Antoine Gournay: Japanese gardens, an open door to the sacred

- through Henry Oudin

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The Japanese gardens, which appeared in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, were largely inspired by their Chinese counterparts underlines Antoine Gournay, professor of art history and archeology of the Far East at Sorbonne University, and deputy director of the Center of Research on the Far East of Paris-Sorbonne (CREOPS), which also evokes their spiritual and agricultural dimension.

When did the first Japanese gardens date back?

It was in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries of our era that the Japanese came into contact with the Chinese civilization which then radiated throughout the Far East. And it was at this time that they borrowed some of its most characteristic features: its writing, its Buddhist tradition, its architectural system and its refined art of gardens.

What are their main constituent elements?

Since time immemorial, people have worked to create balanced and harmonious landscapes, what in the Far East are called mountain and water compositions (sansui). The garden makes it possible to give life, in three dimensions, to the landscapes imagined by the painters.

“Dry gardens, made of stone and raked white sand, can serve as a medium for meditation. »

Garden designers begin by digging a pond. Then they build streams, waterfalls, and form artificial mountains and small islands using the excavated earth to make the body of water, but also using rocks. The Chinese were the first to introduce rocks to symbolize the mountain, before being imitated by the Japanese in the XNUMXth century. The famous dry gardens (kare sansui, “dry landscape”, in Japanese), made of stone and raked white sand, are typically Japanese. It was in the XNUMXth century that Zen monasteries began to equip themselves with these gardens, which were extremely bare and made up solely of mineral elements.

Do they all have a spiritual dimension?

The dry gardens are presented as enigmas (koan) which can serve as a support for meditation. It is not uncommon to see, in old photos, monks in a posture of meditation in front of these " zen gardens ". It is certain that gardening, raking and weeding develop concentration and a form of detachment from the mind. But these gardens also had, in the beginning, in addition to their aesthetic and spiritual dimension, a productive function. They fed the community while providing it with the flowers and fruits used for offerings in Buddhist temples.

What is the symbolism, the hidden meaning of the tea pavilions that are sometimes found in these gardens?

It was Chinese Buddhist monks who, in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), were the first to consume tea in order to stay awake during their long meditation sessions. Japanese monks then took up this habit. And several great masters then developed the way of tea (Chado), the art of preparing, serving and sharing tea. This ceremony takes place in ad hoc pavilions surrounded by a small garden. In these very bare spaces, only the alcove, the tokonoma, inspired by the architecture of Buddhist monasteries, is decorated. Part of the teachings of the way of tea have their roots in this monastic heritage.

Plants also have a spiritual dimension...

Yes, this is particularly the case with the lotuses which plunge their roots into the mud before emerging on the surface of the water, producing a very beautiful flower. The lotuses, which symbolize faith and the progress of the disciple towards enlightenment, are found in all Buddhist art, in India, China and Japan. Buddha statues are often seated on a "lotus throne". This explains why so many lotuses were cultivated in these gardens.

How do the Japanese gardens created in France differ from their counterparts born in the Land of the Rising Sun?

Those created in France have reinterpreted Japanese gardens in their own way. They are often the work of Japanese culture and art enthusiasts. Others were developed during town twinnings. The small Japanese garden of the Albert Kahn museum in Boulogne-Billancourt, created in 1908-1909 with the support of Japanese specialists, before being refurbished several times, is one of the most beautiful. Do not miss the garden of the 1th arrondissement of Paris, laid out on Place de Fontenoy, at the headquarters of Unesco. This 700 m2 garden, combining oriental landscape art and contemporary works, was designed in 1957, under the leadership of Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American architect

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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