“Tea is nought but this.
First you make the water boil,
Then infuse the tea.
Then you drink it properly.
That is all you need to know.”
It may be hard to believe, but back in the day, many people in my generation were loud, opinionated, and ready to protest anything that offended our sensibilities. It was exhausting work being so passionate and ideological, particularly about stuff I understood so little. Some of us educated hippies who survived mellowed down as we aged. Many of us came late to discover the appeal of Asian arts and philosophies. Something about Eastern arts are particularly peaceful and refreshing to Western eyes, particularly when it comes to gardens. Pictured first is a portion of the zen garden at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park, San Diego.
Like Chinese scholars striving to master the four art forms we cultivated various oriental arts. Some of us got tattoos of Chinese characters. Some of us took calligraphy classes in adult ed. Some of us took up yoga or tai chi or some more clearly martial arts. Some of us became Buddhists, as sincere and innocent as Lisa Simpson. Some - in denial about their OCD - learned to practice the strictly choreographed formal art of tea, or Cha-no-yu, which literally means hot water for tea in Japanese.
I fell in love with the Japanese Tea Garden, a supreme expression in gardening of a style of spare but not austere rusticity. Japanese tea gardens are subtle with muted lights and colors, never flashy with banks of colorful flowers and foliage. Like the tea and the ceremony, Japanese gardens originated in China, a place known for their own unique gardening style that is both substantially different from and similar to what evolved into the Japanese Tea Garden style. My backyard has become what a polite and charitable observer might call a fusion of Japanese Tea Garden and the kind of small scale Chinese Garden designed to permit many small vignettes for “’in position viewing’ i.e. lingering observation from fixed angles” as Chen Congzhou calls them.
Pictured here is the tsukubai arrangement at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. Close outside the door onto the small sheltered patio (the fourth picture, below) is my attempt to create an authentic tsukubai water basin with a stone lantern. Apart from a struggling carpet of thyme which is the closest I can get to moss, there are three small trees: a black pine that will be another 20 years before it even begins to take the shape I intend, a small clumping bamboo, and struggling weeping cherry that I happen to love it despite it’s inappropriateness for this style and for this climate zone. These three – pine, plum, and bamboo – are known as the three friends of winter, which is a story for another post.
Because my backyard is not conveniently located Japanese mountain stream my water basin filled from a small bamboo pipe flows over into a basin with a pump to re-circulates the water. The basin itself is from a local Chinese importer: a grey granite-colored carved stone basin that has been worn shiny and black over the years.
The stone lantern pictured here is a Japanese s style named after a famous tea master Furuta Oribe. An Oribe doro is distinguished by its cleaner line, its secular lack of carvings religious iconography, and its lack of pedestal stone. This one is in the Japanese Friendship Garden has a tiny slice of new moon that would glow when lit in the long summer twilight. A.L. Sadler says (in Cha-No-You: The Japanese Tea Ceremony (1933)), “Where a stone lantern has a ‘New Moon’ shaped opening in its top this should always be turned toward the west, while a Full Moon shaped one should be turned toward the east, but others consider this of no great importance and prefer to turn the lantern so that the light looks best in the garden.” The one pictured here has been placed with the tiny moon facing west.
The partly obscured lantern pictured here in my tsukubai garden is clearly Japanese, with 8-petaled lotus the Buddhist symbol of purity comprising the heavy pedestal, and the top finial shaped like a lotus bud. Called the Kasuga lantern, this style takes its name from the famous Kasuga shrine in Nara.
Apart from the technicalities, there is another deeper layer of understanding tea gardens that appeals to me. Imitating style is relatively easy to learn. Mastering design is difficult. The reasons for this have something to do with the way experts teach. I’m used to the Western approach where it’s all outlined in books with footnotes and exhausting detail. It was relatively easy for me to compose and execute my tsukubai based on a bit of research, a few really nice local rocks, and some plant substitutions: like drought-tolerant creeping thyme in lieu of dew-drenched moss.
Much of what we consider inscrutably mysterious teachings in Japanese expertise - from designing and building tea gardens, to conducting proper tea ceremonies, to that thing about the white cat statues that wave hello - is simply due to the unfamiliar Eastern way of teaching. Asian teachers teach by silence, instead simply doing. The student learns by watching, over and over again, sometimes for years and years, until the student learns how to see and to understand the subtle language of the art. “For it is a rule of this art that its experts do not explain the reason and cause of the things they do in this matter by words but by deeds only, for they leave everything to the consideration and reasoning of their pupils.” (Jao Rodrigues, Account of Sixteenth-Century Japan, quoted in Marc Peter Keane’s The Japanese Tea Garden).
Rikyu’s entire spoken words on teaching the tea ceremony he is largely credited with formalizing is quoted at the top of this post. Simplicity itself. Thus, a wise man once said, the student becomes the master.
All this is to report that we went to a few genuine Japanese gardens last week, notably the Huntington Garden’s Japanese Garden (pictured immediately above) and the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park in San Diego. The more I learn about tea gardens and Asian gardens in general, the more there is to learn, and the more pleasure I derive from the study. Although I love reading and copying and probably corrupting authentic Asian garden styles, I learn more from the pleasure of seeing the real things.