japan in 1985, I spent the better part of the Fall of that year, living in a ryokan (a kind of Japanese motel or inn) along the river in Kyoto, visiting most of the temples and temple gardens in the city and surrounding. I had no car of my own, so I got around in the city taxis, which are kept immaculate and efficient by a devoted class of professional drivers. Were I to have taken up semi-permanent residence there, I would no doubt have acquired a good bicycle, since that is the most convenient mode of transportation there. Kyoto is heavily touristed, so Westerners are a familiar sight. Nevertheless, at 6'4", in my long brown trenchcoat, I was a curiosity in the city, especially among the young inhabitants, and could hardly go anywhere without being the eccentric center of attention.
The garden is open to the public, but only by tour schedule, and access is restricted to certain paths and viewing positions--typical of nearly all the gardens in the city. Fees and rules govern one's sense of these places. Many of the temples are still religious centres, in daily use, so care must be taken not to disturb the habits and atmosphere of devotion and calm which pervades them.
Ryōan-ji is a Buddhist temple, and as such, its design and function are intended to facilitate and inspire religious feeling. Part of its charm is our Western sense of the subtly mystical quality it conjures up in the viewer. Even if you're unfamiliar with the practice of meditation, or tend to regard it as hocus-pocus, it's still an exotic place. Zen Buddhism is a complex religion, and far beyond the scope of my simple essay here, but suffice it to say that the rock garden at Ryōan-ji was constructed as a physical (visual) form meant to promote the meditative state of consciousness, to allow the viewer to attain higher states of being through the deliberate focus on ideas of presence, unresolved and resolved tension, and greater (super-) awareness.
Structurally, the garden is a flat rectangle surrounded by successive courses of stone and gravel. Within this rectangle is a bed of light grey gravel, within which are located several stones in various positions and groupings, not unlike "islands" in an ocean. This sense of a sea is reenforced by the parallel lines drawn in the gravel, which are renewed each day by dragging a rake to form the concentric "waves" into the gravel.
The longitudinal lines are interrupted by circular waves (or lines) which surround each of the "islands" of stones within the gravel bed, emphasizing the idea of the flowing of space or matter around them. Japan is an island nation. During most of its history, its island-ic isolation has been one of its chief characteristics, fostering a geographical uniqueness which has been protected and emphasized; Japanese culture has tended to regard itself as the center of its universe, and its island aspect is a key to its sense of (it-)self. Isolation and separateness are key elements.
In the West, we tend to think of gardens as being precincts of flora--that is, primarily as places where plants grow. In gardens of the West, plants or plantings form the focus and subject of outdoor made places. The notion of a garden with very few, or even no, plants in it, is at odds with our idea of "garden."
Of course, nature itself may be regarded--in some places--as a garden. If we define a garden as any outside place where the space has been arranged, deliberately, or even "naturally," in a stimulating or pleasing way, we may call it a garden. There may even be "indoor" gardens. An automobile dealer's parking lot could even be considered a garden. And you often see "fake" gardens composed of plastic shrubs, plastic grass, even plastic animals (such as pink flamingoes).
My point in mentioning these extreme instances of "gardens" is to suggest that what we think of as a garden space is certainly not limited to a place where organic flora form the whole point and justification for a landscape design. Interior and exterior design elements may merge and intersect in ways that challenge our sense of organized external space.
It's not known exactly who designed the Ryōan-ji garden. It may have been a Buddhist monk, or a gardener, or some combination of these. And it's not known when exactly it was constructed. It may have occurred at some point between the late 15th and late 17th Centuries. We do know that it was destroyed, and then rebuilt, or restored, several times. As late as 1797 it was destroyed by fire and reconstructed.
Since World War II, its canonical position in the world's roster of special places has been reaffirmed by countless visitors, and by serious study, as one of the most inspired creations in history--standing alongside the Parthenon, the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, Angkor Wat, etc., as a masterpiece of conception and execution.
Some have even speculated that the source of its powerful effect on the viewer is some technically deft geometric set of relationships. I'm not a believer in "magic" influences, or supernatural phenomena. When people begin to talk about "spiritual" qualities in inanimate objects or structures, I become skeptical. It's possible to play tricks on our nervous systems, by--for instance--spinning in place like Sufi dervishes do, in order (as it is said) to transport the dancer into a state of dizziness, which is thought to facilitate a higher consciousness, or religious ecstasy. Whether such disorientation is actually a form of divine awareness I leave to the reader to decide.
What happens when you sit in a garden space? What happens when you sit quietly in a redwood forest? What happens when you sit on a porch swing in a quiet neighborhood on a summer evening? If you go about deliberately to locate a condition of attention in which you are able to think yourself into a kind of still trance, is it possible to convince yourself that your surroundings are influencing you to reach a state of pure attention, in which brain activity is brought to a kind of absolute calm?
In the West, we think of beautiful gardens as creating a sense of harmony between man and nature, wherein the rational augmentation of natural landscape "perfects" nature--a favorable combination of genetic descent and formal adaptation that perfectly suits human use and appraisal. Eastern notions of garden design seem more austere and reserved. Western garden design has always been about making an orderly imposition, opposed to "wildness." But Eastern garden tradition has been no less "artificial" in its sense of discrete "cultivated" design. Ikebana, after all, is really about the same thing as pruned topiary.
But a garden based almost completely on non-organic "hard" elements asks to be considered as a kind of frozen (or fixed) sculpture. Rock doesn't move, and due to its apparent permanence and stability, may seem to be a more serious material with which to work.
What distinguishes Ryōan-ji from most Western garden design is its evident "emptiness"--in which discrete elements can be measured and appraised. If it were only an empty sandbox or tray of gravel, with nothing to consider, that vacuity might signify a kind of riddle of absence.
There is a toy-like preciosity to Ryōan-ji which makes it seem somehow not serious, or a kind of camp joke. Western tourists may observe that nothing is happening, that the lack of an animate stir, or of a puzzle-like intrigue, leaves them cold. Its unchanging permanence, after all, is what allows it to remain, over the centuries, as resistant and adamant in the face of human changeability as the very planets in the heavens. Perhaps it is that icy, locked condition, that mimics the laws of mathematics, which persuades us that its settled, rooted parts, like magnets on a game board, have inter-relationships which indicate forces--of attraction and repulsion--that dictate necessity.
The Japanese pride themselves on their feeling for natural stone. Natural, unmanipulated boulders, deftly placed to "mimic" "natural" arrangements, are a staple of Japanese garden design. We are asked, implicitly, to accept the positionality of the stones in Ryōan-ji as being "naturally" occurring in a wild landscape, though we do also sense, simultaneously, their aesthetically satisfying artificial quality. Are humans capable of seeing anything--any arrangement of natural or artificial objects--as being utterly devoid of underlying meaning, whether religious, natural or man-intended? Our human consciousness seems fated to make meaning from data, perhaps in spite of itself.
One of the aims of Zen Buddhism meditation is to escape from the snares of daily distraction and buzz, by excluding extraneous experience and preoccupation. This state of emptied consciousness is a prerequisite for illumination or insight into deeper levels of understanding. In Zen, the attainment of a condition of higher doubt may be facilitated through the recitation and consideration of koans or dialectical riddles. But words, like designs or material objects, are merely tools or shorthand media to facilitate enlightenment.
Gardens may serve a meditative function, though they cannot be considered ends in themselves. One may be in a garden, in the same sense that one is in the universe, but an arrangement of rock and moss and gravel is nothing more than an illusion of fixed significance.
Is there some kind of perfectly harmonious energy which is transmitted when a Zen monk, or anyone, stares peacefully, but attentively from the viewing platform at the Ryōan-ji? What is harmony? In music, we think of harmonious rest as the return to a settled home key. But music is a movement among different degrees of vibration in air. Do objects resonate in space, even if/when we can't hear them oscillating in their molecular stasis? Do objects communicate or interact with each other, subliminally, when in some secret proximate relationship? Is it possible for sentient beings to perceive such faint traces of energy by quieting the mind's interruptive background of static and helpless flux?
Our higher brains give us perhaps the illusion of illumination or an ultimate passivity to fate. Attempting to describe such illumination or awesome emptiness, in words, is a reminder that we are both trapped in language, as the medium of communication, and liberated by its easy convenience.
"That of which we cannot speak, one must pass over in silence." --Ludwig Wittgenstein