Category Archives: Buddhist gardens and environmental ethics

Japanese Zen Gardens by Yoko Kawaguchi and Alex Ramsay Frances Lincoln 2014 – review

Tenryu-ji, photographed by Alex Ramsay

Tenryu-ji, photographed by Alex Ramsay

This book has excellent photographs, by Alex Ramsay, and the inclusion of garden plans is most welcome. Kawaguchi writes with admirable clarity about Zen gardens – compared to those I have seen of the 1,926 books on Amazon returns for a search on Zen Gardens. Allen Weiss, for example, begins Zen Landscapes (2013) by stating that ‘The essential elements of the dry Japanese garden are few: rocks, gravel, moss’. Kawaguchi explains that this is not how ‘Zen garden’ is used in Japan: it simply means ‘the garden of a Zen temple’ and such gardens are not stylistically distinct from other Japanese temple gardens. So Weiss should have used kare-sansui or dry landscape in his book title. I would also complain if ‘Protestant’ was the adjective used, overseas, for the gardens of eighteenth century England. I therefore recommend Kawaguchi as the first book to read on Zen gardens. Yet there are some critical points to make. First, I would like the introduction to have said more about the principles of Buddhism, the distinct characteristics of Zen Buddhism and the relationship between Buddhism and gardens. Second, the plans lack contours and, to my eye, look too English. Third, I would like the points made to have had bibliographic references. I do not think this would have spoiled the book design and I do not think it would have mattered if the references were to Japanese publications which English readers cannot follow.
Part One of the book gives a historical overview of the gardens made for Japanese Zen temples. The first such temples are dated to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (while the first Buddhist gardens in Japan date from the sixth century). The influence of Chan Buddhism, from China, which became Zen Buddhism in Japan, is associated with the Emperor Kameyama. He abdicated at the age of 24, in 1274, and became a Buddhist monk in 1289 and the abbot of Nanzen-ji. Ryoan-ji, which fascinates visitors and provides foreigners with their image of a ‘Zen garden’, is a mystery. Little is known of its date or its symbolism: ‘it is almost as though visitors to the temple have needed to be reassured that the garden is indeed a work of genius rather than a case of humbug’ (p.61). Kawaguchi also discusses the influence of Zen on twentieth century gardens, notably in the work of Shigemori Mirei.

Part Two of the book reviews the symbols and motifs used in Zen gardens. Many have Buddhist roots and many do not. The view from Shinju-an (illustrated below) uses symbols drawn from the beliefs of pre-Buddhist Japan: Shinto. Other symbols come from Daoism and China, including the turtle, the crane and the islands of the immortals.

My view is that it is pity to make either ‘Japanese gardens’ or ‘Zen gardens’ without the understandings of ideas and symbols which Kawaguchi provides. To state a tautology: the gardens of Zen temples are temple gardens.


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).

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.

Two modern Buddhist garden designs at the 2013 Chelsea Flower Show

After publishing six short videos on Buddhist gardens on this blog last week, you can well imagine that I was delighted to find two contemporary Buddhist-inspired garden designs at the 2013 Chelsea Flower Show: The Sound of Silence garden by Fernando Gonzalez and the Mindfulness garden by Martin Cook. Martin won a Gold Medal and Fernando a Silver-Gilt Medal – my explanation is that Fernando did not include flowers in his design. It is, after all, the Chelea FLOWER Show. My suggestion was that the wavy white mountains could stand in a lotus pond (following the traditional pattern of mandalas and mandala gardens). Congratulations to them both – I believe that Buddhist ideas have an illustrious future in gardens – less as representations of the Buddha than as interpretations of the Dharma. Fernando admires Japanese Zen gardens. They derive from Chinese ideas and I look forward to the day when Chinese landscape architects and garden designers recover their long-lost interest in Buddhist philosophy. That day will surely dawn.

The Dragon Garden in Shey and Landscape Architecture for the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh, India

This is the sixth of 6 videos on the relationship between Buddhism and garden design.
The Dragon Garden in Shey, Ladakh, India, is being made under the influence of Buddhism but is a secular school within the Indian School system. The architecture, based on an mandala, is by Arup Associates. The garden and landscape design is by the department of landscape architecture at the University of Greenwich in London. It extends the mandala concept outward from the school buildings. The Druk White Lotus School (DWLS) is under the patronage of the Dalai Lama and is funded by a UK-based charity, the Drukpa Trust.
The influence of Buddhism on garden design is explained in an eBook