Many gardens feature rocks in many ways, whether it’s pebbles, small stones or even large stones or boulders. Rocks provide a path, a focal point and a context for a specific place, what lies below the topsoil and what was there more than eons before the garden existed.
Few garden styles employ rocks as the main element. Such a garden can be both wonderful and thought-provoking, letting the viewer imagine more than what is there.
The “karesansui” style or Japanese rock garden is founded on Zen ideology. It employs millions of small stones, rocks and sand to represent fundamental natural elements. It is designed to be conducive to meditation about the essence of life.
The word “karesansui” in Japanese literally means “dry mountain water”; for example, a dry garden in which water is suggested by rocks and gravel. It likely began sometime in the Muromachi period (1392 to 1568), although there is an even older book from the Heian period (704 to 1185 A.D.) that describes the art of arranging stones in a waterless, elemental garden.
These gardens survive without wells or streams, although mossy plants and clipped evergreens are scattered in the landscape, which changes with the seasons. I think of the Japanese rock garden as living art. The layout of each rock garden considers the surrounding buildings, elevation and distant views.
Another prominent feature is “pattern drawing” with sand or rocks to allude to or resemble oceans, rivers or lakes, including the movement of waves and ripples, which feature in Japanese art.
Perfecting this technique isn’t easy. Maintaining the essence and qualities of the rock garden requires concentration, experience, an empty mind and an understanding of both nature and spiritual philosophy.
Notable examples of this style include the rock garden of Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji Temple and its 15 balancing stones. It is believed that if one could see all 15, one would attain the supreme Zen principle. Originally an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period, it was converted into a Zen temple in 1450. Another is the Ryoan-ji Temple Stone Circle in Tokyo, where there isn’t a single tree, with the exception of moss. Stones are gathered in groups on the sweeping grounds.
The appearance and position of rocks can have a magical effect on viewers, as their own minds will fill in oceans, wave flow and mountains. Any garden would benefit from the Japanese principle of suggestion, letting less speak more. A beautiful simplicity engenders tranquillity of mind and allows the spirit to recover from our stressful times.
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