Common steps and sub-activities

Japanese gardens

There are five main ways in which visiting a Japanese garden may help produce a spiritual experience, nearly all of them related to sensory deprivation:

Japanese gardens were designed from the start to firstly mirror the spiritual world and secondly to promote spiritual experience.  By visiting a garden you were visiting ‘heaven on earth’.  To a certain extent they are the same landscapes that you see in ukoye-e drawings and paintings because they mirror the floating world of the spirit.  For those unaware of the Shinto and spiritual background to the gardens, they appear to be a miniature idealised landscape, in a highly abstract and stylised design.

The early gardens of the Emperors and nobles were designed for recreation and aesthetic pleasure, but the gardens of Shinto/Buddhist temples are specifically designed for contemplation and meditation.  Japanese rock gardens or zen gardens, for example, use white sand and specific patterns.  Some of the gardens contained ‘tea houses’ [see tea ceremony].  Many contain rocks and other contemplative features, though these days the number of uncomprehending tourists rather precludes any form of meditation.

The plants also have symbolic significance.  Pines, bamboo and fruit trees, for example, all have deep spiritual significance and are found in abundance.  Cherry trees which in spring are covered with pink flowers and no leaves, appear to resemble the cloud layers seen in visions and are used quite frequently.

The transience of the blossoms, the extreme beauty and the quick death, has added significance and often been associated with mortality; for this reason, cherry blossoms are richly symbolic, and have been used in Japanese art and film, not just in gardens.

The Buddha and one of the two flanking Bosatsus in the Daikodo (Great Lecture Hall - 8th-12th century), Horyuji, Nara. The lecture hall, the Yakushi triad (the Buddha and Bosatsus), and the four heavenly guardians (one of which is visible) were rebuilt in 990. Photography is forbidden in the Daikodo, so this was taken from the courtyard.

The cardinal directions have significance in Shinto and gardens are designed around these principles. Houses and gardens are aligned on a north-south axis, with the residence to the north and the ceremonial buildings and main garden to the south, there are usually two long wings to the south, like the arms of an armchair, with the garden between them.

Lakes and bridges also have spiritual significance and symbolic meaning.  Many gardens feature lakes connected by bridges and winding streams. The first known book on the art of the Japanese garden, the Sakutei-ki, written in the 11th century, said:

"It is a good omen to make the stream arrive from the east, to enter the garden, pass under the house, and then leave from the southeast. In this way, the water of the blue dragon will carry away all the bad spirits from the house toward the white tiger."

Layout then matches energy flows in the kundalini experience.

In the section on Shinto, I described how rich the cultural heritage of the Shinto/Buddhist based society before the Meiji period was.  In the Imperial gardens of the Heian Period, for example, there were water gardens where visitors promenaded in elegant lacquered boats, listening to music, viewing the distant mountains, singing, reading poetry, painting, and admiring the scenery of the garden. The social life in the gardens was memorably described in the classic Japanese novel, the Tales of Genji, written in about 1005 by Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting to the Empress. All gone.

The best surviving example of a Paradise Garden is Byōdō--in Uji,near Kyoto. It was originally the villa of Fujiwara Michinaga, (966-1028), who married his daughters to the sons of the Emperor. After his death, his son transformed the villa into a temple, and in 1053 built the Hall of Phoenix, which still stands. The Hall is built in the traditional style of a Chinese Song Dynasty temple, on an island in the lake. It houses a gilded statue of the Amithaba Buddha, looking to the west. In the lake in front of the temple is a small island of white stones, representing Mount Horai, the home of the Eight Immortals of the Daoists, connected to the temple by a bridge, which symbolized the way to paradise. It was designed for meditation and contemplation, not as a pleasure garden.

The first zen garden in Japan was built by a Chinese priest in 1251 in Kamakura.  One of the finest examples, and one of the best-known of all Japanese gardens is Ryōan-ji in Kyoto. This garden is just 9 meters wide and 24 meters long. It is composed of white sand carefully raked, and fifteen rocks carefully arranged, like small islands. It is meant to be seen from a seated position on the porch of the residence of the abbot of the monastery. Several of the famous zen gardens of Kyoto were the work of one man; Musō Soseki (1275–1351) a monk. 

Following Sen no Rikyū's rules, the ‘teahouses’ were built like the cottages of a hermit-monk. They were small and very plain wooden structures, often with a thatched roof, with just enough room inside for two tatami mats. The only decoration allowed inside was a scroll with an inscription and a branch of a tree. “They did not have a view of the garden”.

During the Meiji period many of the old private gardens were abandoned and left to ruin. In 1871, a new law transformed many gardens from the Momoyama and Edo periods into public parks, preserving them, but they are a shadow of their former selves because the cultural and religious significance of the features is no longer understood.

Potentially these would be a wonderful way to contemplate and sink into a deep experience, but the very small number that remain are full of visitors and much of the symbolism has long since been forgotten.

Perhaps you need to build your own garden.