The Dojo Garden

I’ve come to Kyoto solely to view the greatest concentration of Japanese gardens in the world. For the past two weeks, I’ve done nothing but visit these exquisite gardens all day, and I still can’t get enough of them. It is not just for aesthetic reasons. These gardens get me thinking more broadly about my own gardening practice and its place in my relationship with nature.

Accustomed to the generous canvasses of Melbourne gardens, I find the constraints imposed by my tiny Sydney backyard painful. There’s no choice but to look to the masters of the small garden, the Japanese. Not to copy, but to draw on their aesthetic principles of scale, restraint, asymmetric balance and form, with plants tolerant of Sydney’s unreliable, temperate climate. The resulting garden has been a dance of delight and surprise.

My pilgrimage to the source of inspiration has been revealing, not least due to the deep presence of ritual woven through the culture. As I wander around Kyoto, visiting as many of the open gardens as I can without rush, I stumble upon Keishun-in, a small, obscure temple in the maze of narrow lanes and sub-temples of the Myoshinji Temple complex in northwestern Kyoto. Outside the meditation hall (dojo), the calm of the garden is almost tangible as I sink down into the Zen chanting ritual.

Even before I enter this temple, some indefinable quality about it attracts my attention. Just through the main entrance, to my right, a stone pathway leads to a little side gate half open, revealing, tantalising. Beside the path, a few rocks, moss, azaleas – the usual elements of a Japanese garden. And yet there is something else.

I peer through the half open gate. There’s no one in sight. Normally, I would regard this as an invitation to explore further. Well, sneak in, really.

It’s a kind of personal protest at the overly regimented system of garden visiting that I dislike so much. Or perhaps it’s just a sign of immaturity, of someone who has never quite grown out of the childhood habit of sneaking into other people’s gardens for a look. Whatever the case, an open garden gate holds a particular fascination for me.

But this time something stops me. I stand at the threshold equivocating. There is something about this garden that invites (‘demands’ is too strong a word) respect. Where does this invitation come from? I’m not able to say. But neither am I able to pass through the gate. I return to the main path and approach the ticket office. No one is there. But as I’m removing my shoes to enter, a screen door slides open and a young woman with a sunny, open face emerges and we go through the traditional exchange: the entrance fee, a nod of acknowledgement. Through a doorway behind her, I glimpse figures seated cross-legged in meditation. The calm quiet of the meditation seems to permeate the wood of the buildings, and the gardens beyond. I follow a veranda around to the back of the dojo to the viewing garden.

On entering, I find a collection of close-set wooden buildings. Amongst them, is a series of interconnected verandas with very low roofs, and a network of tiny courtyard gardens – each one a masterpiece. The whole effect is very intimate. The plants rise up from below, some to eye level and higher, their sculptured shapes both individual and connected to the others. The space between them has a presence more tangible than air. I feel like I’m looking at an underwater scene, one almost hyper-real.

I round the corner of the dojo and the main garden opens out before me: small by Western standards, but expansive after the intimacy of the courtyards. There are several other visitors here, though little talk. Each person sits or stands quietly looking out onto the garden. And when they do speak, it’s in hushed tones. But it is no public-library style enforced silence, which reminds me again of that word, invitation.

Here in the garden the hustle and bustle of cycling through busy Kyoto traffic, reading maps, dodging taxis, locating temples, lenses, and shutter speeds falls away.

Awkwardly, self-consciously, I bend down and fold my legs to sit on the polished timbers of the veranda. It has been a while since I sat on the floor.

Subtly, but inexorably I’m drawn into the overall beauty of the garden. The interplay of shapes and textures, shadow and light. At first my eyes rove over the whole composition – feasting.

Delicate maples, gnarled pines with knobbly, horizontal branches, green velvety moss, the soft/solid azalea balls, rough, lichen-encrusted, pitted rocks, the foreground expanse of raked gravel together forming a scale model of nature’s beauty.

Nature idealised. And yet the garden itself is no abstract ideal. On the contrary, it has a powerful presence, almost too real. As though you can feel its many textures without touch. And there is something else – a subtle feeling or atmosphere that pervades the garden. What is it? Calmness, I think, a kind of settling into oneself.

Gradually my eyes’ wandering slows to focus on a single rock: its shape and the way it leans so slightly towards a neighbouring rock. The differing colours of the lichen blotches; the fine, smooth texture of the surface, and the pattern of light and inky black shadows caused by the long fissures down its face. Shadows themselves seem to take on a presence here, as though it might be possible to see into them, into the rock – something.

Behind me in a little room off the meditation hall, a chant starts up. First one voice and then several others repeat a rapid series of syllables in a low pitch. A gong sounds, the chanting stops and the sound of the resonating gong is left hanging in the air, slowly, slowly, growing softer until there is nothing – just the silence, and the faint splashing sound of a small waterfall at the far end of the garden. The sound of the water stands out, crystal clear, in the silence, like a spot lit figure in the dark.

After a while, the single voice resumes the chant. The other voices join in until the gong sounds and slowly fades. This ritual repeats and, like the sound of the gong, time seems to stretch out to nothing. Gone. I completely lose my sense of time. At some point, the chanting ceases and people shuffle quietly behind me until they too are gone. At some point, my sense of time slowly returns, and then the garden. Then my knees, which I notice are near numb. I have no idea how long I’ve been sitting. I feel very calm and contented – except for the gnawing in my stomach that tells me it’s long past lunch.

There is no doubt; this garden has touched me deeply. I’ve only ever been able to achieve this profound sense of calm through meditation in the past. To discover that a garden can conjure up a meditative state without effort is both surprising and inspiring for me, because I don’t normally think of gardens as emotionally moving in this way. They’re a long way removed from the things that usually arouse me emotionally: my relationships with people, or great art.  And yet, like great art, this garden has touched me deeply.

We featured a story about the design philosophy of Japanese temple gardens earlier this month, with more gorgeous images by Claire Takacs. Check out the story here.