TOAST Magazine

Currents of Time | A Japanese Garden

RITUAL & REFLECTION

Author Marc Peter Keane reflects on the flow of time within a garden in Kyoto.

For the past two days I have been staying with a poet who lives on the outskirts of Kyoto. The garden is to the rear of his old wooden house, just where the slope of the mountain levels to the valley floor. A quiet place, the garden has more in common with the mellow rhythms of the forest than the urgency of the nearby city, and the earthen wall that surrounds it is only partially successful at dividing it from the woods beyond.

My host, Yukio, now in his mid-seventies, is endearingly old-fashioned. More often than not he strolls about in wooden sandals and kimono, sporting a dapper, wide-brimmed linen hat in the turn-of-the-century Taisho style. Like his clothes, his house is traditionally appointed, except for the veranda where I now sit and on which he has set two low rattan chairs and a small table.

Called an engawa, the veranda is less than a meter wide, floored with long, slim planks of fine-grained wood. It serves as both a corridor connecting the rooms of the house and as a place from which to enjoy the garden. Sitting here alone today, sipping pale green tea, I watch the morning light fall softly over the budding camellia, reflecting on when I last saw the garden—how then, as now, it seemed to capture a moment of time.

The sun, having risen above the grove of bamboo, angles into the veranda and warms my legs, illuminating the page of a book that lies open on the table. The book is a Japanese commentary on the I Ching, an ancient Chinese classic that delves into the mysteries of the physical world. The I Ching has been called the Book of Changes, a name that reveals the central theme of the text: change is no more than the outward manifestation of time. I have brought the commentary with me in the hope that it will prove useful as a guide to change, and thus to time, in the garden.

Like a river that flows at different speeds, there are many different currents of time within the garden. If plum blossoms and new leaves signify brevity, then the depth of time, as can only be revealed at a slower meter, is manifest elsewhere: in the patina of old clay walls, soft-green edging on their weathered brown scars; in the luster of granite paving stones polished smooth by the touch of passing feet; in the thick trunk and massive crown of the camphor tree that records the passage of centuries.

The wind picks up momentarily and my eye is caught by supple waving branches: a young silk tree at the east side of the garden. In Japan it is called the “sleeping tree,” nemunoki, because of the way its fernlike leaves fold up each evening, closing for the night as if going to sleep. At dawn the morning light urges them open again. The silk tree reminds me that the cadence of time in the garden is not just linear—not just a matter of being slow or fast—it is also cyclical.

Some day I would like to map that flow of time. I would draw it in fine gold lines on a large sheet of dark indigo paper the way the ancients used to write their sutras, one line for each thing in the garden: pine, maple, rock, brook, garden wall. Each would trace a spiral path, circling back upon itself to reflect the cyclical changes of the seasons, but also moving forward across the page expressing the changes inherent in linear time. A map of time in the garden would develop that way: dizzy spirals, thousands of them, twisted around each other, intersecting, falling away, regrouping—in the end, mazelike scribbles, incomprehensible but to the mind of God.

Although cycles of time can express consistency or permanence, in the garden the clearest symbol of eternity is the rock, an image of the mountain. Stones have been seen as icons of mountains since ancient times, like those that were used to represent Mount Sumeru, which the Buddhist and Hindu religions propose to be the center of the universe. Sumeru is described in legend as being immobile, unchanging, the one fixed element in the Great Flux. Rocks are of course not immutable; they change, but at a pace so slow that, when compared to our lives, they do seem eternal. In Yukio’s garden there is one rock set apart, somewhat higher than the others, loosely pyramidal, with outward sloping sides. It too is a symbol of an eternal mountain, a reference against which to measure oneself. It doesn’t matter that it is not actually eternal, because it is simply an icon representing an ideal, a belief in something that cannot be . . . that which is without time.

These patterns of time are in the garden and yet they are also in the wild. Plum trees flower there just as readily and granite mountains dwarf any garden rock. The difference between the wild and a garden is that the images of time in the garden are there because we put them there. In the same way we capture a moment of time when we write a poem or brush ink to paper, we plant a plum in the garden to revel in the beauty inherent in the brevity of life, or we set a rock there to give ourselves a glimmer of hope that there may be in this transient world things that are eternal.

Yukio calls from the next room. I close the book on the table and sip the last drop from my cup, taking a few tea leaves with it. They taste green, like grass. I should go and see what he wants, but I linger at the garden’s side.

An edited excerpt from The Art of Setting Stones & Other Writings from the Japanese Garden by Marc Peter Keane, Stonebridge Press, 2002. Illustration by Marc Peter Keane. Written for the philosophical gardener (or the gardening philosopher), The Art of Setting Stones teaches readers how to truly see the Japanese garden, exploring how Japanese gardens are both a microcosm of the universe and a clear expression of our humanity and how we think, worship and organise our lives and communities. 

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