A non spiritual Japanese garden

inkognitoAugust 24, 2007

Is it possible to make a garden without a spiritual content?

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Just cruising through today, not a lot of interaction on this website lately. To answer your question about making a garden without "spiritual content", my own reply would be: "not possible, if the person making the garden insists on a spiritual meaning" :-)

In other words, rocks, trees, shrubs, sand, etc. don't really care what interpretation you give them. Only humans worry about interpretations. As proof of this assertion, I offer my own observations. The neighborhood birds use my water basin and bamboo spout as a convenient bathroom and shower. All the time. I'm hoping to eventually get some positive benefit out of this, such as the attraction of moss spores on the basin, but at any rate, I don't think the birds are getting any zen or Shinto insights out of my spicket arrangement. Sorry to disappoint everybody with a negative report...

    Bookmark   August 27, 2007 at 11:23AM
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Thank you for responding jim, it was rather an open question that I hoped would get a bigger response. You bring up some interesting points by first changing my "spiritual content" to your "spiritual meaning". You also transfer the spirituality to the items in the garden and than deny that this exists and lastly, I would say that one quality that sets us apart from birds is our capacity for spirituality that is not strictly the same as religion as you imply.

Could working with the materials that make a garden induce a feeling of respect for those materials and could this experience be termed 'spiritual'? Would this then be evident in the garden? By 'spiritual' I mean "relating to or affecting the human spirit as opposed to material or physical things"

    Bookmark   August 28, 2007 at 9:09AM
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If you command a rock, do you respect it, or did it respect you?

I'm liking Jimbo, I think.

... in a spiritual way.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2007 at 7:50PM
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That is total nonsense, Andrew. May you and jimbo enjoy your interpretation.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2007 at 8:21PM
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It is not nonsense. Spirituality is within ourselves. The rock was a rock, is a rock, and will remain a rock.

I get the warm and fuzzies when I create something nice, too. Don't get me wrong. Whether you revel in the notion that you compose spiritually or through reasoning, the end result is physical objects arranged on the ground.

I think it lifts people to feel "gifted" spiritually. It is a way to be in a higher class. A level that few others can expect to attain.

Any time people come up against something they don't understand they take comfort in the shortcoming by putting it in a spiritual realm where no one can expect them to understand it - no more frustration.

In the end, we have plants, soil, rocks, and other physical things that we have manipulated. We should be able to figure out the physical and visual reasons that makes the composition successful whether done in a Shinto tradition or by an autistic savant.

If I build a rock garden and my imagination is seeing huge mountains and forest sized trees as I work with fieldstone and shrubs (which it has done), no one has to know that to appreciate or duplicate what I have done. That is all I am saying.

We all have our imagination and spirituality (myself included), but it only exists within ourselves and does not project into the heads of those observing our work.

PS. Can someone get that crazy lady in the hard hat trying to sell cereal to me off of my computer?

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 7:24AM
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This type of topic fondly brings to mind an incident in one of my bonsai classes years ago. The teacher, a well-known local Japanese bonsai expert, after some inital lecturing began quickly snipping off the majority of branches on a pine and rather emphatically bending remaining branches down and quickly wiring them. What was rather humerous was the audible gasp in the back of the room; we had a couple well-meaning folks (with no prior pruning experience, trust me) in the class who were shocked at these actions on the part of the teacher, and one of them commented on the "violence" being done to the plant. It was quite obvious they were displeased. Needless to say, it was an awkward moment and the class proceeded along different lines at that point...draw whatever conclusions from this that you would like. I find it highly ironic.

Be that as it may, I'm glad inkognito brought up this topic, despite the reaction, and I also hope for a wide response. Not responses that only agree with my own response (I'm already quite aware my position is a minority one on a group like this, although I hasten to note it is shared by the vast majority of professional landscapers)- but a truly broad response :-)))
It seems like "spirituality" is one of the few topics that re-occurs over and over on this forum, but I believe any exchange is better than none, even with people wanting others to agree with everything they say.
So I'm hoping more folks talk about what they expect out of their gardening experiences. What does "respect" for your materials, tools, garden pruning, etc. mean to you? Let's talk.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 10:09AM
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I believe it absolutely is possible. And not possible. At the same time.

One of the principles of a Japanese garden (as I learned it) is the human's place in the natural world. We are part of nature, therefore the garden is not complete without human observation or interaction.

If I sit in a Japanese garden and read the newspaper, I might not have any spiritual reaction. Therefore, the garden, to me, has no spiritual content because I, the observer, didn't give it any.

Someone sitting next to me might find great spirituality in the same garden at the same time.

It's like Schroedinger's Cat: the garden both does and does not have a spiritual content at any given moment.

Until it is observed.

IMHO... :-)

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 10:16AM
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Is it possible to make a garden without a spiritual content? Yes, because one cant "make" the spiritual content. It happens, or doesnÂt happen, within the imagination of the observer.

I confess that I donÂt "get" Zen gardens and I have tried. Give me mossy stepping stones, and changing vistas any day. So, my personal response is not to feel a spiritual connection to a Zen garden. But I understand that other people have a profound response. My point is that a spiritual content or lack of it is individual and comes from inside us. The garden itself is just plants, rocks, earth, etc.

Imagine that an architect who is also an atheist designs a cathedral. Many people may come and feel a spiritual connection to the place. But what does he/she feel? A simple appreciation for the aesthetics? Is that devoid of spiritual content?

Laag - you can get rid of the lady in the hard hat. I almost never see ads because I installed Adaware and the Google taskbar, both free. They catch about 98% of the adds. Here is a link to a thread about Pop-Ups.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 10:48AM
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Kendall H Brown wrote an article about the Miller Japanese Garden in Southern California, that is used extensively for weddings. (He calls this a Japanese 'style' garden rather than a Japanese garden which may be a topic for a separate discussion.) The interesting thing about the reasons given for choosing this garden and not say, a restaurant or an 'English style' garden is how many of the brides refer to spirituality. One example "the garden is a spiritual, sacred, holy place; it is Eden spiritually but is not connected to any particular religion. It is inviting, not excluding." Interesting.

Although materialists may claim that a waterfall is only water falling over rocks our reaction to it may not be fully explained by what we see. Why do the brides in the Miller garden find it "spiritual", surely not to cover up their lack of understanding that what they experience is really only "physical objects arranged on the ground."

Once again let me say that I am using 'spiritual' to mean "relating to or affecting the human spirit" so while an atheist might deny the existence of God, God and spiritual are not reckoned to be the same.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 11:42AM
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based on inkognito's definition, all sensory input to the human (spirit) affects or relates to or with humans. We're hardwired that way.
The alternative is to be deaf, dumb or blind, lack physical feeling (wind etc.), smell, appendages, or to have a particular lobe of the brain in-activated as was done in sanitariums circa mid-1800's to 1950's +-.
Not sure what is meant by the 'as opposed to material or physical things'.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 12:03PM
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Me neither, that's why I left it off the second time round.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 12:07PM
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Glad to see some discussion, and I find myself seeing good points in all the comments. Personally, the reason I turned my yard into a Japanese-style garden was because I think a garden in that style tends to produce a feeling of calm for most folks, me included. In a stressful world, we all need something like that. So that's gardening for me- it's a source of relaxation and enjoyment as a hobby. It's also a vehicle to exercise whatever skills one has- and that includes using individual knowledge about that style of gardening, exercising one's aesthetic talents (whatever that may be) in rock and shrub arrangements, etc. So if these things qualify one as doing something "spiritual", I'm guess I'm included.
I agree with inkognito that such a view need not include traditional religious associations. For many Japanese, it probably wouldn't.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 1:31PM
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If I understand yojimbo correctly, "spiritual" need not necessarily equate with "religious". I consider myself "spiritual" (what gardener isn't?), but definitely am not religious.

Is my garden spiritual? I put my heart and soul into it. But would someone else recognize me in it? Dunno

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 5:34PM
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Now here is the thing 8, you get to decide. There is no scale. If you put your heart and soul into your garden then there it is your heart and soul and that works for me.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 6:10PM
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"...tends to produce a feeling of calm for most folks"

Why is that?

I agree that this is true.

Does it come from the spirit of those that put thegarden together? Does it come from their gods?

Perhaps it comes from an understanding of People and observation of how they are affected by various elements in the garden.

The thing that I always find somewhat amusing is that people of most any culture experience this same calm with Japanese Gardens. This in itself should tell us that the Japanese culture has nothing to do with this reaction, yet a great deal of people pursue every bit of understanding of the culture and collection of artifacts to try and affect their ability to enjoy and create Japanese Gardens. Is there not some validity to that?

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 8:17PM
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Zone8 Grandma(love some of these names): I certainly believe "spiritual" does not necessarily equate to "religious", yes. So do others here. Actually, though, that was a straw argument from the beginning, as nobody suggested they were
the same :-).

Sometimes, however, folks who want to remind us of such distinctions might have another agenda in mind. I suspect some are looking for validation that gardening requires, if not a traditional religious aspect, maybe at least a belief that one's rocks, ornaments and so on are "alive" and give off "energy", in an animistic sense (which is also a traditional religious belief, but I digress). I am starting a new thread soon on this topic, as animisim is a topic seldom dissected for relevance in these types of gardens. It should make for a good discussion, so look for it soon, I'm just lazy getting a good starter comment going right now :-)
Later, Jim

    Bookmark   August 29, 2007 at 9:16PM
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Are there other types of gardens or landscapes that bring on this sense of spiritual calm, or is it limited to Japanese Gardens?

If there are, are there similar physical qualities that we can observe that might be the root of this "spiritual" effect?

    Bookmark   August 30, 2007 at 7:20AM
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laag asks: "Does it come from the spirit of those that put the garden together? Does it come from their gods?"

I'm glad you asked that question. For me, it's a remarkable thing; the kami directly rain down transcendental calm on me for no reason. I'm not sure why Japanese kami have concentrated their efforts on a white guy in Colorado with an obviously imitation Japanese garden, so go figure...

Just kidding, I wanted to see if you were actually reading this. More seriously, I don't think either of your options is my case. I have a simpler explanation, just a desire for some greenery that allows an escape from the local urban sprawl (not to mention rush hour commutes daily). Japanese gardens do this for many folks, but so do other types of gardening, so one important point is that in no way is a "Japanese-motiff" required. I should mention water features here, because the sound of water contributes greatly to that sense of calm for many of us, in my case a pond w/ small waterfall and also a spicket arrangement. Folks shouldn't underestimate the benefits of water features, although that statement should come with a warning that (especially pond) maintenence is fairly high :-).
But there's nothing magical about "Japanese"-style arrangements in this respect. Some folks get the same satisfaction growing flowers. And you don't need a Japanese garden to have water features, certainly (even with koi).
Garden satisfaction has nothing to do with a particular culture.
Which is why it's rather strange to continually see folks attach some special spiritual significance to Japanese motiffs, even Japanese plants, as if there is something magical about using plants that aren't native to your area...
People are funny. I think we can say it's that old psychological phenomenon that the grass always seems greener on the other side.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2007 at 10:24AM
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I'm not sure if you are talking about the feeling caused by being in the garden or the "gardening" aspect.

It seems to me that Japanese Gardens are much more often described as peaceful than others. I think there is something to that which is fairly universally accepted. It is almost a standard reaction as far as I can tell.

If that is not the case, then my questions are moot. But, I think more people would agree with the notion that "peaceful" is a standard reaction. If it is, what creates this?

    Bookmark   August 30, 2007 at 5:14PM
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You ask very good questions Andrew and if we could move away from the cynical agenda that I detect this could became an interesting topic. I say this because I am not sure that you are totally open and Jim certainly isn't. You could do some research on your own and read David Slawsons book for a start but I think you will find that historically nature was viewed as a friend by the Japanese but as a foe by western cultures (broad I know). Paradise was a garden for ancient Persians but needed to be fenced off from wild nature, the inspiration being otherworldly. Cutting a thousand pages from this explanation: if a garden (a man made thing) makes us feel comfortable it is because it has interpreted nature in a non threatening way.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2007 at 5:38PM
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What is it about Japanese gardens per se that creates this peaceful sense of calm? A simple answer might be, the arrangements perhaps provoke a feeling of being part of Nature, which several folks here have already noted.

One Japanese garden motiff, for example, is to re-create a "forest" scene, which many would find relaxing.

Again, I would say the "urban vs. natural" consideration is one way of explaining why Japanese gardens are popular.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2007 at 5:38PM
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I'm not being cynical.

The second thing that people apparently perceive consistantly about Japanese Gardens is that they are more natural. A closer look might reveal some things very unnatural about them.

The Zen Gardens of rock grouping and raked stone - more natural? The intense pruning of plants - more natural than an overgrown rhododendron and yew foundation planting or a pastoral English 18th century landscape?

Stone lanterns, foot bridges (flat of course rather than those Chinese arched ones), bamboo wee-wee spouts, and moon gates more natural than a cottage garden?

I think it is something else. I think the constant is balance whether it is an intensely pruned "natural" landcape with the various pines, maples, azaleas, etc,... or the gravel field with rock formation. Maybe that balance is what gives us that universal "peaceful" and maybe it is a "spiritual" balance and I have difficulty with the term "spiritual". In any case, it is visual and it is real - as far as I can tell.

I think the more complicated they get, as long as that balance is maintained, the more peaceful they get. I think that the sense of peace comes from our observation that so much is going on within the landscape that it should be chaotic and because it is not, we find it calming.

It is like putting a big fat guy on one end of a see-saw, and finding a way to balance out the other side with nothing that resembles that sort of bulk. Maybe extending the other side to add more torque, making the seat out of stone, sitting a iny little girl on it with a bucket of water, ... it could be anything as long as the collective balances out the fat guy.

This is why I think so many attempts at JGs fail terribly. The people see the pieces and duplicate those pieces, but what they miss is the balance. They miss that the little yellow plant 4'away lessens the strength of the huge Crimson Queen specimen maple, and the five rocks that look like they are retaining the edge of the path are adding to that counter affect, and ..... until what we think is the central focal point has been mitigated to the point where it is no longer the focal point ... it just is. Yet, we know it is there, it is red, and it is big, so it must be the focal point.

We get hung up in the inventory and miss the the trick of that balance. We see the fat guy and we see the little girl, but we missed the longer seat, the stone seat, and the bucket of water leaving us with the feeling that for the see-saw to balance it must be magic.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Spend more time looking and less time listening (reading is listening with your eyes). Now you have me quoting Eastern philosophers!

    Bookmark   August 30, 2007 at 11:26PM
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Inky: "...You ask very good questions Andrew and if we could move away from the cynical agenda that I detect this could became an interesting topic. I say this because I am not sure that you are totally open and Jim certainly isn't."

I certainly sense a negative spirit toward anything I write from you, Inky, and I'm not sure why. Is it because my own views are different than yours? Is the point of this forum to get everyone to agree with you, and if they have other views, they're not "open"? That's not a very "spiritual" attitude... At any rate, please exercise some tolerance for views other than your own; continual snippity comments don't really help disussions.

My own personal observation has already clearly been stated; at this point anyway, and my views always are evolving, I see that matter of "spirituality" being an individual human perception, and it will vary depending on the person doing the viewing. If that is "close-minded", I fail to see why. Maybe you can enlighten me, Ink. If you feel there is something magical about Japanese gardens in themselves, it's up to you to elaborate your own views, not take personal attacks on others. At least with others, they're offering something. Laag informs us, for instance, that the Japanese aesthetic concerning techniques like forcing diminishing perspective off of prominent features perhaps contributes to the overall enjoyment of the Japanese garden, and I think such contributions make us think in a new light. How about you? Can you offer a different perspective than mine that will actually consist of something beyond snipping at my posts? Thanks!

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 10:25AM
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I don't see where I have made any personal attacks Jim to be honest. The tone of your posts does not show an openness to the question at hand, is what I am saying, note for instance the way you have subtly substituted 'magical' for spiritual above. What this means is that you come across as wanting to ridicule, (see again the 'joke' contained in yesterdays post at 10:24) and not to be "enlightened" as you put it. This is a big subject that I have considered over a number of years but I don't think I have any more to contribute to this particular style of enquiry.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 1:48PM
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No Jim, Ink knows me well (that is how you know my name). I can be quite cynical at times. He is a good guy and contributes greatly on these forums. I think people read things into his writing style that are not intended. Let's not digress from what appears to be the first meaningful long thread on this board in a long time.

It is good to be held accountable in our ideas in order to add depth to the discussion. It certainly made me delve more deeply into my own perception of what is and is not spiritual and feel that I am more inclined to believe that I go through something spiritual than I was before expressing my thoughts more deeply.

I appreciate that.

But, it still is a visual art derived from observation and understanding of the visual qualities of what we work. Knowing all else will result in failure without that observation and understanding of the physical.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 5:26PM
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Thank you laag, you may safely add diplomacy to your list of talents. You are right in saying that what moves us is a visual art that exists in real time and space and if I read you right it is also clear (?) that the reason why and how it moves us is what we are talking about here. We seem to be in agreement that there is an inherent calm or tranquility in a Japanese garden (as an archetype). What we are not in agreement or clear on is whether this is a tangible thing like balance or some other thing that is difficult to name. It has been suggested that this thing might be of the spirit therefore beyond reason (or not understandable by logical means) and this is where we get stuck. Do you agree?

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 6:39PM
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I agree. Except that I contend that when we get stuck not finding out an answer, we, as humans, have then to attribute our inability to understand it to a higher power lest we have to confess that we don't get it.

Maybe the ability to "get it" can be considered a higher consciousness, or a gift. But then being really good at math may fall into that category as well.

I used to go back and forth with the MohaveKid on the design forum. He took my belief in understanding things based on reason as being stiff and technical with a total lack of artistry. I really don't mean that at all. It is very difficult to communicate what I do mean as I have been trying to for several years now.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2007 at 10:14PM
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If we are to assume that our garden will have the power to calm (this being the desired effect, apparently) if we only figure out what the formula is, balance asymmetry or some other logically explained physical phenomenon, it follows that we only need to know what that formula is to repeat this process. If we can establish that this formula works regardless of materials used or where they are used we can use it without reference to any cultural baggage, symbols or historical knowledge. Personally I think there is more to it, although I am not convinced that the 'more' is totally spiritual I do believe it is an element that cannot be ignored.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2007 at 11:16AM
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I think one feature of Japanese gardens that contributes to the feeling of serenity is the sense of otherworldliness and timelessness. You are not looking at signage and advertising, trashcans, sidewalks, cars, the usual 20th-21st century clutter.

But not all J. gardens instill this feeling. There is a garden associated with a Japanese restaurant near me that is awful. It may have been wonderful when it was first built - many large boulders, a winding path, garden wall with a tiled roof - but it is neglected, weedy, dusty, and sad now. They installed silly, not-to-scale bridges and pagodas. I don't even like to look at it.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2007 at 11:40AM
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Another piece of evidence that says it is not the "what", but the "how", I would say to the x-orphan.

Ink, think of the great composers of classical music played by large orchaestras. These are extremely complicated compilations of different instruments playing different notes making a whole that all works together. The knowledge and understanding of the music is what makes it work. Is there a recipe that those composers can jot down so everyone can do it. Not without mastering the understanding first.

It is the same with complicated Japanese Gardens. That is why we are in awe of them - they are so complicated that we can't all follow what is happening. We see parts of it, but seldom all of it.

There are a ton of books written by people, many of whom may see more parts of it than others and others of whom see not so much at all. Then people read these books and latch on to what is described by the author. I wonder how many fixate on those things to the point where they no longer search for what the author might not have seen.

There are more Japanese Gardens built with very poor composition by many people giving it their best shot. Many have all the gadgets and icons, but they lack the "spirit". More is done by imitation than by well thought out composition from what I see. Others are really good.

I for one, don't like anything made out of bamboo. I think it looks like hell. I don't care if it is traditional. I think it is the railroad tie of Asia. They used it because it was practical in my opinion. Others feel like adding something of bamboo enriches the spirit of the Japanese Garden and makes it better. Does it make it better because it looks better or because it scores more Japanese points? I'm not sure.

I don't like to hammer other people's work, especially because I seldom post my own. But we all have seen people throw a few rocks into a field of gravel and rake it. It is like splatting paint and comparing it to Jackson Pollack. Its is made the same way, but it is not close to the same. The only way to determine why is to pick it apart every way we can in order to resolve what it is about the authentic that makes it wonderful and what it is about the attempted copy that falls short. But as soon as you do that you are considered mean, snarky, a troll, and getting off on making other people miserable.

One would think that people in pursuit of having their own JG are after that "spiritual" feeling. I wonder how many feel that spirit from their attempts.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2007 at 5:57PM
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I believe very important considerations have been left out in these discussions that center around the term "spiritual". One crucial point is that that "spiritual" is a very vague term. This isn't really under debate, it is self-evident to all here. Many on any side of the fence have already noted the problem of defining that term that would satisfy hardly anyone. Since everyone will see such a vague term differently, I suggest something here that hasn't been appreciated, but maybe it is time. And that is, discussions using the word "spiritual" never seem to go anywhere. Evidence of that is easy to find- just peruse the history of this particular forum. Not only has there never been any real agreement on what a "spiritual" garden means, the discussions usually end up with all sides saying, "okay, fine, you believe your way and I'll believe mine". This, folks, is fruitless. So is playing amateur psychologist and trying to guess if other posters are "close-minded" if they have a different viewpoint than oneself. Such games are obviously absurd when one insists on using nebulous, ill-defined terms oneself. :-) Think about it.

In a positive spirit, wouldn't it be better to ditch all such nebulous terms altogether and focus on avenues that revolve around the particular aesthetics of Japanese gardening, such as the sabi-wabi element. There's simply no need to fight over what "spiritual" means, and if we continue that route, we're going nowhere. Again, look over old threads in this forum and see if I'm psychic here :-).

Let's keep the discussion squarely on gardening- if you feel there is something special about Japanese gardening that may be unique among all types of world gardening, I'm in agreement. Let's sort out what makes Japanese gardens special, and axe the psychological analysis of each other (as perfect strangers, to boot!)

Some of you are getting to these aesthetics that are particularly Japanese, which perhaps are crucial to the feeling of "calm" we talked about earlier, and that are felt by everyone around the world when they view Japanese gardens. And I suggest the wabi-sabi element is a big part of this. I will elaborate some of my feelings in a bit. For now, sighing off.
Regards, Jim "spiritual is my own way"

    Bookmark   September 3, 2007 at 3:20PM
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How about filling me in on what wabi-sabi is. I thought it was Tequilla sold by Sammy Hagar, perhaps I was wrong.

    Bookmark   September 3, 2007 at 7:30PM
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Wabi/Sabi: sounds like a good name for a Star Wars character to me, maybe fighting bad guys from the Dark Side. Let's forget George Lucas for the time being, though, and look at some dictionary definitions. This from the Wikipedia (slightly rearranged), although not comprehensive it gives the feeling of the terms:

"The words wabi and sabi do not translate easily. Wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; sabi meant "chill", "lean" or "withered". Around the 14th century these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations. Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs. According to Koren, wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty and it "occupies roughly the same position in the Japanese pantheon of aesthetic values as do the Greek ideals of beauty and perfection in the West." Andrew Juniper claims, "if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi." Richard R. Powell summarizes by saying "It (wabi-sabi) nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."

More specifically relevant to gardens, the sabi-wabi aesthetic is readily apparent in Japanese gardens. One example would be the minimal use of colorful, gaudy ornamental plants in the garden; bright perennials, for instance, are seldom seen in traditional gardens. It's a distaste for the gaudy and ornamental. Sure, azaleas and other blooming shrubs provide seasonal color, but it is always short-lived, very temporary.
Another example is the eventual historical discarding of colorful Chinese elements in Japanese gardens, such as the bright red-laquered bridges one often sees in oriental gardens in general. As the JoJG has long noted, the use of red laquer continued to be de-emphasized as the truly Japanese esthetic took over in garden development and the preferred Japanese preference for subdued elements came to the fore.
These are only a couple examples to get folks thinking of more. It's a broad topic :-)

    Bookmark   September 4, 2007 at 10:13AM
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Hello, earth to jimbo, come in Jim. It is difficult for me to take what you write seriously when you claim that 'spiritual' is an ill defined concept in reference to what makes a Japanese garden special and offer up 'wabi-sabi' as an alternative. Especially when one of your pundits uses the word to describe Wabi-sabi ("a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing"). As for the red bridge nonsense: puhleeze. Strange also that in your explanation of what wabi-sabi there is no mention of Zen Buddhism. There is so much to criticize in what you write it is difficult to imagine your agenda "Sure, azaleas and other blooming shrubs provide seasonal color, but it is always short-lived, very temporary." may actually be the point that proves the opposite of what you say.

    Bookmark   September 6, 2007 at 6:25PM
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Ink asks: "Is it possible to make a garden (Japanese) without spiritual content?"

As a long time student of Japanese art, gardens and writings I will timidly poke a toe into this discussion. My answer to your question, Ink, is...yes.

To be a garden the design must reach more than the eye. It must reach the heart...the center. It must leave things unsaid, hinting at the full circle of experience. The maker of such a garden must feel the 'spirit' of each animate and inanimate object placed within the garden and how they interact with each other and the Oneness of all things. The garden maker is also a part of the garden which sprouts, blooms, seeds, withers and returns to the earth. If the maker does not understand the circle of life it is not a garden with spirit. Rather, it is a design, a facsimile without spirit.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2007 at 8:35AM
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Ink et al,

While your goal seems to oppose whatever I write, I do aim to "unpack" some vague assertions on this topic (by perhaps you, me and others), and so I welcome all comments from all sides.
And any exchanges are better than silence in these forums, so please criticize as you like. Your assumptions above I will take a piece at a time and and examine with the help of the group, it should be instructive as we weigh in on some assumptions :-).
I'll start with your assumptions about red lacquer in another post; I'm rather surprised you're surprised by this, it's something you will have a hard time justifying.
But whatever, like I say, any exchanges are better than none and we do indeed have lots to clear up.
I'll post more on the gaudy theme in a bit. Later, Jim

    Bookmark   September 7, 2007 at 1:00PM
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I agree with what you say Nandina, in a nutshell are you saying that it is more about the how than the what? Perhaps 'heart' is a more palatable word for what we are talking about. In that case this is not strictly a Japanese phenomenon although for some reason we go looking for it there, or at least in a Japanese garden. So if a garden touches the heart it has little to do with lanterns or bridges but something else.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2007 at 4:15PM
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Okay, more time now...let's get down to "where the rubber meets the road" on this particular issue of whether red bridges (and bright structures and ornaments in general) define a developing Japanese garden aesthetic; is opposition to this view a wrong perception as Inky seems to imply (and others? All please feel free to comment!)...

I've already stated the general premise above. Let me repeat it here: "Another example is the eventual historical discarding of colorful Chinese elements in Japanese gardens, such as the bright red-laquered bridges one often sees in oriental gardens in general. As the JoJG has long noted, the use of red laquer continued to be de-emphasized as the truly Japanese esthetic took over in garden development and the preferred Japanese preference for subdued elements came to the fore."

While the above is my own summary, I should point out the sentiments expressed are hardly my own. If one goes to virtually any credible Japanese garden site, one will notice a characteristic of Japanese gardens as having subdued emphasis on bright colors (i.e., as part of the sabi/wabi aesthetic, actually, but here we're discussing only one aspect of it). The traditional approach, in fact, aims for mainly a monochrome scene of various shades of green via the heavy use of evergreens/conifers (although allowing for seasonal colors, of course).
For instance, here is a typical comment I pulled at random off a website: "The Japanese Garden as we see it today is most often a monochrome one, in which moss, grasses, shrubs and trees present both subtle and wide-ranging gradations of green, gray and silver tones.The predominant use of evergreen shrubs and trees represent eternal rather than transient beauty." The use of bight colors, such as red-lacquered temples, bridges, and so forth, actually comes from China, and these are representative of an (old) period of Japanese history where Chinese aesthetics were held in high regard, i.e., before the Heian Period. During the Heian Period and onward, however, a native cultural reconstruction began occuring. As esteem for Chinese culture waned, a truly Japanese aesthetics gradually came to the fore, more properly reflecting Japanese tastes and sensibilities. (Actually, this aesthetic difference between the two cultures of China and Japan can even be readily seen today- just notice the tremendous differences between Chinese decor and Japanese decor for the home...Chinese ornaments tend to be highly colorful, while their Japanese counterparts are much more subdued).

I would point out here that a developing purely-Japanese aesthetic gaining popularity over old Chinese models from the Heian Period onward is hardly a controversial topic; anyone familiar with feudal developments in Japan will not see it as a debatable topic. For instance, from a Columbia.edu site: "Toward the end of the eighth century, the Emperor and his court chose a new site for the capital in central Japan and built a city surrounded by beautiful mountains. The new city was called Heian-kyô, "the capital of tranquility." (It has become the modern city of Kyôto.) During the Heian period (794-1185), named after this city, the country really was at peace, and the aristocrats of the Imperial Court spent much of their time creating a classical culture that still lives today. The Japanese had imported many things from China in the few preceding centuries - Buddhism, Confucianism, poetry (and the language, Chinese, in which poems were recorded), art techniques, methods of organizing government, even the plan for the city of Heian-kyô itself. But as the Heian period progressed, the Japanese took less and less from China, concentrating instead on integrating what they had learned so that it fit their country, their values, and their attitudes. Just as the symmetrical grid arrangement of the streets of the new city gave way to an asymmetrical form, Chinese imports were altered and grew in particularly Japanese ways. The culture that flourished in the tenth and eleventh centuries was dominated by aesthetic concerns and produced art and literature that continues to influence Japanese society and the way Japanese perceive the world."
Now, let's talk briefly about applying these aesthetics to Japanese gardening, per se. Anyone who wants to view what the Journal of Japanese Gardening thinks about the topic of gaudy red lacquered structures can read, for example, the article on Garden Myths ("Gaudy Red Bridges") in the May/June 1998 issue. Here's a summary of that article: "While red bridges do exist in some gardens in Japan, traditional Japanese aesthetics honor more natural wood bridges weathered naturally."
(The topic of mature-period Japanese preference for natural aged wood vs. brightly-painted structures is a topic in itself, maybe we'll get into some of these side-issues later).

Of course, there is an easy way to ignore all these comments (which are almost universally recognized).
And that is, make snide comments and do the usual hack job ragarding the views of the editors of JoJG, as if most readers here are free to ignore professional opinions from authors who have apprenticed in Japan:-)). But hey, I don't always agree with some of Douglas's views too, so I'll cut some slack on disagreement, although the difference between, say, Inky and I, is that I do respect the viewpoint of JoJG as knowledgeable, professional opinion.

At any rate, that is a summary of the (orthodox)view. We can go into as much historical detail as we need to to develop these themes. If Inky or others disagree, that is fine, I realize we have a wide divergence of views here.
But you *must* develop your criticisms- for example, Inky's weak comment above ("As for the red bridge nonsense: puhleeze.") is hardly adequate.

So, Ink, the ball is squarely in *your* court now. I've stated the orthodox historical view above. It's on your shoulders to show us why it's "nonsense"...
Good luck. Regards, Jim

    Bookmark   September 7, 2007 at 5:43PM
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We had moved on jim, sorry you missed it, Nandina offered an interesting perspective that came from her heart and offered up an original take on the subject. Note that we are talking about garden making and what makes or gives a garden a quality that inspires calm. I think we can say that this quality is difficult to pin point but worth the effort "To be a garden the design must reach more than the eye" is profound, thank you for that Anne.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2007 at 6:13PM
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Ink: "We had moved on jim, sorry you missed it..."

Heh, I expected this.
Even though you failed to address A SINGLE POINT of my description above, the failure really does speak volumes...

No wonder this group has basically spun it wheels for years arguing about "spirituality". I'm beginning to wonder if some of you even DO Japanese gardening, and perhaps your major endevour in this area is get on a bunch of chat groups and chat about your feelings. It's hard to take you seriously anymore, Inky, I see you're here to indulge the group with your own spiritual fantasies, not talk about reality concerning Japanese culture in any depth. I differ quite a bit from this supposed "spirituality"- I actually DO garden and a couple of my recent pics are here for all to see. Criticisms are welcome, as long as they are constructive, but I won't sit back and take personal snips as constructive. How about you in this regard, Inky? Got any pics of your own work? I promise I won't make a single judgement about them- I merely want to see some evidence you do more than chat on garden groups...(And so yet again, the ball is squarely in your court, don't fumble this one...)

Nandina- (great, I'm now talking to a plant)-
You write: "To be a garden the design must reach more than the eye. It must reach the heart...the center. It must leave things unsaid, hinting at the full circle of experience. The maker of such a garden must feel the 'spirit' of each animate and inanimate object placed within the garden and how they interact with each other and the Oneness of all things. The garden maker is also a part of the garden which sprouts, blooms, seeds, withers and returns to the earth. If the maker does not understand the circle of life it is not a garden with spirit. Rather, it is a design, a facsimile without spirit."

The biological cycle you mention is appreciated by lots of folks; even if people haven't heard Elton John sing the song, the "circle of life" is something most every gardener experiences as their plants grow, shed, and regenerate, and maybe expire more than we want. Under that description, I am a spiritual gardener...and you guys shouldn't be picking on me. :-)

However, such a description is too vague for me to get much out of it. Your description, in fact, applies to *any* conscientious gardener. As a gardener myself who tries my very best to design and maintain the best I know how (given my own limits of skill and imagination), I certainly don't see my garden as necessarily relegated to your description as merely a "design, a facsimile without spirit". Can you elaborate more on what a "facsimile" garden is, and why any gardener would admit to it?
Thanks, Jim :-)

    Bookmark   September 7, 2007 at 7:19PM
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That is a really good way of putting it. As someone who was not brought up with religion, I have great difficulty with some of these spiritual things. It is not that I want to reject them, but it is much like many of you might feel if someone were to try and convert you to worship Zeus, Mercury, and such. It might sound interesting, but you would not really buy into it.

That aside, I completely understand your statements "The maker of such a garden must feel the 'spirit' of each animate and inanimate object placed within the garden and how they interact with each other and the Oneness of all things. The garden maker is also a part of the garden which sprouts, blooms, seeds, withers and returns to the earth." and although I would not take these literally, I agree with it.

The question comes back to this. What gives you that feeling? How is it that you feel that spirit? What would keep you from having that ability to feel it?

Surprise, surprise, I feel it. I've felt it very strongly since I was about 21 or so. I remember when this started happening in a big way. It was the summer after I had done my sophomore year in landscape architecture (1983).

I had a year of plant design theory and was only buying about half of it when I went home for the summer to landscape with my father. My father was a very artistic and used rock gardens as his medium. He did amazing stuff.

When I was in class and the professor would say you need to do this or you need to do that I would think "BS, my father does not do that and everyone loves his work. The Prof would say you can't do this and you can't do that. I would again think "BS, my father does that all the time".

Well, the revelation came when I got back and started helping him with these gardens as I and my two brothers did all of our lives. None of us seemed to have this gift that my father did even though we helped him year after year. I started to pick apart his compositions, figuratively of course, based upon the theory that I had learned. Well, it was pretty easy for me to understand that they did match up with the theory that I had learned, although in much less obvious ways. All of a sudden, I could begin to do the same thing that my father was doing. I had the "gift".

The "gift" was derived from understanding. Feeling came from that understanding (and about three years of one on one tutoring that I got from that point on).

The understanding was from design theory and having been very fortunate to have the opportunity to be working with someone who had a very artistic application of these theories. By the way, he was educated in horticulture and design in Europe prior to WWII, so he was not pulling these things from his tail feathers either.

You can have all the wasabi you want, but you'll get nowhere until you understand what the heck is going on between those plants and everything else in that garden. Then you'll feel it.

I guess that really is "spiritual".

    Bookmark   September 7, 2007 at 10:47PM
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There, you said it Andrew.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2007 at 7:44AM
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Andrew really did "say it", but there's actually a tremendous gulf between the implications of the comments he made and your own (lack of)content, Inky...and I see we'll never have any evidence you yourself do this kind of gardening...typical. Basically, responding to you is a waste of my time.

Thanks, Andrew, for a nice post. I actually agree with what you wrote (surprise to no one, really, except Inky...)
We can get somewhere with this kind of unpacking of terms.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2007 at 9:33AM
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To yojimbo - You write..."Nandina,(great, I am now talking to a plant)-". I chuckle for Nandina is in truth the last leaf on the the maple tree twisting in autumn winds, waiting to fall, completing the circle. We use the term 'spirit of a garden" not in a religious tone but rather as a contempletive mood induced by the gardener's understanding of the rules coupled with self discipline, as Laag describes so well. I cannot help you with your discovery trip for it is a journey that each of us has to take alone. For every question posed the teacher will appear. First, one must find the right questions to ask. That is the difficult part in the travels through life where one attempts to become 'centered' and when this happens the creative spirit flows.

To Laag- FYI and off topic. I find in my father's files an exchange of letters between himself and Fletcher Steele written in the early 1940's. They served together on the New England Rock Garden Society Board of Directors. The two of them worked to build a strong organization and aided the parent national group to produce its own publication devoted to rock gardening. I suspect our fathers knew each other. Did you know that a book is presently being written about the outstanding horticulturists/designers of New England concentrating on those located in and around southern New England, the Cape and Islands?

    Bookmark   September 8, 2007 at 1:02PM
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I did not know of the book. Thanks for that info.

Oddly enough, I googled the New England Rock Garden Society last night for the first time.

My father did not get here until 1954.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2007 at 1:54PM
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Ink is a good guy, maybe a little bristtly, but you have to admit he was a strong catalyst in getting both you and me to think a lot deeper on the subject and to work on expressing it. You don't have to like him, but you have to admit he makes you think.

I like him. You may find it easier to knock the edges of off his way of expressing himself by doing what I do. I apply the Travelocity Travelling Gnome's accent to his posts. Then they don't get you ruffled.

It is better to be inspired to discuss than not to be. You have to admit that he inspires. And he happens to be a successful professional designer as well, for the record.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2007 at 2:03PM
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Don't I, as the gnome, get run over by a double decker bus Andrew? This is even funnier than the guy who said that I speak like Mr Bean, who doesn't speak and I have never been guilty of that.

    Bookmark   September 8, 2007 at 5:08PM
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All in good fun Tony. I have not seen any tv commercials of him in 3 years as I don't have cable. The dish is arriving on Monday, though. I only hear commercials on the radio.

It is not me who is trying to throw you under the bus!

    Bookmark   September 8, 2007 at 5:49PM
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Nandina- I was actually thinking of nandina domestica so often seen in Japanese gardens...but at least I got you in the plant kingdom correctly... :-). As far as the "circle of life" (tm)is concerned, though, it honestly makes me think of Disney movies more than garden applications, but that's just me. However, we do realize, don't we, that such terms are OF OUR OWN MAKING, and aren't used by native Japanese gardeners? If so, I'd think it might be more productive on a "Japanese garden forum" to actually use terms used by Japanese themselves to define their own aesthetics. But take that suggestion for what it cost you...i.e., free.

Laag- Strangely, I seem to appreciate Inky the gnome getting thrown under the bus more than Inky does, I'm not sure why...but thanks! It's indeed a fine metaphor and we have you to thank for it :-). As I see it, we're in an on-going battle between good and evil, light and dark, commons sense and Inky's virtual reality of Japanese gardening, and the world is hanging in the balance. As for Inky being "inspirational", I don't think that's the first word that came to my mind, go figure...He may indeed be a professional landscaper (which in itself doesn't mean much in a specifically Japanese skill-set context), but I looked in vain through some of his past posting to see indications he was merely trying to draw people out, yank our chains, etc. While this is undoubtably part of it, I truly believe Inky believes the New Age mush he spits out regularly. You see, he has a long history of similar sentiments. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Inky truly believed in making his garden as gaudy as possible, and I can readily visualize fountains spraying jets in his pond, plastic pink flamingos on the shore, red Chinese lanterns hanging on the deck, etc. :-))))

Yes, it's sad, but what can we do? Get sunglasses? :-)

    Bookmark   September 9, 2007 at 3:27AM
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I'm not interested in Japanese terms unless they are necessary to understand earthly design principles, to be quite honest.

I think that the most disappointing thing about discussing Japanese Gardens is that the longer it gets discussed the further it gets from design principles that we can all strive to understand and the more it goes into the introduction of philosophies and what not that really don't tell where to put the rock and where to put the plant.

I really don't beieve that a person putting together a JG is consciously thinking about any of that. "I'll twist the rock three degrees to the left because four generations ago the Zens had a falling out with the Shintos and ...".

    Bookmark   September 9, 2007 at 6:53PM
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laag writes: "I'm not interested in Japanese terms unless they are necessary to understand earthly design principles, to be quite honest. I think that the most disappointing thing about discussing Japanese Gardens is that the longer it gets discussed the further it gets from design principles that we can all strive to understand and the more it goes into the introduction of philosophies and what not that really don't tell where to put the rock and where to put the plant."

I certainly agree terminology gets one nowhere. In that respect, there's no need to memorize a bunch of Japanese or English terms. However, we must be careful here, lest we begin to say there's no need to understand the cultural aesthetics. This, if one thinks about attempting to create a "Japanese"-style garden, would be absurd. What I was getting at earlier with the wabi-sabi routine is basically this requirement to get somewhat familiar with Japanese aesthetic preferences. Talking about the "circle of life", "oneness with your garden" and so on does little in this regard. At least when one brings up phrases actually used in Japanese culture, it reminds eveyone to think in terms of a mode that is consistent with the given culture.
And I'd argue that the consequences have very concrete applications. If one is totally unfamiliar with Japanese aesthetics, for example, one is likely to plant the wrong type of plants (and rocks) in a given arrangement, and the desired dynamic "feeling" particular to the Japanese style will be lost.

I suppose it is possible to design a small garden attempting to create the Japanese style, based on some book pics or something, without any knowledge (or regard) for the background aesthetics. But it wouldn't be a very convincing garden. And secondly, is anyone on this forum dumb enough to try Japanese-style gardening without any interest in the aesthetics whatsoever? Probably not, so it's really a moot point to argue about.

    Bookmark   September 10, 2007 at 10:19AM
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The aesthetic is what we are after. I think I explained it in the thread "revelation".

I don't have to know who invaded whom in the 13th century that might have influenced the garden makers. I don't need to know what they call their beliefs. All of that gets them to a mind set which makes them desire a certain result. We want the same result, so there is no necessity to pursue all of that. It is interesting and worthy stuff for discussion, but not what I'm interested in.

If the rock has to be alive in order for it assume its role, I want to know how you animate it and make it sit. That comes long after the philosophy is put to bed in my opinion.

I think it does not get talked about because it is not of interest to a lot of people who would rather study social studies than garden composition. Again, worthy stuff, but it won't get your garden built with the same effect.

    Bookmark   September 10, 2007 at 8:06PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

it does strike me that you are somewhat resistant to authority figures/teachers telling you what you should know, as witnessed by your story about your father and design school. In that story, if I recall it correctly, you ultimately did see that design theory as you had been resisting it in a classroom situation did have direct applications with what your father was doing, and you appreciated the fact that you were finally able to make the connections for yourself based on what you were resisting in class. Might not the Japanese design theories, nomenclature, historical context, etc also play a part in having a better understanding of the cultural context and influences on Japanese garden design? And even though you mostly feel that it is completely unnecessary to know all this to achieve your desired visual result, your own previous example would seem to imply that infact the process does rub off on the results, and widens your experiences sufficiently to allow greater understanding and perhaps even meaning to enter your designs. I don't think you can ever discount knowing the history and guiding principles of anything you hope to imitate. Or maybe it would be better to say your have designed gardens with an Asian flavor, as opposed to Japanese style, which does come with certain historical and cultural implications.

In my own case, I think direct exposure to great examples of such gardens here in California that include both older traditional approaches and modern takes on them help tremendously to appreciate the cultural influences on the style. I am sure that this would be further developed if I ever spent more time in Japan looking at gardens, rather than the limited several days in Tokyo and environs. I have seen some great Japanese style gardens in unlikely places such as tropical Malaysia and Singapore, and left me feeling that the exact plants are not the basis of JG design, but how they are arranged and manipulated in the landscape.

My own feeling on garden design of any style is that it is both a learned process that teaches by example and trial and error, and innate talents to express oneself artistically. In the case of garden design, it also helps tremendously if one knows how to make use of what each site has to offer, to avail oneself of the views, light conditions, planting possibilities within their climate, etc. And most emphatically, any garden design is really all about how space is used and manipulated to create an effect. In the Japanese style, it is also necessary to pare down the plant palette to the essentials, and make the parts subservient to the whole experience. Strength of form, and the abstraction of wilderness and great age seem inherent in the plant manipulation used to achieve these aspects.

As to Nandina's conclusions about representing the whole cycle of life and death as important aspects of JG design, this has never been apparent to me as a guiding principle. Maybe I am being too literal here, but the beginning and the end don't always seem well represented in a JG setting, it seems much more a case of abstracting nature and controlling it to give an illusion of great age, and then conscious control to maintain that point in time. In this respect, it has parallels with tropical garden design, in that the garden has great consistency in all seasons. In a tropical garden, it will be the consistency of year round summer and endless growth; in a JG, it will be the consistency of an abstracted nature and efforts to give the illusion of age and permanence. In neither style is it in fact the same all year round or year to year, but this is not the feeling we remember, but the consistency.

I would posit that when the design of any style garden is inherently pleasing, it achieves this both visually and as a comfortable and/or intriguing spatial setting, that engages our thoughts and emotions. I find my own interest in Japanese garden design primarily linked to explorations of how layering of plantings and strategic architextural elements can make small gardens seem much larger. This has direct applications for my own design practice in densely urban coastal California, where space is at a premium, yet great borrowed views and magical light are all around us, and available to be used creatively.

I find other aspects of JG design less fascinating, and have never quite understood how cloud pruning shrubs are thought to look in any way natural. The verdant green look also seems somewhat inappropriate for our local mediterranean conditions, and in direct contrast to our softly rolling hills and evergreen live oaks contrasted against summer golden grasses. As such, JG's only seem to work locally when they are self-contained, enclosed gardens that relate to creeks and watersheds here that are more woodsy and green.

    Bookmark   October 24, 2007 at 12:58PM
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In my bumbling way with words I was making reference to the life and death cycle of the gardener, not the JG garden itself. Perhaps when you reach the octogenarian years as I have and review your design experience my words may make sense. I concur with what you have written above. As you have walked some JG gardens do you get the sense of 'one upmanship'? The masculine desire to have more toys, more convoluted shaping and pruning for others to envy which take the garden far beyond the natural world?

    Bookmark   October 26, 2007 at 8:30AM
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Sorry, my above message was addressed to Bahai, not Laag. But, I do like the latter's thoughts, also.

    Bookmark   October 26, 2007 at 8:34AM
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