Earlier this summer, I had the chance to visit Japan and traveled to many Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto. Kyoto is located in an inland river valley and is surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges. Many of the temples I visited are situated on the outskirts of the city at the base of the mountains where the city ends and the forest begins making for an incredible contrast between urban and rural space. In a way, these temples are a transitory space with one foot in nature and the other in setting is perhaps best described in the Japanese concept of ma, which can mean blankness or distance. Ma is a transitory experiential concept; for example, it is the silence between sounds which gives shape to music.
The focal point of many of these temples is a garden with a large open space and meandering paths. The temples themselves surround these open spaces, which can consist of ponds or dry landscape gardens, or karesansui , and are highly manicured. While these gardens are essentially courtyard spaces, they are never seen in isolation from nature. Often, a view from the engawa, or veranda, of a temple will extend from the garden to the mountains or city beyond which demonstrates the concept of shakkei or borrowed scenery. The karesansui are so detailed that attention is paid to the scale and coloration of the millions of tiny white rocks and sculpted moss that resonate when seen against the fine backdrop of the trees or buildings beyond.
These gardens cultivate an appreciation of ma and therefore an awareness of one’s own consciousness. Like viewing a painting, they are meant to be viewed from afar and are physically inaccessible. Walking through the temple grounds, the emptiness of the gardens heightens one’s awareness of the physicality of the structures themselves and the details of construction in the same way the color blue when placed against the color red highlights the redness of red and vice versa. In this way, the ma of these gardens makes nature more natural and the cities more concrete.