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Exploring the garden of absolute infinities

by Stephen Mansfield

Tenryu-Ji: Life and Spirit of a Kyoto Garden, by Norris Brock Johnson. Stone Bridge Press, 2012, 368 pp., $39.95 (hardcover)

If the Western garden is bulging with organic matter, the Japanese one is animate with deities, allegory, symbolism and mythology, hinting at a greater depth, a place of divine and metaphoric convergence.

Like all great gardens, Tenryu-ji’s imparts a sense of exclusivity, as if the design had been customized for each viewer.

Norris Brock Johnson, a devotee of the temple grounds in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto, one who has spent many a long year examining its intricacies, situates the garden geoculturally and historically. He is the perfect guide, describing Tenryu-ji with intellectual conciseness and tenderness, for a site that has clearly come to represent more than just a sacred garden.

And if the claim here that the site demonstrates how gardens have had an “abiding effect on our imaginations as well as a determinative effect on human history” seems a tad overstated, read on, for you may well become a convert to this view.

The principals and aesthetic preferences cultivated by exposure to the Shinto and Buddhist religions are rightly explored, and a great deal of space devoted to landscape contouring, the intersection between architecture and gardens, which partly explains why designers are avid readers of garden books.

There is an extensive narrative on the history of the site, the complex lineages of emperors, and the Buddhist prelate and abbot Muso Soseki, who had a profound impact on the design of the garden. An interesting man, he worked alongside the senzui kawaramono, the so-called river people, lower-caste gardeners who were responsible for a good deal more garden designs in Japan than they are given credit. Muso was a liberal for his day, a priest who believed that the “distinction between holy purity and defilement is a delusion.” This rendered him incapable of despising those from the lower orders merely on the grounds of ancestry or occupation.

The writer expends several pages on the subject of feng shui, or geomancy, a Chinese practice as important for maintaining the equipoise of a garden as the organization of diagonals, site lines, axes and the use of scalene triangles as spatial reinforcers.

At first glance the garden seems rather unformed, a view that is quickly subverted as the details, suggesting a highly organized space, are taken into account. The rather unremarkable expanse of water forming the pond, for example, turns out to have been perceived by Muso as “autumn in the middle of the sky.” This gradual process of discovery, of unfolding the complex symbolism and poetics of the garden, is not something that can be assumed with exposure to a landscape like this, hence the value of this book with its detailed explanations.

In the sanzonseki, the grouping of three rocks, for example, the casual visitor to the Japanese garden might see a pleasing arrangement of stones, perhaps even a clever triangulation of forms. The better-read observer will know that they are looking at a representation of the Buddha in the central stone, and his disciples in the two lower ones; or alternatively, the dominant rock will symbolize Mount Meru, the sacred peak at the center of the Buddhist cosmos.

Ancient gardens are a bequest. Because of their durable rock schemata, older gardens in Japan have fared better than many of their European counterparts. This was apparent to me on a recent trip to Naha, Okinawa, where I sought out the ancient Ie-dounchi Tei-en.

Fenced off to the public and ruinously overgrown with weeds and tropical plants, the outline of the garden was clearly visible in its stone settings. It was no great effort to re-imagine the original, and it would be a relatively easy task to restore the garden.

Tenryu-ji goes about its business in the time-honored manner, but with the addition of a cultural tourism that can turn such exquisitely serene sites into termite hills. As the world’s cities become more crowded, the disposition of space more pressing, Japanese gardens, however, can still provide instructive design models.