Monthly Archives: June 2013

Tibetan Buddhist Peace Garden in London

¬†Interesting that it is quite possible to do a good design which is also the wrong design. This is what I think happened in the case of Hamish Horsley’s 1999 design for the Tibetan Peace Garden beside the Imperial War Museum, as explained in the video. Part of the problem is the small scale and obscure location of the Peace Garden vis-a-vis the War Museum. Surely we all prefer peace to war and to not want to see peace tucked away in a convenient, if noisy, corner. I think the scale problem could still be resolved, and cheaply, by placing prayer flag high in the trees – to let them waft their prayers for peace to every corner of the globe.

Mandalas in garden and landscape design

This video is an attempt to involve the forces of nature in making and un-making a ‘flower and sand’ mandala pattern.
Mandalas are diagrams which help explain, in Giuseppe Tucci’s phrase, ‘the geography of the cosmos’. Buddhist mandalas explain the Dharma – the Buddha’s teaching. It is both a philosophical system and a course of action. Sand mandalas are made in Tibet, as part of a monk’s training – and then ‘ritually destroyed’. The outer region of a mandala represents the world and the universe – samsara. It is impermanent. The inner region of a mandala represents nirvana – an ideal condition in which the spirit is liberated from the cycles of death and suffering. Some Buddhists think of nirvana as a real place. Other Buddhists think of nirvana as a state of mind. Mandala diagrams often have Mount Meru, a palace and a palace garden at their centre. The diagram then explains the path from suffering to enlightenment. It is a path which requires, study, meditation and compassion.
For western garden designers, and for non-Buddhists, a fascinating comparison can be drawn with the Neoplatonist/Idealist axiom that ‘art should imitate nature’. In aesthetic theory, it is now interpreted as a call for ‘naturalistic’ and ‘representational’ art. But for most of its history ‘art should imitate nature’ was a call to embody the fundamental essences of Nature in works of art. The principles of optics, for example, were seen as Laws of Nature which could and should be employed in the design of baroque gardens. Under the influence of Christianity, from the time of St Augustine (354-430) onwards, this meant the ideals, laws and principles upon which God’s design for the universe was founded. We could say that a mandala-based design is also ‘an imitation of Nature’ (which Buddhists understand as the Dharma).

Modern Buddhist garden at Kagyu Samye Ling, Eskdalemuir

Most Buddhist gardens are in East Asia – especially Japan – and people therefore have the idea that a Buddhist garden should look Japanese and should probably be a ‘Zen Garden’. This is wrong. I like this comment from the Religious Education and Environment Programme REEP on Designing a Buddhist Garden: The garden does not need to look Buddhist or oriental. Many people, who are not Buddhist, also value such ideals. That the design promotes peacefulness, goodwill and respect for all creatures is more important than things like wind chimes, prayer flags or stone lanterns. If you wish so, you can certainly also include Buddhist and oriental decorations and garden features but, on their own, such decorations are not as important as a design which uses Buddhist ideas.
The Buddhist themes used at Samye Ling are World Peace, Wellbeing and Healing. They also grow organic vegetables and favour sustainability. These are themes which Buddhist Environmentalists have embraced – and which can be read into traditional Buddhism. I support all these themes but have a little regret that a garden of as much interest as Samye Ling does not put more emphasis on core Buddhist principles and philosophical concepts. These include the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, dependent origination, non-self and impermanence.

Environmental, vegetarian and Buddhist ethics

I do not want to be reborn as a factory farmed chicken - and nor do I want to eat prisioners

Greta Gaard recalls a conversation with her Dad about ‘my dietry freedom at the age of 11’.
‘What if I came up to you, and ripped your arm off, and ate it?’ I was practically yelling at my father. ‘How would you feel about that? And what kind of person would that make me?. Happily, he was silent. ‘Don’t you see? I’m not goint to eat Pookie [our dachshund], I’m not going to eat your arms and legs, and I’m not going to eat anyone else’s either’. This conversation was the formal beginning of my environmentalal ethic. Of course, I didn’t think of it that way at the time. [Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions edited by David R. Keller 2010 p.45]
I stayed in a hotel recently and the owner informed me that he only ate the flesh of animals which do not have a central nervous system. I did not ask about slugs but I did wonder about the religious and physiological aspects of his diet. I have read that humans could not have evolved to their present condition without consuming the proteins which come from animals and our place in the food chain is part of our ‘nature’. But have humans reached a point at which they can/should give up eating fish and meat? The Economist reports that ‘The world’s average stock of chickens is almost 19 billion, or three per person’ – and most of them are kept in ghastly conditions. Buddhists believe that accumulating bad karma can lead to one being reborn as a lower form of life. If I am to reborn as a chicken I most definitely would not want it to be in Africa, India or China. Nor would the US or Australia suit me well. I suppose the UK would be the best place, because the country has moderately well developed animal welfare policies, but even this would be grim.
Should good environmentalists be vegetarian? One consideration is that if all humans became vegetarian then the Earth could support a much larger human population, thus promoting the happiness of a greater number. But if man is ‘just another animal’ then (1) should we worry about the loss of 19bn chickens if humans became vegetarian (2) have we a moral obligation to extend human rights to the animal kingdom?
Battery chickens factory farming image courtery aleutia

Disclosure: I was a vegetarian for many years and am now as strict as I can be about only eating ‘organic’ fish and meat – but I have doubts about my dietry policy and took a guilty pleasure in an inorganic ‘Full English’ breakfast one day last week.

'Public parks' should be rejuvinated under local community management

Central London’s public parks are great. They are well-planned, well-designed and well-used. But the typical London suburban park, in Chris Baines’ great phrase, is ‘a green desert with lollipop trees’. The grass is mown; they trees are over-managed. The people hardly use these green deserts, except for Saturday sport. It is these spaces which make us fear the ‘death of the park’. The Heritage Lottery Fund HLF, however, tries to restore these dreary spaces to their ‘former glory’ ie to their condition in the days when the proletariat could not afford gardens or holidays or cars or doctors. Horniman Gardens could all too easily be like this. But no: it has escaped the curse of standardised municipal management. Instead, it is host to a museum which is managed in tandem with the gardens. So they illustrate some of the ways in which public parks can be revived.
First, you remove them from the day-to-day control of municipal government. Find someone else to do the job: a trust, a community group, a school, a museum, a church, or whatever. But make sure that body only has one garden or park to care for.
Horniman Gardens are managed by a Public Museum and Public Park Trust. It’s a quango – but it shows far more sensitivity to users than what Alistair Campbell would doubtless call ‘a bog standard London park’. The Horniman Trust knows its users.
Second, you make it part of the Chelsea Fringe, even if it is nowhere near Chelsea. Then invite individuals and groups to organise events: story-telling, beer bars, gin bars, theatrical events, plant sales, planted cars, book sales, concerts, folk dancing, folk singing, a dog show – and poetry readings. The Chelsea Fringe has great examples of such events and they really bring people into parks and gardens.
Volunteer programmes are another way of involving the community. They work very well in America. So why shouldn’t they work even better in London? We are a Nation of Gardeners. London is the world’s Garden Capital. But the management of our parks date from the Great Reform Act of 1832 and it’s time for a change. So: let’s convert public parks into community parks!
And – there’s one more thing. We should put qualified landscape architects in charge of our parks. They know how to manage them. So let’s get on with it. We can have new parks for our new lives

Fountains, ponds, pools and other water features at the Chelsea Flower Show 2013


At the Chelsea Flower Show, it is a well-accepted principle that ‘a small garden needs a water feature’. This year, I noticed the usual number of ponds but fewer fountains. Could the explanation be that after two very wet years people are fed up to the back teeth with the sound of falling water?
The difference between a pool and a pond is as follows: a pond is ‘a small body of still water of artificial formation, made either by excavating a hollow in the ground or by embanking and damming up a watercourse in a natural hollow’. Pond derives from ‘pound’, as in ‘impounded water’. ‘Pool’ is an old Germanic word of uncertain origin meaning ‘a small body of still or standing water, esp. one of natural formation’. So those rectangular blue-tiled places we use for swimming should be called ‘swimming ponds’ – not pools. And the water bodies on display at Chelsea should be called ‘ponds’. The water in many of the examples on display was tinted black or brown. This makes it more reflective, and hides any under-water pumping equipment, but the water looks as though it has been ejected from a frightened octopus. Steel pools are also popular but, even if made with Corten steel, can be expected to have rust-brown water for many years. Phil Johnson’s Trailfinders Australian Garden won the Best in Show award with one of the most naturalistic (and expensive) water features I have seen at Chelsea. The design idea dates from c1800 but the implementation is modern.