Japanese gardens, however abstract, are a representation of the natural world and they are designed to draw the viewer into contemplation of their relationship with that world. They teach you to see. On a morning of pouring rain, disoriented by jet lag I visited two gardens in the temple complex at Daitokuji in Kyoto.
Ryogen-ji was my first zen garden. It was exactly like the pictures, a composition of carefully arranged rocks in a sea of raked gravel, the whole set against a plain painted wall topped with tiles. But it was so much more than that. I was in a group and we all fell silent as one by one we sat down and started our own private conversations with the garden. For ten minutes there wasn’t a sound. The Japanese say the garden is incomplete without the observer. How right they are.
Our guide was quite enigmatic about meanings, very Zen? “The rocks might suggest meanings but each observer brings their own experience so a garden might mean something to one person and something else to another. Make of it what you will, the important thing is to be present, here.”
The next garden, so different, is rarely open. I saw a random collection of birches and between them rocks of various shapes and sizes, bushes, ferns and some small grasses. At first no discernable structure or design; but then I sat and looked some more. Each element, be it tree, rock, or small plant was one corner of a triangle and the smallest element in one triangle was the largest in the next so a network of interlocking triangles extended all through the garden and down to the smallest tuft of grass or pebble. I became completely immersed and I was unaware of even the rain dripping from the gutters as I traced out triangle after triangle.
One day, two gardens. One minimal, uplifting and inspiring, the other intricate and deeply relaxing. Those Zen masters knew what they were doing.