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Japanese Zen gardens also known as Japanese rock gardens or dry landscape gardens have been a significant part of the Japanese culture for at least ten decades. Their apparent simplicity is attractive to modern citizens who prefer both minimalism and naturalness in design. However, Japanese rock gardens are far more complicated than they seem to be and combine various philosophical approaches and concepts that will be reviewed in this paper.
Nōtan and Mitate
The concepts nōtan and mitate are not specifically connected to Japanese Zen gardens bur rather to all Japanese arts. However, they play an important role in the garden too. Nōtan reflects the combination of light and dark, the balance they create; here, both the light and the darkness are important as the means of creating or waking an emotion (Tonder and Vishwanath 3). Nōtan in a Zen garden is a metaphor for the never-ending change of night and day that are not separated in nature but perceived by humans as opposite definitions.
Mitate is also used in graphics, as well as in architecture. It is a technique that allows attaching several meanings (sometimes in three or four layers) to an object (Maynard 35). For example, a foundation stone of a pillar can be used as a washstand; here, the washstand will have a history connected to another object that merges with its current use (Tonder and Vishwanath 3). Therefore, the rock is neither the foundation stone and nor a simple washstand – it is a new object.
The wabi-sabi concept is one of the key concepts in Japanese rock gardens. Although it is quite complicated and often not clear to Western people, it can be explained as admiring of changing, fragile beauty that represents the spiritual life (Purser 39). All things, no matter how old or ordinary they look, have this beauty. The Zen garden only reflects it with its geometry of gray, asymmetric rocks. Wabi-sabi encourages the viewer to celebrate everyday things.
Garden as the Universe
Reduced scale of the objects is a part of a garden’s philosophy, too. It is a miniature of natural landscapes: rocks as mountains, small springs as rivers, plants as trees. Nevertheless, it is not that simple. The garden is also a symbol for the universe – a small reflection of it.
The garden’s symbolism was influenced by the Chinese philosophy of Tao (Taoism). According to it, several mythical islands in the world are covered with beautiful forests; people who live there do not know either age or death. One of the first proto-Zen gardens consisted of small rocky islands put in a pond. Thus, the garden is a miniature that reflects such tremendous concepts as the universe and the cosmic beings who live on remote islands.
To create a Japanese dry garden, it is not enough to put some rocks and sand in it. The gardens follow a particular philosophy. The first setting of the stones is called shumisen; it symbolizes the mountain in the center of the Universe. Today, this setting can also be interpreted as Buddha stone, Goddess stone, and Child’s stone. Some of the stones should not be used at all because they can ruin the authenticity (e.g. misshapen rocks and vertical rocks situated horizontally). Such stones can bring disorder into the garden; they generally symbolize illnesses or death. As it can be seen, Japanese gardens have a multilayered symbolism that is essential to their design.
Maynard, Senko K. Linguistic Creativity in Japanese Discourse: Exploring The Multiplicity Of Self, Perspective, and Voice, Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing, 2011.
Purser, Ronald E. “Zen and the Art of Organizational Maintenance.” Organizational Aesthetics 2.1 (2013): 34-58. Print.
Tonder, Gert J., and Dhanraj Vishwanath. Design Insights: Gestalt, Bauhaus and Japanese Gardens, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2015.