Landscape As Spirit: Creating a Contemplative Garden
by Martin Mosko and Alxe Noden
(Learn more about Landscape as Spirit.)
Chapter 1: The Ground as Mandala
Reprinted with permission from Weatherhill, Inc. Copyright 2003. Full text, partial images.
A contemplative garden is a place to discover the magic of who we are and how we join with the world around us. By engaging and delighting the senses, it brings the mind to attention, to a fuller awareness not only of the natural world, but also of the sacred that inhabits the space. It is landscape as spirit.
Landscape architecture has often abandoned this dimension of garden-making. The aim of much of today’s design is to create an elegant solution to a specific set of problems. This might involve environmental and urban planning, arranging pedestrian traffic flow on a campus, softening the lines of a structure, or the integration of that structure with its surroundings. These are worthwhile achievements, hut they are not the reason for making a garden.
Martin Mosko’s journey has been an exploration of the subject of the garden as a creation where the spirit can play. He has been building gardens for almost thirty years, developing his own style and his own understanding of what the creation of a garden is about on a spiritual level. Once he tried to explain his point of view to some of his students in a park design class. He asked them to imagine that they had been sent to Earth, where they would see the wonders of the planet: its rivers, mountains, lakes, oceans, flowers, and trees. When they return home, how would they re-create the Earth’s splendor in miniature, distilling the essence of its spirit? This is the garden builder’s mandate. The motivation for creating the garden is more than a search for something to please the eye. The question is how to use a meditative understanding to organize and transform a space.
What does it mean to create a contemplative garden? Thinking of garden design in these terms means to go beyond considerations of style. A contemplative space can look like a Japanese Zen garden of raked sand and rock, or like an English country garden overflowing with flowers and greenery. These descriptions only tell you what flavor the garden has, or what culture has informed its design, not whether it has that extra dimension of spirit and magic. To understand the creation of a garden at this level, the designer must have another, higher paradigm in mind.
One name for this paradigm is a mandala. This term is used to describe both a metaphysical space as well as the physical representation of that space. The mandala is that higher principle, beyond style, which is the basis for the garden infused with spirit.
Humans seem innately drawn to the mandala, which is usually an outer circle filled with inner squares, with entrances and exits. Psychoanalyst C. G. Jung believed it was universally recognizable and a part of the collective unconscious.
We have been building mandalas for nearly as long as records allow us to know. The shape of may have evolved from ritual circles used in the earliest religious rites. The ziggurats made in Mesopotamia five thousand years ago took the shape of a mandala. We can see mandalas in the rose windows in European cathedrals.
Mandalas began to be used to invoke some higher sense of being in the person viewing them or entering them. Native Americans use mandala representations of the cosmos as part of their healing ceremonies. Among the Navajo these take the form of sandpaintings which show the balance of all nature’s forces. A Tibetan teacher describes a mandala as a space which “integrates shapes and colors with the elements and the points of the compass in a symmetrical representation of the harmony of the universe.”
What this book means by “mandala” is any organization of garden space that consciously invites and summons invisible energies, whether they are called angels or deities or Buddha nature. The physical shape this takes does not matter. The mandala is the space in which the inner world of the self meets the outer world; it is where absolute reality meets and is expressed as form.
A garden mandala overlays an existing energetic pattern. The existing pattern is the topography, the way the wind blows through, the way the plants have adapted to conditions, the way the drainage works. We might call this the “relative system.” In making the garden, we are overlaying this with a design that reflects the “ultimate system.” The ultimate is reality as we experience it in meditation, the clear perception of the way all things, seen and unseen, exist. It is marked by balance, harmony, and calm. The best design merges relative and ultimate so that they are not separate, they interpenetrate and are interdependent. When this merger occurs, a contemplative space arises. This joining of inner and outer realities is the most profound aspect of a garden as mandala.
A garden based on a traditional idea of a mandala, a circle with entrances and exits (pg. 8).
There are other means of creating mandalas, so why do people create gardens? Because in our quest for order and pattern, in our attempt to embrace chaos through meaning, we turn to the most material element possible, the earth. The Native Americans and the Tibetans use sand to make a mandala. A gardener uses rock, water, plants, paths, and light. Unlike a sand mandala, which is an aid to visualizing a perfect world, a garden mandala is magic itself, bringing blessings to and infusing all who enter it with its spirit. This enables the well-made garden to become a trigger for a contemplative state, a means of invoking a different state of mind in the viewer.
In our usual cement-covered environments, designed for efficiency and utility rather than ease or inspiration, it is difficult to enter or remain in a state of calm awareness. Our minds are rushed and scattered as we ride the bus, drive the roads, or navigate the corridors of our work spaces. A garden offers other possibilities. If it is only decoration of the architecture or a means to direct the flow of traffic, then it does no more for us than any other structure. But if it is made with the intention of creating a contemplative space, if it arises from the right state of mind, and with the right understanding of the materials used and how they relate to one another and the overall plan, then a garden becomes a living shrine. The harried, unhappy mind has no encouragement in such a place. It relaxes into a state of sanity.
A garden mandala overlays an existing energetic pattern (pg. 11).
From a garden design point of view, the mandala is an organized collection of metaphors made up of the elements of the garden: mountains, rivers, ponds, verandas, grottoes, gazebos, valleys, meadows, forests, and so on. They are metaphors because they are more than the materials or assemblages themselves. Each element represents some aspect of a deeper mind, just as colored sand poured into a pattern can stand for a deity in a Tibetan mandala.
Finding and using the correct design metaphors for a contemplative garden require a preparation of mind that is more than simply sitting down with pen and paper. There is a direct correspondence between the outer mandala of the garden and what we might call the inner mandala of the body and mind. The garden one creates depends on the state of the inner mandala. If the designer has a busy and distracted mind, or cannot feel the balance of the elements inside his or her own body, a busy and distracted garden results. Nothing in it is ever quite right, and the viewer cannot feel intuitively at rest. If instead the gardener designs from a meditative mind, a quiet mind and clear body, the garden is balanced and healing.
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Magic can occur when all the elements are present and balanced (pg. 12).
When this state of mind is made manifest, both the process of creation and the object created are contemplation. When a good calligrapher begins with the meditative mind, drawing characters is a contemplative process, and the finished calligraphy is a contemplative object. It is the same for designing a garden: a contemplative garden arises from a meditative mind, the process of design and building is contemplation, and when finished, the garden becomes an object of contemplation.
There are many metaphorical systems incorporating the elements that can be used to organize the garden. Undoubtedly there are as many ways to conceptualize space as there are people. Certain systems, though, have developed in both Oriental and Occidental cultures for centuries and have been used repeatedly in garden design. Of these, three are used throughout this book.
First is the Heaven/Earth/Man system, which considers the garden a space in which each of these parts must be represented. Inthis system, used widely in Japanese flower arranging schools and in other schools of thought about cosmological organizing principles, each of these parts must he present in a balanced way to bring the garden together. The Heaven element is the tallest, towering over the others as the protection, the roof, and representing a limit of the unreachable. Earth is the base, low and powerful and spreading. Man exists between these elements, resting on but rising higher than Earth, hut not so far as Heaven. This natural hierarchy is expressed through the relationship of the three parts and is made manifest by the materials that represent each part.
Second is the five-element system, based on Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space. In this system, Earth is the fixed element. The Water element connects and eases. The Fire element is the energy of the sun. Air can also he thought of as wind, or moving energy. Space, the background to all things manifest, is symbolized by the empty quality in the garden. Wonderful magic can occur when all these elements are present and balanced.
Finally, on the most esoteric and perhaps most important level, materials in the garden can represent the three aspects of enlightened mind. First is the Absolute, the wisdom nature of enlightenment. The Manifest is the form we can perceive and contact through our senses. It is enlightenment appearing to living beings. The Connection is communication, the link between the Absolute and the Manifest, the compassion of an enlightened being. Again, the garden is incomplete unless it contains all three aspects.
The Heaven/Earth/Man metaphor helps to understand the physical relationships among the garden’s materials, the five element system relates to the energetic properties of the materials, and the Absolute/ Communication/Manifest metaphor is a means to understand the metaphysical relationship among the materials.
It is critical to remember that each of these metaphorical systems is only a means to interpret or understand a mandala. A garden begins with a poetic vision, not an intellectual concept. Once the vision arises, these metaphorical systems are useful in helping to use the materials of the garden, and in understanding how those materials relate to one another, how balance is achieved. Any material can be any part of these systems. For example, in a three-stone rock arrangement, one upright boulder can be Heaven, a flat, low-lying boulder can be Earth, and an intermediate boulder can be Man. Just as easily, though, the Man part of this system could be represented by a dwarf tree that is taller than the Earth rock and shorter than the Heaven rock. In a garden that contains Earth, Fire, Air, and Space, there will be no sense of completion without Water also being represented. If there are restrictions on the use of water due to cost or other considerations, then a dry streambed of small cobblestones could become the Water element and create the necessary balance. The water in a pond can actually be the Earth element if it is juxtaposed with a boulder as the Man element and a tall tree as Heaven. The meaning of the materials themselves is entirely mutable. What is important is the metaphor and how the materials are used to complete it.
The garden mandala must also take account of the dwelling of the people who own it. The home doesn’t exist on its own, it exists in an environment. By its orientation to that environment it creates its own energetic field, or feeling, which becomes part of the garden’s pattern. The metaphors used in the garden should be appropriate to the house and congruent with its environment.
Garden design teaches the laws of nature: it reacquaints us with the gross level of gravity, masses, balance, and the nature of water to seek a level. It assists us in mindfulness, since the gardener must be aware of the health of the living materials of the design, and plan for their well-being. It teaches an appreciation for the unseen, in dealing with the energy of the land and with the power of the earth itself.
Garden design can also be a path of transformation. The designer must become familiar with the inner mandala, the inner workings of the body and mind, in order to create a contemplative space. In the garden, constants are understood through change. The flow of seasons and the growth and death of the plants are the flow of life. Yet the relationships among the elements of the mandala remind us of the unchanging nature of ultimate reality, which is experienced both internally and externally. The process of visualizing and creating a contemplative garden offers an opportunity to explore these dimensions of reality in oneself.
This is a book about building contemplative gardens, but it is also about creating a contemplative life. This does not mean living alone in seclusion or rejecting the world outside the garden walls. It meanslooking deeply into one’s own mind to discover its nature, its balance, and its harmony, and using that understanding in re-creating the environment outside yourself.