Full Monty

Monty con­sid­ers how we love our gar­dens to be burst­ing with life, while the Ja­panese have a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent way of think­ing

Gardeners' World - - Contents -

have just re­turned from a long film­ing trip in Ja­pan – the sec­ond this year – that will re­sult in two pro­grammes ap­pear­ing on your screens in Fe­bru­ary. This was my third visit to Ja­pan, and I now feel that as well as lov­ing and ad­mir­ing Ja­panese gar­dens, I am be­gin­ning to un­der­stand them a lit­tle. But Ja­panese gar­dens are hard for the western eye and mind. They are, by and large, not hard to like, or even love. But that love is al­ways tem­pered by a de­gree of in­com­pre­hen­sion. Many years ago, I stud­ied Zen Bud­dhism but I came to re­alise that I would have to learn Ja­panese in or­der to re­ally un­der­stand what was be­ing said. Too much was be­ing lost in trans­la­tion. In many ways, it is the same with their gar­dens. You need to study Ja­pan, the his­tory of its cul­ture, Zen and Shin­to­ism be­fore you can re­ally get in­side them. But two lit­tle words help hugely – and have real sig­nif­i­cance in any gar­den, any­where in the world: ma and mu. Mu means empti­ness or noth­ing. It ac­counts for the empty spa­ces of raked gravel or ex­panses of moss, and re­flect the empty mind that is the ideal state for Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion and the pre­req­ui­site of satori, or en­light­en­ment. So, it is an es­sen­tial part of Zen gar­dens but also spe­cific to them. They were orig­i­nally made as an aid to med­i­ta­tion and so their empti­ness was (ex­cuse the para­dox) a crit­i­cal com­po­nent. Ma, how­ever, is much more gen­eral and per­ti­nent to any gar­den. Ma, which is es­sen­tially a Shinto con­cept, refers to the sig­nif­i­cance and bal­ance of the space be­tween things. The best de­scrip­tion I’ve been given was by the gar­den de­signer and Zen monk Shun­myo Ma­suno. He held up the fin­gers of his right hand and said that ma was the space be­tween the fin­gers, and as he did so, his hand and fin­gers moved and re­ar­ranged them­selves a lit­tle. Ma is the pre­cise and spe­cific ar­range­ment of stones in a gar­den or the gap be­tween very care­fully twisted and shaped branches in ike­bana, or flower ar­rang­ing. Ma is the space be­tween petals or leaves, or the air be­tween branches in a pine tree. It is also based on the be­lief that things – be they peo­ple, plants or stones – are de­fined by their re­la­tion­ship with other things. Space is then as full and real as its bound­aries. In other words, ma is ev­ery­where in na­ture and as im­por­tant in a Ja­panese gar­den as any ob­ject or plant. It is easy to think of this as a kind of es­o­teric key to un­der­stand­ing Ja­panese style and gar­dens, but I think it is more than that. It is the clear­est and best-ex­pressed ver­sion of what al­most ev­ery gar­den and ev­ery gar­dener at­tempts to do. In short, the space be­tween things is as im­por­tant, in­ter­est­ing and po­ten­tially beau­ti­ful as the things them­selves. It means that how we ar­range our gar­dens is just as sig­nif­i­cant as what we ar­range them with. For ex­am­ple, a gar­den that is filled with rare and un­usual plants but is poorly laid out can be less beau­ti­ful or re­ward­ing than one com­pris­ing the hum­blest plants and ob­jects, yet which is exquisitely ar­ranged. I now walk around Long­meadow and look at my trees with an eye to cul­ti­vat­ing the spa­ces be­tween branches. Mind you, any ex­cuse to get out the prun­ing saw (Ja­panese, of course) is to be wel­comed. But gar­dens are ar­ti­fi­cial. Shap­ing and prun­ing trees to be their bet­ter selves is no more controlling or ‘un­nat­u­ral’ than bring­ing a canna in from the frost – or, in­deed, nur­tur­ing it in the first place. We de­lude our­selves if we think our gar­dens are not al­ways tightly con­trolled and shaped. Of course, be­ing Bri­tish, there is a com­pro­mise to be had. Some­times a gar­den needs to be ex­u­ber­ant and un­self­con­sciously joy­ful, with the space be­tween the plants and ob­jects al­lowed to sort them­selves out as they may. But now, in the dead of win­ter, when our gar­dens are only sil­hou­ettes, out­lines and shapes, the spa­ces that they cre­ate mat­ter more than ever.

The space be­tween things is as po­ten­tially beau­ti­ful as the things them­selves

Dis­cover the best way to ex­pe­ri­ence Ja­panese gar­dens on page 71

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