Monty considers how we love our gardens to be bursting with life, while the Japanese have a radically different way of thinking
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 They were originally made as an aid to meditation and so their emptiness was (excuse the paradox) a critical component.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