What is a Japanese Water Garden?
The Japanese Water Garden can be divided in three main time periods. In the Heian period (785-1184), the book Sakuteiki was written as a guide to future Japanese Buddhist water gardeners, describing the ideal paradise on earth. After the Heian period, the simplicity of Zen teachings, to represent nature instead of imitating nature became Japanese garden tendency and slowly cut away large uses of water. But with the revolutionary tea master Sen Rikkyu (1552-1591) the Japanese gardens reintroduced water for the Chado tea ceremony.
The Heian period marks the evolution of water gardens for not only the Japanese but also the world. No other culture, not even the Chinese or Romans had come to such systematic and ordinated rules and methods for water gardening than the aristocrats of this time in Japanese history. The writing of the Sakuteiki simply left a historical record of what the Japanese already knew and had been practicing for centuries. How, water should flow, in what direction, how rocks should be placed, where and why. These factors are still known and taken into account today, as the principles of paradise on earth.
With the demise of the Heian period, Japan fell into a cold, Zen criticism of the world, and this reflected in Japanese Gardening, as the usage of small rock gardens could potentially represent entire mountain ranges. The use of sand in place of water, and rocks instead of trees, or flowers in place of forests, became ways of simplifying meditation and interpretation.
However, with the birth of Chado, the Japanese tea ceremony, San Rikkyu transformed the garden into a path known as “roji” that would help remind the invited guest of the tea ceremony and of what the secret Buddhist teachings and principles behind tea really were, those of “wabi” or a humble state of mind and “sabi” the humble state of being (used in the layout of the garden). By using the tea ceremony as a way to cultivate spirituality both the similitude of Zen gardens and the paradise nature of Sakuteiki, these Japanese water gardens are the most important to Japanese culture. It is said that once upon building a tea house on the ocean front for a samurai lord, Rikkyu cut out the view of the ocean completely; the lord was most displeased, till he reached down to the water basin to wash his face, in which moment his eyes were filled with the image of the ocean and he understood his own connection with the ocean in that moment while purifying his body.
Later, other Japanese gardeners, produced imitations and remakes of legendary gardens from each of these styles, in no way really developing anything particularly revolutionary. The main tendencies in a Japanese water garden today will include certain distinct features that can only be found within these styles. The point, however, to any Japanese water garden is simplicity, clarity of mind and body, and enlightenment.
To achieve enlightenment, some things have been included in modern day Japanese water gardens. Yastu-hatchi eight fold narrow wooden bridges, remind the travelers of the roji, that the path and how we walk it, is far more important than the goal to be reached. Stones, sand and pedestal lanterns thrive as focal points that add the proper perspective whether it be mystical tradition, slow contemplation, or the passage of time. Moss is used in reference to enlightenment and can be found in metaphorical ways to describe poetic notions used in the traditional Japanese water garden.