Category Archives: Asian gardens and landscapes

Chinese Gardens: the influence of Chan and Pure Land Buddhism in China

Chan and Pure Land Buddhist Gardens in China is the fourth of six videos on the relationship between Buddhism and the history of garden design.
Buddhism spread to China from India. The practice of forming monastic communities with temples and gardens also took root in China but the Buddhist-influenced gardens made in China were not the same as any which are known to have been made in the India. They were Mahayana Buddhist Gardens and appear to have been influenced by Tibetan mandalas with lotus ponds, Buddha halls and representations of mountains. They were the subject of paintings in Tibet and of garden design in China. Chan (Zen) and Pure Land ideas also took developed in China and are likely to have influenced garden design.
The influence of Buddhism on garden design is explained in an eBook

Buddhist garden design in Japan, including Zen and Pure Land Gardens

Buddhist garden design in Japan is the third of six videos on the relationship between Buddhism and the history of garden design.
Buddhism spread to Japan from China and Korea, as did the Chinese style of laying out cities, palaces, temples and gardens. Japanese gardens were often made for Buddhist monasteries, where they tend to be called Zen gardens, and for retired emperors who wished to live as abbots and conduct their preparation for the Pure Land and nirvana. The term ‘Zen garden’ was not used until the 1930s but has become very popular.
The influence of Buddhism on garden design is explained in my eBook on Buddhist gardens

Buddhist garden design in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal

Buddhist garden design in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal is the second of six videos on the relationship between Buddhism and the history of garden design.
Buddhism began in North India and, over the next 1500 years, almost died out in India. But it survived in Sri Lanka – which also has good examples of ancient Buddhist gardens used by monastic communities. See: Sigiriya, Polonnarauwa, Anuradhapura – Mahamegha Gardens (Mahamevuna Uyana),
The influence of Buddhism on garden design is explained in an eBook

What is a 'Zen Buddhist garden'? and is the idea Japanese, Chinese or Western?


Wybe Kuitert, a notable scholar of Japanese garden history, has challenged the the theory that stone and gravel gardens, like Ryoan-ji, were inspired by Zen Buddhist ideas. He argues that the theory did not appear before the 1930s and that it then arose from an American scholar (Loraine Kuck) who was influenced by Japanese nationalist thinkers who wanted to argue that Japanese culture was more harmonious and less aggresive than western culture. I am persuaded by Kuitert’s account of the origins of the now-common classification of Ryoan-ji but doubtful that his alternative explanation is adequate. From a knowledge of Japan which is much less than Kuitert’s, it appears to me that (1) stone-and-gravel gardens are very likely to have been influenced by Chinese precedents (2) whether or not the Chinese precedents were specifically Chan (ie Zen) Buddhist, they were certainly influenced by Buddhist ideas and their Daoist parallels.
There are three difficulties in tracing the Chinese precedents of stone-and-gravel gardens: (1) so far as I know, there are no visual or records (2) there may be textual records of Buddhist gardens in Song China but, if so, they would have to be investigated by Chinese garden historians with the ability to find and read the relevant documents (3) research into the influence of Buddhism on Chinese gardens is not a popular field of research in China – because Chinese governments have very often wanted to downplay the influence of all foreigners on Chinese civilization.
I hope these questions will receive the attention they deserve someday. Here are some quotations from Kuitert to stimulate the necessary research (from Kuitert, W., Themes in the History of Japanese Garden Art University of Hawaii Press 2002). But, for what it is worth, my view is that the categorization ‘Zen Buddhist Garden’ is valid- unless and until better information becomes available.
p.130 ‘The Oriental supposedly sees himself not as an individual at war with his environment but rather as fundamentally a part of all that is about him.’
p.133 In previous chapters we have seen that the medieval garden makers were not devoted Zen priests but usually menial stoneworkers…
P.133 The present pages on the evolution of a scenic garden style, however, show that this is not the only interpretation. From the preceding it is clear that this type of garden stemmed in theory (and at least part of its practice) from the Chinese intellectual and literary canon of landscape art. The building of a garden was calculated intellectual activity, not an instantaneous act of religiously inspired intuition. It found its place in Zen temples and warrior residences because it enhanced a cultural ambiance. That its appreciation involved religious aspects rather than artistic ones is questionable. A Zen religious experience was interpreted in modern European terms of philosophy by Nishida. It was Suzuki who extended this interpretation to culture and the arts – thereby making the mistake of explaining the intent of the original creator of historical works of art with it. Kuck similarly stated that the Ryoan-ji garden is ‘the creation of an artistic and religious soul who was striving… to express the harmony of the universe’. With this statement she assigned the twentieth-century religious or aesthetic experience she felt on seeing the garden to the soul of a medieval garden maker. Kuck mixes her own historically determined interpretation with an old garden that came about in a completely different cultural setting.
The above photograph of Ryoan-ji is courtery jpellgen. It captures the aspect of the garden which attracts and mystifies western visitors: ‘Karesansui. Ryoan-ji in Kyoto has a world famous zen rock garden. Here you can see some of the simplicity that makes this garden so impressive. The position of the stones and the carefully maintained sand is a sight to behold. Ryoan-ji is a famous temple of the Rinzai branch of Zen Buddhism. It dates back to the 1400’s and was originally associated with the Fujiwara family (big suprise there). The most famous aspect of Ryoan-ji, however, is the karesansui (dry landscape) rock garden–believed to be the finest in the world. It contains 15 stones, although I had trouble finding the last one. Apparently, most people can only see 14 unless you have the right perspective of this 30mx10m garden.’

'Form is emptiness' – in Buddhism, garden design and landscape architecture

The enclosure on Vulture Peak Rajgir, India is believed to the be the place where the Buddha delivered the teaching recorded in the Heart Sutra. It contains the famous lines:
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form
Emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness
Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form

The phrasaeology is meant to induce meditation. ‘Emptiness’ (Śūnyatā) may be interpreted in relation to the Buddhist concept of non-self (Anatta). Nothing we see has a separate ‘self’. Everything is inter-connected. The lines embody a paradox and this may be deliberate – because there is so much about the nature of the universe which cannot be understood. My own understanding of the lines is as follows:
– objects appear to have form but, because they are connected to everything else, this is an illusion
– the ‘everything else’ to which objects are connected can only be perceived through forms
This gives the lines from the Heart Sutra a relationship with Plato’s Theory of Forms and with the modern distinction between particulars and universals. We might say that universials are known only from particulars and that particulars are understood only when they can belong to universal categories. The favourte example is cats (see Fig 1). We only know the universal ‘cattiness’ through particular examples and we only know that particular cats ARE cats because of our acquiaintance with the universal form of cats.
Assuming I have interpreted the Buddha and Plato correctly, I am more attracted to the Buddhist version. Plato conceived the forms as eternal and unchanging. For a landscape architect or garden designer this is unappealing. It implies that all possible forms and designs already exist. The Buddhist version gives important positions both to the form which a designer ‘assembles’ and to the inter-connected cosmos (I almost wrote ‘compost’) from which the elements are drawn – and to which they will return. Forms have no ‘self'; they change every instant; they are impermanent (annica). Modern science confirms that everything is in flux. We notice it more in outdoor than indoor environments. With time the fourth dimension, landscape design appears to be a four-dimensional art.
The photo is from Wikipedia, with thanks. The design uses one of the primary Platonic forms: the square. Compare it with the photo of St Francis, below. Monasticism was a Buddhist idea and the monks seem to belong to the Axial Age, of the Buddha, Plato, Confucius and the author(s) of the Old Testament. Or do they belong to an even earlier age when India rishis meditated in forests, caves and mountain retreats? And why was it such a great period in the history of philosophy and religion? Should philosophers and religious leaders – and landscape designers – work in the great outdoors, instead of in fusty musty offices? Yes. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

Lynn Townsend White, environmental ethics, Christianity and Buddhism

Pope Francis and St Francis of Assisi are the best hopes for Environmental Christianity

I have mentioned Lynn Townsend White several times in this blog without, I am sorry to say, having read his 1966 article (see comments re Buddhism and re Christianity). It is available online and I recommend it The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis Lynn White, Jr. As a historian, he is in the same league as Lewis Mumford and Sigfried Giedion but is field of view is wider, because he is a historian of ideas with an interest in the environment, rather than the other way about. Here is the famous passage from White’s paper, in bold, with the sentences which precede dnd follow it in italics:
To a Christian a tree can be no more than a physical fact. The whole concept of the sacred grove is alien to Christianity and to the ethos of the West. For nearly 2 millennia Christian missionaries have been chopping down sacred groves, which are idolatrous because they assume spirit in nature.
What we do about ecology depends on our ideas of the man-nature relationship. More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecologic crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one.
The beatniks, who are the basic revolutionaries of our t ime, show a sound instinct in their affinity for Zen Buddhism, which conceives of the man-nature relationship as very nearly the mirror image of the Christian view. Zen, however, is as deeply conditioned by Asian history as Christianity is by the experience of the West, and I am dubious of its viability among us.
Possibly we should ponder the greatest radical in Christian history since Christ: Saint Francis of Assisi. The prime miracle of Saint Francis is the fact that he did not end at the stake, as many of his left-wing followers did. He was so clearly heretical that a General of the Franciscan Order, Saint Bonavlentura, a great and perceptive Christian, tried to suppress the early accounts of Franciscanism. The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility–not merely for the individual but for man as a species. Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.

With this in mind, it is heartening that the new Pope has taken the name Francis. Pope Francis and St Francis of Assisi are the best hopes for Environmental Christianity – and possibly for the world environment. If Lynn White is correct that Christian beliefs underlie the attitude to the environment of Post-Christians and Non-Christians around the world, then a re-orientation of Christianity around St Francis could contribute much to ‘saving the planet’. Let’s hope this will include a new attitude to birth control. If the catholic church does not want to use modern technology for this purpose then, as in old Tibet, it could be done by having a very large population of non-breeding monks and nuns. Like St Francis, they could love animals. White went on to write that
Both our present science and our present technology are so tinctured with orthodox Christian arrogance toward nature that no solution for our ecologic crisis can be expected from them alone. Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not. We must rethink and refeel our nature and destiny. The profoundly religious, but heretical, sense of the primitive Franciscans for the spiritual autonomy of all parts of nature
may point a direction.  I propose Francis as a patron saint for ecologists
.

Environmental Buddhism, landscape architecture and the Gyama Valley mining disaster in Tibet

I have been reading about Buddhist environmentalism recently. The divergent views can be summarised as follows:

  1. Many western commentators believe that Buddhism is a wholly environment-friendly faith, because of the belief in the ‘oneness’ of the world.
  2. Some western commentators (notably Ian Harris) argue that there is scaracely any basis for an environmental ethic in Early Buddhism, because it is a nihilistic faith with a soteriological emphasis on escaping from this world, rather than trying to improve it.
  3. The Dalai Lama and many other Buddhist leaders are wholehearted supporters of environmental ethics and see the ideas as inherently Buddhist.

In reading about the Dalai Lama’s views I came across this comment: “Now, environmental problems are something new to me. When we were in Tibet, we always considered the environment pure. For Tibetans, whenever we saw a stream of water in Tibet, there was no question as to whether it was safe for drinking or not. However, it was different when we reached India and other places. For example, Switzerland is a very beautiful and impressive country, yet, people say “Don’t drink the water from this stream, it is polluted!”… I remember in Lhasa when I was young, some Nepalese did a little hunting arid fishing because they were not very much concerned with Tibetan laws. Otherwise there was a real safety for animals at that time. There is a strange story. Chinese farmers and road builders who came to Tibet after 1959 were very fond of meat. They usually went hunting birds, such as ducks, wearing Chinese army uniform or Chinese clothes. These clothes startled the birds and made them immediately flyaway. Eventually these hunters were forced to wear Tibetan dress. This is a true story! Such things happened, especially during the 1970’s and 80’s, when there were still large numbers of birds. Recently, a few thousand Tibetans from India went to their native places in Tibet. When they returned, they all told the same story. They said that about forty or fifty years ago there were huge forest covers in their native areas. Now all these richly forested mountains have become bald like a monk’s head. No more tall trees. In some cases the roots of the trees are even uprooted and taken away! This is the present situation. In the past, there were big herds of animals to be seen in Tibet, but few remain today. Therefore much has changed.”
Just after reading this passage I heard of the mining disaster in the Gyama Valley (30 March 2013) in which 83 people died. This led me to look for photographs of forest clearance in Tibet, to see if this could be the cause of the problem, since deforestation so often causes erosion and flooding. I could not find any photographs, so this blog post lacks an illustration. Compared to most of the world’s religions, Buddhism has the great advantage of accepting endless change (anicca) as a fundamental characteristic of the universe and of Buddhism. Islam, by way of contrast, takes the Quran as having been passed from God to Gabriel to Muhammad. This allows some scope for new interpretations (eg in the Hadith) but none for change. Islam is fortunate in having a good base for an environmental ethic. In my view, Buddhism is also in a strong position in this regard and I hope that the reviving popularity of Buddhism in China will encourage the development of environmental ethics everywhere – and of a Buddhist approach to landscape architecture – and mining operations are a special opportunity. Christians have been working at the problem of developing an environmental ethic but have been handicapped by Lynn White’s critical stance.
See the Wiki entry on Religion and environmentalism. Religions often find it difficult to come together but environmentalism offers great opportunities in this regard. Because ‘The Environment’ was not a problem in The Axial Age there are relatively few historical positions which need to be defended.

Environmental Green eco-Buddhism and the ethics of landscape architecture and garden design

Environmental Green Eco-Buddhism

Environmental Green Eco-Buddhism

In 1969 I began studying landscape architecture at the Univesity of Edinburgh. That year saw the publication of Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature. McHarg gave a lecture at the university and one of our teachers (Michael Laurie) was a student and a great admirer of McHarg. Like many who join the landscape profession, I was hazy about its nature. Several recollections come to mind. I remember Michael asking us to produce ‘Master Plans’. ‘Wow’ I thought – because I was expecting to be more like a garden designer – ‘I’m going to become a master’, though I could not imagine what of. Then I remember being told we must ‘sell’ ourselves, which sounded more like being a mistress than a master. One of our teachers said that in ‘selling’ our designs, we must always mention ‘ecology’ and ‘the environment’. Another teacher told us that our professional body (now the Landscape Institute) was ‘half learned society and half trade union’ [he was wrong]. Looking back, I do not think any of this advice provides the strong grounding in ethics and ideas which a profession requires. The twentieth century was a great time for science, innovation and iconoclasm but a bad time for beliefs and ethics – possibly because so much was changing. In the twenty first century, there are public demands for the professions to have ethics: even bankers, journalists, politicians and police officers. I extend the demand to the environmental professions – including landscape architecture. But where can we look for inspiration? As discussed elsewhere, some religions are in difficult positions with regard to environmental ethics and, for a profession, it would be difficult to turn to a single ‘religion’ for an ethical base. And there are additional problems when adherents turn to ‘fundamentals’ which were established 2000 and more years ago. McHarg thought there was an anti-nature streak in Christianity and is thought to have borrowed this idea from Lynn White. White was a troubled Christian – and attracted to Buddhism because it seemed to be a more environmental faith.
Buddhism is a belief system. Though sometimes described as a ‘religion’ the Buddha’s teaching had no creation story and no gods. Nor did the Buddha want to be ‘worshiped’. Some Buddhist sects became more like the other religions but CHANGE (anicca) is an essential characteristic of Buddhism – and one which favours the development of green, environmental, eco-Buddhism. Buddhism can be compared to open-source software in this respect. Everyone can draw upon the core code and everyone can make contributions. Buddhists have never fought each other in the way that Protestants have fought Catholics and Shias have fought Sunnis. Without giving them a specifically Buddhist interpretation, it is evident that the core principles could be of use to the environmental professions come from the Ayran Path:
1. Right view
2. Right intention
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration

Buddhism has the very attractive characteristic of being kind to animals. Wiki puts it like this ‘Animals have always been regarded in Buddhist thought as sentient beings, different in their intellectual ability than humans but no less capable of feeling suffering. Furthermore, animals possess Buddha nature (according to the Mahāyāna school) and therefore an equal potential to become enlightened.’
Buddhism dates from what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age – as do the origins of the world’s other major philosophical and belief systems. That period seems to have had a talent for beliefs equaling our own priod’s talent in science, which may be a reason for looking so far back to find sound ethical principles. It is of interest that the medical profession dates from the Axial Age and has a good base in the Hippocratic Oath. I once had a go at adapting the Hippocratic Oath for landscape architecture.
Wiki gives the following figures for the numbers of adherents of the major world faiths:
Christianity 2,000–2,200
Islam 1,570–1,650
Hinduism 828–1,000 I
Buddhism 400–500
Nobody knows how many Chinese people are, to a greater or lesser extent, followers of Buddhist ideas. If the number is large, Buddhism could move up the rankings. My impression is that ‘communist China’ is now building more Buddhist temples than any country has ever built at any point in history.

Buddhist Gardens and the Dragon Garden in Shey, Ladakh

If anyone would like a (free) ticket, I am giving a lecture about the influence of Buddhism on garden design – to be followed with a lecture by Simon Drury-Brown on the design of the Dragon Garden for the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India. Tickets are available from Eventbrite. The design of the school, by Arup Associates, is based on a mandala. The design of the garden extends the mandala concept and gives it a wider application.
The great Italian scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, Giuseppe Tucci, explained the mandala concept in a way which makes it well suited to forming the basis for a landscape plan for a school community. Tucci wrote that ‘First and foremost, a mandala delineates a consecrated superficies and protects it from invasion by disintegrating forces symbolized in demoniacal cycles. But a mandala is much more than just a consecrated area that must be kept pure for ritual and liturgical ends. It is, above all, a map of the cosmos. It is the whole universe in its essential plan, in its process of emanation and of reabsorption. The universe not only in its inert spatial expanse, but as temporal revolution and both as a vital lprocess which develops from an essential Principle and ratates round a central axis, Mount Sumeru, the axis of the world on which the sky rests and which sinks its roots into the mysterious substratum. This is a conception common to all Asia and to which clarity and precision have been lent by the cosmological ideas expressed in the Mesopotamian zikurrats and reflected in the plan of the Iranian rulers’ imperial city, and thence in the ideal image of the palace of the cakravartin, the ‘Universal Monarch’ of Indian tradition‘. The Druk School will become a place where teachers, students and visitors are encouraged to think about the nature of the cosmos and the nature of human life. The landscape design is being developed by landscape architecture staff and students from the Univesity of Greenwich. Design, construction and fund-raising are managed by a UK Charity, the Drukpa Trust. The school has won a sheaf of international awards. The architects, Arup Associates, explain that

  • Classrooms face the morning sun to make the most of natural light and heat.
  • The school is largely self-sufficient in energy.
  • Two boreholes and solar pumps supply the school site with all the water it needs.

Shalimar Bagh Kashmir: historic garden conservation



As a generalisation, the condition of historic gardens in most countries is getting better. They enjoy more expert attention, more visitors and more resources. Shalimar Bagh in Kashmir is an exception. When I saw it in 2006, it did not seem to be in quite as good condition as when Susan Jellicoe (black and white photo above) photographed it c1970. And when I saw it again in 2012 (colour photo, above) it seemed in even worse condition. Oddly, there were also far more visitors than in 2006. Does anyone know what the problem is? Lack of money? Lack of will? A concern for the bugs which enjoy rotting timber? A lack of concern for India’s Islamic heritage?

Canon Bernard Iddings Bell and the postmodern landscape architecture of Heatherwick and Jencks

Old Airport Road Park (from Thomas Heatherwick Making, Thames & Hudson, 2012)

I visited the V&A this week, to see the Heatherwick Studio Exhibition, and looked at two books in the V&A Library. Heatherwick’s exhibition and book complement one another. TS Eliot proclaimed Rudyard Kipling a great hymn writer on the basis of a single hymn. Kipling’s Re­cess­ion­al is below. Heatherwick can be recognized as a great landscape archtiect on the basis of as single unbuilt design, above. It is the Old Airport Road Park, commissioned by the Abu Dhabi royal family in 2010. Most of the new landscapes made during the Middle East’s Age of Wealth have been horticulturally, climatically and culturally inept. Heatherwick took a lump of clay, moulded it to the shape of a tortoise shell and let it dry. Cracks appeared. This generated the concept of a canopy through which shafts of light pierce the dark, as in a hamam. It was ‘Conceived as a place for friends and families to gather and picnic… the colonnaded spaces below ground are protected from the harsh sunlight by the fragmented pieces of desert supported overhead on columns. Within this environment are cafes, public baths, pools and streams, as well as community vegetable gardens, market gardens and date palms’.
Heatherwick, like most artists, holds back from classifying the style in which he works. But he has a well-tested design method and explains that ‘If a potential commissioner asks for “just a sketch”, we have to try to explain that this is not the way to work’. This is because ‘The studio’s design process has always depended on its workshop, which allows it to test and realize ideas through the making of experimental pieces, protypes, models and full-size models of buildings’. I commend this method to the landscape profession. Jonathan Ive (of Apple) also goes through a protyping sequence – which results in the classic High Modernism of Apple products. Corbusier would love Apple products. Heatherwick and Ive both trained in the UK, Heatherwick studying 3D design and Ive studying industrial design. Heatherwick then went to the Royal College of Art, which presumably helped him to become as much an artist as a craftsman as a designer. Also, I believe, it led him into postmodernism. Heatherwick accepts the core insights of Modernism but adds ‘something more’. The more is often a fascination with the controlled repitition of shapes and patterns. Sometimes, this reminds me of Andy Goldsworthy’s work.
The word ‘postmodern’ was first used by John Watkins Chapman in the 1870s as a term for what we would classify as post-impressionist art. In 1926 the term received an unrelated but serious treatment in Canon Bernard Iddings Bell’s Postmodernism and Other Essays. Bell’s argument was that religious fundamentalism is unacceptable, because of the advance of science, and that a full Modernism is also unacceptable. Equating Modernism with the Liberal theology of George Tyrrell and Alfred Loisey, Bell put forward a Postmodernism which welcomed the the insights of science but held firm to the core principles of Christianity. Quotations from Bell:
The Bible can no longer be regarded as an inerrant touchstone, the wholly infallible gift of the Eternal to struggling man.(p.4)
Modernism is, properly, a way of looking at religion which originated with Loisey and Tyrrell, two eminent and deposed Roman Catholic priests. (p.7) [Both were excommunicated]
There is no art for art’s sake. All art exists for the sake of Truth. (p.13)
The scientific intelligentsia now realizes, and for the most part freely admits that, merely by scientific methods, nothing of basic importance, of primary importance, of ontological importance, can be discovered. (p.21)
Fundamentalism is hopelessly outdated. Modernism has ceased to be modern. We are ready for some sort of postmodernism. (p.54)
Insofar as he exists at this moment, the Post-modernist is apt to be a man without a Church. Protestantism, Modernism, and Romanticism alike seem to him to miss the point. (p.65)

This takes us to the distinguished theorist and landscape designer who brought the term Postmodernism to the visual arts. Charles Jencks argues that postmodernism is an approach which is ‘one-half modern and one-half something else’. This is not as different from Bell’s view as one might have expected. Bell and Jencks appear to agree that (1) a scientific understanding of nature is essential (2) artists should be concerned with truths about the nature of the world – as the best landscape art always has been.


God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!

Mandala landscapes for stupas, temples, gardens and the Druk White Lotus School DWLS


We tend to think of a mandala (मण्डल) as a graphic pattern, though the Sanskrit derivation of the word is from the ‘cycles’ or ‘circles’ (ie ‘sections’ or ‘books’) of the Rig Veda. The Vedas were hymns recited on ritual occasions. Mandala patterns were developed to symbolise the rituals and the ideas underying the rituals. Buddhists took on the idea from Hindus and used mandala patterns in the design of stupas (chortens), tankas and many other things. Used in this way, a mandala symbolises the geography of the cosmos. Early mandala patterns had a lotus flower with open petals and the Buddha at its centre. Circles and squares were added and a mandala came to represent the four material elements of the universe (earth, water, fire, wind) with Mount sumeru as the world axis. Energy moves in a cosmic dance from the centre to the periphery, and then back to the centre, encompassing inanimate and living things.
Buddhist Chinese and Japanese gardens are also mandalas. The word ‘Pagoda’ derives from ‘stupa’ and these gardens symbolise the cosmos, with the temple as a house for a Buddha. In later Chinese gardens temples evolved into garden pavilions for the delight of their owners.
A real landscape can also be a mandala, with the Lapchi region on the Nepal-Tibet border a famous example, which includes Milarepa’s Cave. Lapchi’s mandala landscape is conceived to have three sacred triangles formed by the sky, the earth and the three rivers. The central mountain is seen as the Palace of Chakrasamvara.
The landscape around the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh can be thought of as an emerging mandala landscape.

  • It has a modern mandala plan, by Arup and Arup Associates.
  • It is in view of three famous Buddhist gompas: Shey, Thikse and Matho.
  • It is in the valley of a sacred river: the Indus

Time lapse photography of Buddhist monks using coloured sand to produce a sand mandala (courtesy camera_obscura):

Garden design competition at the Druk White Lotus School in India

The principle of involving school children in the landscape and garden design for the space outside their classrooms applies in every land. This video illustrates the involvement of children from the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh India. There are many reasons for involving school children in the design of school grounds: (1) the children are creative – they know what they like to look at and what facilities they like to have (2) the children learn to take responsibility for their environment (3) the children have an involvment with the natural world (4) the children learn technical skills (5) with luck, some of the children will go on to become landscape architects, taking responsibility for the conservation and improvement of Planet Earth.

From Srinagar to Amarnath and Ladakh via the Zoji La Pass


Should Ladakh be modernised? Can it be avoided? Anyone travelling to Kargil or Leh via the Zoji La must think ‘This CANNOT be the main road to Ladakh’, ‘It is inconceivable that most of the country’s fuel and construction materials are carried in on this road?’ ‘Surely it can’t be closed for six months/year?’ ‘Why in heaven’s name haven’t they built a tunnel’, ‘Is this country run by 3 idiots?’. But anyone who reads Helena Norberg-Hodge’s Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh may conclude ‘Please God, don’t let them build a new road over the Zoji-La’. She argues that ‘development’ is spoiling Ladakh. The men are giving up farming to become taxi drivers. The women, who lived in rural bliss in wonderful communities, are now finding themselves isolated in ugly modern flats with their husbands doing urban jobs, their young children in schools and their older children hanging about on street corners, taking drugs and thinking about motorbikes and larceny.
Though my sympathies lie with Helena Norberg-Hodge, I don’t know who is right. But I do know that work on an all-weather Zoji La Tunnel is scheduled to begin in 2012. Should it happen, the above video will be a visual record of the pass in July 2012. The longest delay was on a good section of road, just below the pass, near the turn-off to Amarnath (see photos), a stalagmite worshipped by Hindus as the phallus of Lord Shiva – which has melted because growing numbers of devotees are generating too much body heat. The number of pilgrims on the Amarnath Yatra has risen exponentially over the last decade. Almost 100 of them died this year and over 40,000 received medical treatment. They sleep in the largest camp site I have ever seen (which can be glimpsed on the video). I was travelling to the Druk White Lotus School and thinking about how it could have a Dragon Garden to go with its mandala plan. A landslide closed the road for a while, as though a local dragon had stirred.
Helena Norberg-Hodge Ladakh video Part 1
Helena Norberg-Hodge Ladakh video Part 2
Helena Norberg-Hodge Ladakh video Part 3

DWLS Dragon Garden in Shey, Ladakh, for the Druk White Lotus School


The architectural layout of the Druk White Lotus School, designed by Arup Associates, is based on a mandala. In the Sanskrit of the Rig Veda, the sections were called mandalas, meaning ‘cycles’ or ‘chapters’, rather as TS Eliot divided his Four Quartets into sections. The Rig Veda poems are often described as hymns and were receited by nomads on ritual occasions. When the nomads became settlers special places, including temples, were designed for rituals and they too became known as mandalas. Hindu and Buddhist sacred places, including stupas, are therefore said to have a mandala plan. In Tibetan and Ladakhi culture, which are Vajrayana Buddhist, a mandala is interpreted as a diagram which represents the geography of the cosmos.
The Druk White Lotus School (DWLS) was built in the desert outside Shey, the former capital of Ladakh. The buildings are nearing completion in 2012 and the next stage is to convert the school surroundings from desert to garden and landscape. Since the school was made under the auspices of the Drukpa Lineage, making a ‘Dragon Garden’ is appropriate. ‘Druk’ means ‘Dragon’ and ‘Druk-pa’ means ‘Dragon-person’, with the Lineage led by the Gyalwang Drukpa. What form a ‘Dragon Garden’ might have is yet to be determined.
The above video shows a school ritual (a morning assembly) taking place in a Dharma Wheel at the centre of the DWLS Mandala. Note that the children sitting beside the monk are using their hands to form the mudras. My impression is of kindly, enthusiastic and warm-hearted children – and I wish I had a similar impression when looking at school children in london.
Mandalas can take many forms and can be made in many ways. The below image shows coloured sands used to make a sand mandala.

A Vajrayana sand mandala shows the geography of the cosmos - 'Buddha-land'

A model of the mandala section of the plan for the Druk White Lotus School, by Arup Associates.

Arup Associates mandala plan for the Druk White Lotus DWLS School in Ladakh

Was the Aral Sea one of 'nature's mistakes', or was it the scene of an environmental crime?

Is this the site of a major environmental crime - or an enlightened development project?The left photo shows, I think, the Aral Sea as it was last week. Wiki reports that ‘Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be “nature’s error”… [So] ‘From 1960 to 1998, the sea’s surface area shrank by approximately 60%, and its volume by 80%. In 1960, the Aral Sea had been the world’s fourth-largest lake, with an area of approximately 68,000 square kilometres (26,000 sq mi) and a volume of 1,100 cubic kilometres (260 cu mi); by 1998, it had dropped to 28,687 square kilometres (11,076 sq mi), and eighth-largest. The amount of water it had lost is the equivalent of completely draining Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Over the same time period, its salinity increased from about 10 g/L to about 45 g/L’. Which view is correct? The lives of those who won their living from the Aral Sea have been devastated. But the population of Uzbekistan benefits from valuable exports of cotton.
PS I wish Google Maps was available on aircraft, so that passengers know their exact position in relation to the ground.

The placement of Buddhist stupas as landscape architecture

How are stupas sited in the landscape? Having wondered for some time whether the design and siting of the pyramids at Giza was conceived as a ‘stylization’ of sand dunes on the boundary between the Red Land (desert) and the Black Land (farmed land), I timidly kept the idea to myself until Charles Jencks put forward the same idea. Now I wonder if the largest stupa field in Ladakh (above, at Shey) was conceived as a stylization of a mountain range. The stupas have this appearance but there are many considerations:

  • Hindu gods are associated with mountains
  • Buddhism does not have creator gods but draws much from Hindus ideas
  • Stupas are symbols of the Buddha’s presence
  • Nirvana is represented in Buddhist art as being in a mountainous region
  • Mt Kailash is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists

An interesting aspect of Ladakh is that it has no tradition of making ‘pleasure gardens’ but the whole country appears to have been conceived as a garden.

The Buddhist cave at Phuktal Gompa (Phugtal Monastery)

Phuktal Gompa Buddhist Cave

Phuktal Gompa Buddhist Cave


The great cave of Phuktal Gompa in Ladakh has a sacred spring within. The monastery is said to have been built here because there was a forest on the slopes above, from which a lone tree survives. The cave is supposed to house the spirit of the first guru, Rimpoche.
Caves have a special place in Buddhism, because wandering monks used them for prayer, meditation and rest, and Ngawang Tsering (1717-94) wrote that: ‘Nurtured as sons of mountain solitude they dressed in clouds and mist and wore as hats deserted caves. Totally unconcerned with the world’s ways and mundane happiness they contemplated impermanence to create a sense of urgency and thus to make the best use of their life time. Meditation on the ominpresence of death served as a pillow and they wrapped themselves up in the cloth of mindfulness of karma. The mats which they spread were their awareness of the disadvantages of samsara which they likened to a whirlpool or a tapering flame. I sing my songs to induce kings to rule with the ten virtues, for the sake of the lowly so that each according to his capacity may rejoice in the Dharma, for the sake of the teachers pointing them to tantras, sutras and teachings, for the sake of earnest meditators that they may realise equanimity and insight, for the sake of the yogins with clear perception that they may be endowed with supreme vision action and function’
Image courtesy Kateharris

What are the conditions for good urban landscape design?

Edmund Bacon, in his 1974 book on Design of Cities, interpreted Rome's spatial plan in essentially geometrical terms (an axial movement system). Historically, it was created WITH temporal and spiritual power to symbolise these qualities. Are they still the necessary conditions for good urban design? No living planner or designer has the 'powers' of Sixtus V and Urban VIII. Is this why we are making such disappointing cities?

What are the social, political and economic conditions in which urban landscape design is most likely to flourish? I very much hope my answer to this question is wrong, but here goes: “in cities where an enlightened king was guided by spiritual beliefs”. Why should this be so? (1) Without temporal power, urban design is scarcely possible. (2) without spiritual power, objectives are likely to be short term and non-idealistic (3) short-term commercial and military objectives benefit rulers and disadvantage peoples. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed “Is it not true that professional politicians are boils on the neck of society that prevent it from turning its head and moving its arms?”. “It is not victory that is precious but defeat. Victories are good for governments, whereas defeats are good for the people. After a victory, new victories are sought, while after a defeat one longs for freedom, and usually attains it. Nations need defeats just as individuals need suffering and misfortunes, which deepen the inner life and elevate the spirit.”  The great urban designs were made in periods of faith and monarchy Beijing from 1293-1912, in Isfahan under Shah Jehan, in Rome under the Popes and in Paris under the kings and emperors. What comparable successes can be claimed by the faithless democracies and autocracies of the twentieth century? The great powers of the modern world suffer from not having been defeated in great wars.

Image courtesy RTSS