“I celebrate Indrāksī,
Whom the gods glorify with many names:
Bearer of the Conch
Great Heart of Austerity
Splendor of Meditation
Sound-essence of the Wisdom Books
Flame of the Sacred Fire
She of the Terrifying Face
Mistress of Yogic Austerities
She of Unbound Hair
She of Terrifying Form
She of Tremendous Might
Bestower of Auspiciousness
Destroyer of Disease
Beloved of Śiva
Attendant of Śiva
Sword-Flame of Agni’s Fire
She Who Reveals Herself Clearly Before One’s Eyes
Queen of the Universe
Indra’s Cosmic Power
Destroyer of the Demon King
Vanquisher of Camunda
Womb of the Gods
Lady of the Great Boar
Lady of the Man-lion
She of the Terrifying Roar
Mother of the Mind
Daughter of the Himalaya
From Song of the Glorious “Eyes of Indra” translated by Constantina Rhodes, included in her book “Invoking Lakshmi: The Goddess of Wealth in Song and Ceremony”
In the Harry Potter universe, house Hufflepuff seems the least exciting. Hufflepuffs are slow, methodical, dedicated, patient and loyal. Astrologically, they are connected with Taurus, which gives them an earthy, sensual quality. They may lack the charisma of Gryffindor (Leo), but they are the backbone and the salt of the wizarding community. Unlike Slytherins or Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs are not overly ambitious or rebellious. They do not seek attention for attention’s sake. Yet they possess a certain quiet charm and dignity. And they are so immensely steadfast that, if need be, they will sacrifice themselves for their loved ones.
Newt Scamander, sorted into Hufflepuff, the main character of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was born at the end of the nineteenth century. The temporal setting of the movie gives it a quaint, vintage aura, which agrees with Taurus as well since this sign loves the tangible, and puts slowness over speed. The name Newt is quite apt as well, evoking a tiny amphibian, not quite a frog, not quite a lizard, certainly not a dragon. But Hufflepuffs do not attach value judgements to life forms: a newt is as spectacular and miraculous as, say, a Peruvian Vipertooth. Newt’s job as a magizoologist involves the study of magical creatures, protecting them indiscriminately and spreading knowledge about them.
Perhaps like a newt, Newt Scamander seems rather inconspicuous as the movie begins. The action develops rather slowly; the plot is rather predictable. Any danger the characters get themselves in is quite small compared to what was faced by the characters in the previous Harry Potter movies. For me the main strength of the vie is its undeniable charm. New York of the early twentieth century seems so warm and comforting; it envelops the viewer like the Hobbiton village. The magical creatures on the loose are just cute and harmless, with the magnificent Niffler (a beast with an uncontrollable urge to touch sparkling objects) as an ultimate Taurean character.
The non-magical Polish wannabe baker is a kind-hearted, adorable man – nothing like the evil muggles of the Harry Potter universe. This focus on food, warmth and coziness has a very heartwarming effect on the viewer. Comfortingly so, anything that gets destroyed throughout the movie, is rebuilt and repaired at the end at the touch of a magic wand. This is quite refreshing when juxtaposed with the usual action movies relish in showing mayhem, destruction and their eerie aftermath.
All in all, I would give the movie 5/5. A real highlight is Colin Farrel’s performance as a villain. The only drawback is that he will not be coming back in the upcoming instalments.
The term “culture” comes from the Roman orator Cicero, who wrote about cultura animi – cultivation of the soul. The soul, like a rose, needs rich, nourishing soil, a loving care and time to bloom. In a very interesting article “There is no such thing as western civilization” (based on a lecture you can listen to here), Kwame Anthony Appiah reminds us that a culture is not guaranteed through birthright:
“Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the west, however you define it, being western, provides no guarantee that you will care about western civilization. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European. By that very logic, of course, they do not belong to a European who has not taken the trouble to understand and absorb them. The same, of course, is true in the other direction. … we cannot help caring about the traditions of ‘the west’ because they are ours: in fact, the opposite is true. They are only ours if we care about them. … these values represent choices to make, not tracks laid down by a western destiny.”
The whole vastness of world culture is open to the human soul. I was haunted by this thought recently while visiting an exhibition proudly entitled “Renaissance in Europe,” which proved quite a disappointment. Why cut off Europe from the rest of the world like this? Didn’t Renaissance open doors to the vast universe of other cultures? Besides, the rebirth of the wisdom of Ancient Greece and Rome would not have been possible without Muslim scholars, as Appiah reminds us:
“In the centuries that Petrarch called the Dark Ages, when Christian Europe made little contribution to the study of Greek classical philosophy, and many of the texts were lost, these works were preserved by Muslim scholars. Much of our modern understanding of classical philosophy among the ancient Greeks we have only because those texts were recovered by European scholars in the Renaissance from the Arabs.”
The so-called Western identity is a fairly modern concept: it emerged slowly in the nineteenth century, and gained momentum only in the twentieth century. Yet, it was in the Renaissance when contempt for “non-European cultures” was born. Christopher Columbus maintained that the “Indians” he encountered were characterized by “a lack of culture.”
In his reflections on culture, Krishnamurti, typically for him, tries to look deeper beneath the ostentatious differences between various cultures. He sees the cultural patterns of society as something the soul should acknowledge and ultimately free itself from. He writes:
“So the Indian culture is somewhat different from the European culture, but underneath the movement is the same. … The urge to find out what truth is, what God is, is the only real urge, and all other urges are subsidiary. When you throw a stone into still water, it makes expanding circles. The expanding circles are the subsidiary movements, the social reactions, but the real movement is at the centre, which is the movement to find happiness, God, truth; and you cannot find it as long as you are caught in fear, held by a threat. From the moment there is the arising of threat and fear, culture declines.”
I. ”Water nourishes and soothes us. But this same stuff also carved the Grand Canyon out of solid rock over the course of millennia, and every day thunders down with unimaginable fury at Niagara and Victoria Falls.”
II. ”One of the roots for the word ‘water’ comes from the Sanskrit ‘apah,’ meaning ‘animate,’ something that gives life.”
III. “There is nothing softer and weaker than water. And yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong things.” Lao Tzu
IV.”For Leonardo [da Vinci] water was the ‘vehicle of nature’ (‘vetturale di natura’), the driving force behind all natural things. He was obsessed with it.
Water, he reasoned, was the fluid that transported nutrients around the Earth, feeding plants and fields, just as blood … nourished the organs of the human body.”
V. “Water is sometimes sharp and sometimes strong, sometimes acid and sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and sometimes thick or thin, sometimes it is seen bringing hurt or pestilence, sometime health-giving, sometimes poisonous. It suffers change into as many natures as are the different places through which it passes. And as the mirror changes with the colour of its subject, so it alters with the nature of the place, becoming noisome, laxative, astringent, sulfurous, salty, incarnadined, mournful, raging, angry, red, yellow, green, black, blue, greasy, fat or slim. Sometimes it starts a conflagration, sometimes it extinguishes one; is warm and is cold, carries away or sets down, hollows out or builds up, tears or establishes, fills or empties, raises itself or burrows down, speeds or is still; is the cause at times of life or death, or increase or privation, nourishes at times and at others does the contrary; at times has a tang, at times is without savour, sometimes submerging the valleys with great floods. In time and with water, everything changes.” Leonardo da Vinci
VI.”If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.
Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;
My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.”
Philip Larkin, “Water”
All quotes have been taken from The Water Book by Alok Jha.
“Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason the woods were the place where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and to its awe-inspiring workings.”
C.G. Jung, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”
A book The Hidden Life of Trees; What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben was to me deeply comforting and rather alarming in equal measure. The alarming part had to do with a realization that trees are too often treated by humans as objects, forests – as lumber factories. The comfort I found among the book’s pages was a certainty, a scientific fact proven rigorously by the author, that trees are receptacles of the deepest mysteries of life. Wohlleben may be a scientist but he approaches his subject with affection, even devotion. In another book I have been reading in parallel to The Hidden Life of Trees, Alexander von Humboldt is portrayed as a cold-hearted measurer of the world but when he encounters an ancient dragon tree on Tenerife, his cold heart cracks open, if only for a brief moment:
“It had been here before Christ and Buddha, Plato and Tamburlane. Humboldt held his watch up to his ear. It carried time within itself as it ticked away, while this tree warded off time: a crag against which its river broke. Humboldt touched the deeply corrugated trunk. High above, the branches opened out, and the twittering of hundreds of birds pierced the air. Tenderly, he stroked the bark. Everything died, every human being, every animal, every moment. Only one thing endured. He laid his cheek against the wood, then drew back and glanced around horrified in case anyone had seen him.”
Daniel Kehlman, “Measuring the World”
The wealth of information on trees contained in Wohlleben’s book is staggering. He starts by emphasizing the fact that most tree species are communal beings. Forests are “superorganisms” which can be likened to ant colonies. There, nutrients are ceaselessly exchanged, and no member of the community is abandoned in times of need. Why are trees so protective of each other? The author explains:
“Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.”
The primary means of communication among trees is scent. On the Savannah, acacias warn other trees when giraffes start feasting on their leaves. This enables the trees next in line for the predator to emit toxic substances and thus keep the giraffes off. Signals between trees are transmitted by means of fungal connections. Wohlleben uses every opportunity to stress that artificially planted forests (unless they are organic plantations) do more harm than good because they seriously impair trees’ ability to communicate:
“Thanks to selective breeding, our cultivated plants have, for the most part, lost their ability to communicate above or below ground—you could say they are deaf and dumb—and therefore they are easy prey for insect pests. That is one reason why modern agriculture uses so many pesticides. Perhaps farmers can learn from the forests and breed a little more wildness back into their grain and potatoes so that they’ll be more talkative in the future.”
Communication of trees happens both below and above ground. The former is effectuated by means of roots, which for trees extend twice the spread of the crown. Apparently, roots send sound waves (220 hertz) to other roots to communicate about danger. Roots have been compared to brain-like structures; they are neural pathways that transmit both chemical and electrical impulses. How strange that still many scientists refuse to call plants intelligent. Wohlleben reflects:
“The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesizes and the latter eats other living beings. Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. Does that mean that beings that live life in the slow lane are automatically worth less than ones on the fast track?”
A walk through an old-growth forest reduces blood pressure and has a calming effect. Tree plantations do not have the same effect. What is more, forests that have experienced no intervention from foresters, grow more harmoniously:
“Because of the deep shade, wild flowers and shrubs don’t have a chance, so the color brown (from old leaves) predominates on the natural forest floor. The small trees grow extremely slowly and very straight, and their side branches are short and narrow. The old mother trees dominate, and their flawless trunks stretch to the sky like the columns in a cathedral. In contrast to this, there is much more light in managed forests, because trees are constantly being removed. Grass and bushes grow in the gaps, and tangles of brambles prevent detours off the beaten path. When trees are felled and their crowns are left lying on the ground, the debris creates further obstacles. The whole forest presents a troubled and downright messy picture. Old-growth forests, however, are basically very accessible.”
Within the same species, trees do not follow the principle of survival of the fittest. Rather, they “synchronize their performance so that they are all equally successful.” They make it so that they all produce an equal amount of sugar per leaf regardless of their strength or age. Again, it is the roots which are responsible for this equalization of the rate of photosynthesis, as “whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help.” In a natural forest trees grow close to one another. This “huddling together” is an advantage for the whole community since “a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.” However, a lot of foresters remove what in their opinion in an excess of trees. Again, such acts prevent trees from communicating with each other, leaving them at the mercy of predators.
In order for a tree to live a long life, it needs to grow slowly. To that effect, older trees purposefully deprive the young of light so that the rate of their growth becomes restricted. Modern forestry with their eyes on the profit margin does not promote steady and slow growth of trees. Trees are felled before they reach maturity in Europe, where we have lost almost all of true old-growth forests. One example is the primeval Bialowieza Forest on the border of Poland and Belarus, the exclusive refuge of the lowland bison. The Polish government has started logging parts of the forest in recent months, which was met with a public outcry over a destruction of the 10 000- year-old ecosystem.
Ancient trees are crucial for the ecosystem, explains Wohlleben:
“…Dr. Zoë Lindo of McGill University in Montreal researched Sitka spruce that were at least five hundred years old. First of all, she discovered large quantities of moss on the branches and in the branch forks of trees of this advanced age. Blue-green algae had colonized the trees’ mossy cushions. These algae capture nitrogen from the air and process it into a form the trees can use. Rain then washes this natural fertilizer down the trunks, making it available to the roots. Thus, old trees fertilize the forest and help their offspring get a better start in life. The youngsters don’t have their own moss because moss grows very slowly and takes decades to get established.”
Old trees are stronger than young ones; they also grow faster. Thus, they are our most powerful allies in the fight against the climate change. Even dead trees have an important role to play, as a fifth of all animal and plant species depend on them for survival. A felled tree trunk can even serve as a cradle for young trees, especially in the case of young spruces. This process is called “nurse-log reproduction.”
On other continents, the pivotal role of ancient trees is recognized and respected; in fact, it is only in Europe where ancient forests do not receive adequate protection:
“In the United States, forest preserves, such as the Adirondack and Catskill parks in New York State, keep economic interests out of the forests. According to the state constitution, the preserve ‘shall be forever kept as wild forest lands,’ and the timber shall not be ‘sold, removed or destroyed.’ In the wilderness areas of these preserves, most structures are not allowed, power vehicles are banned, and chainsaws require special permits. What started as a measure to ensure that excessive logging in the nineteenth century didn’t lead to soil erosion and silting up of the economically important Erie Canal has turned into a resource dedicated to the forest itself and visitors who ‘leave no trace’ as they pass through. Even more remote is the Great Bear Rainforest in northern British Columbia, which covers almost 25,000 square miles along the rugged coast. Half of this area is forested, including about 8,900 square miles of old-growth trees. This primeval forest is home to the rare spirit bear, which although it is white, is not a polar bear but a black bear with white fur. First Nations in the area have been fighting since the 1990s to protect their homelands. On February 1, 2016, an agreement was announced to keep 85 percent of the forest unlogged, though it does allow for 15 percent of the trees, mostly old growth at low elevations, to be removed. After a long hard struggle, some progress, at least, has been made in protecting this very special place. Chief Marilyn Slett, president of Coastal First Nations, is well aware of the forest’s importance: ‘Our leaders understand our well-being is connected to the well-being of our lands and waters… If we use our knowledge and our wisdom to look after [them], they will look after us into the future.’ The Kichwa of Sarayaku, Ecuador, see their forest as ‘the most exalted expression of life itself.’”
It is no wonder that trees are happiest in the balmy forest. An especially eye-opening chapter of the book was dedicated to “street kids,” that is the trees which live in cities. They suffer very harshly because of the temperature being too high for them, due to the dryness of the air and its pollution. Their bark gets burned and their roots rot because of dogs’ urine. They get damaged heavily by winter salt. Some species of trees suffer more than others when they are torn away from the protective forest. Others, such as poplar, quaking aspen, silver birch and pussy willow are born pioneers and actually enjoy striking out on their own and colonizing new territories. Their seeds can fly longer distances. They often grow alone in wide-open spaces. Therefore, their bark is often lighter in colour to protect them from sun scald. Birches and other lonely wolves among trees typically live more intensively and shorter than oaks, beeches or redwoods which prefer the familial atmosphere of the forest.
I found Wohlleben’s book awe-inspiring. It made me think how it seems that we humans cannot help applying our short-term thinking to beings, which are radically different from us. Trees are slow, still, majestic and, at least compared to us, eternal. They were here before us and will outlive us. Their symbolic meaning is vitally connected with the totality of life processes in the universe: “its consistence, growth, proliferation, generative and regenerative processes,” as Cirlot wrote in his Dictionary of Symbols. The tree represents “absolute reality” positioned at the centre of the world. It is a world-axis connecting the above with the below. There were two trees in Paradise: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. Living and knowing, notices Cirlot, are two distinct and parallel processes. The tree of Life is usually depicted in full bloom, the tree of Knowledge, which brought people death and awareness, is shown as dry or on fire. It is a marvellous coincidence that in scientific taxonomy the endings of the names of trees are masculine whereas their gender is feminine. The tree is a central symbol of totality that connects microcosm and microcosm, the feminine and the masculine, life and death, change and permanence, and other opposites.
Hermann Hesse offered the following beautiful reflections on trees:
“A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”
Hermann Hesse, “Bäume” (Trees)
“A man and a woman lie on a white bed.
It is morning. I think
Soon they will waken.
On the bedside table is a vase
of lilies; sunlight
pools in their throats.
I watch him turn to her
as though to speak her name
but silently, deep in her mouth –
At the window ledge,
a bird calls.
And then she stirs; her body
fills with his breath.
I open my eyes; you are watching me.
Almost over this room
the sun is gliding.
Look at your face, you say,
holding your own close to me
making a mirror.
How calm you are. And the burning wheel
passes gently over us.”
Hatshepsut, a woman pharaoh from the renowned eighteenth dynasty, reigned very successfully for twenty-two years. Her rule brought enormous wealth and prosperity to her country. She did not wage unnecessary wars but focused on extensive building projects (she was the first ruler to use sandstone and granite instead of mud bricks) and establishing trade routes instead. She had reached for power resolutely, yet without resorting to violence or bloodshed. This was an unprecedented move on a part of a woman. The moment she passed away, her male successor proceeded to systematically erase her legacy, defile her statues and get rid of all evidence of her power and achievements. Not only was she maligned by her successors but she was also vilified by Egyptologists well into the twentieth century. Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist, archeologist, and professor at UCLA, has written a book dedicated to Hatshepsut, in which she looks at the double standards at play in relation to men and women in power:
“Women in power who do everything wrong offer great narrative fodder: Cleopatra, Jezebel and her daughter Athaliah, Semiramis, Empress Lü. They are dangerous, untrustworthy, self-interested to a fault. Their sexuality and powers of attraction can bring all to ruin. History has shown that a woman who pushes the envelope of ambition is not just maligned in the history books as a conniving, scheming seductress whose foolhardy and emotional desires brought down the good men around her, but also celebrated in infamous detail as proof that females should never be in charge.
Posterity cherishes the idea that there is something oppressive and distrustful about women who rule over men—that their mercurial moods have the power to destroy, that their impolitic natures ruin carefully tended alliances, that their agenda on behalf of their children will endanger any broader political interests.
If a woman does not renounce ambition for ambition’s sake, she will be viewed as twofaced or selfish, her actions fueled by ulterior motives.”
Hatshepsut believed firmly that Amun-Re chose her to rule over Egypt. When she seized power she was a young woman in her early twenties. Over the years, she gradually forged a masculine identity for herself since at that time (approximately 1479 to 1458 BCE) it was inconceivable for the pharaoh to be a woman. The highest position a woman could have hoped for was the First Wife of the King. This title belonged to Hatshepsut’s mother. Egyptian kings had sizeable harems of women at their disposal, destined to produce male heirs. Hatshepsut’s mother failed to do so. Consequently, the throne passed to a two-year old Thutmose III, whom Hatshepsut’s father had with a lesser wife. Hatshepsut became the boy’s co-regent, but eventually assumed the full power of the pharaoh.
As her reign began, she confidently portrayed herself as a female ruler with all the images commissioned by her openly showing her gender. She identified herself with powerful goddesses, particularly with Mut, as well as lioness war goddesses – Sekhmet and Bast. She propagated a myth about her birth from a lioness. However, as the years passed by, uncertainty and ambiguity crept in. With time, all her images became completely masculine, though she still kept the feminine forms in hieroglyphic texts, as Cooney explains:
“To those elites who could read hieroglyphic text and participate in complex theological discourse, she presented the full complexity of gender-ambiguous kingship. There was no need to hide her feminine self from these learned men and women anyway because of their close access to her and her palace. But for the common man or woman who could not read and who might not understand such academic explanations, Hatshepsut presented a simplified and unassailable image of idealized and youthful masculine kingship. For them, she became what everyone expected to see—a strong man able to protect Egypt’s borders and a virile king able to build temples and perform the cult rituals for the gods.”
She had amassed enormous power despite the heavy odds against her. Still, her countrymen were not ready to acknowledge that real power knows no gender. They erased her name from the official list of kings. But the truth about her kingship eventually came out, as the meaning of her name had foreboded: Hatshepsut – Foremost of Noble Women.
“You’re sitting here with us, but you’re also out walking
in a field at dawn. You are yourself
the animal we hunt when you come with us on the hunt.
You’re in your body like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet you’re wind. You’re the diver’s clothes
lying empty on the beach. You’re the fish.
In the ocean are many bright strands
and many dark strands like veins that are seen
when a wing is lifted up.
Your hidden self is blood in those, those veins
that are lute strings that make ocean music,
not the sad edge of surf, but the sound of no shore.”
Rumi, “The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty”
Consider this: over ninety-five per cent of the universe is invisible. The existence of the so-called dark matter and dark energy cannot be measured or observed directly; we can only rely on the gravitational effects caused by them. Dark matter, which outweighs standard matter five times, has mass and gravity but it does not reflect or absorb light. What is essential is invisible to the eye. And yet it is fundamental to the whole universe. It initiated its creation. It anchors galaxies, making them stable instead of full of celestial objects spinning around precariously. Becoming conscious of these unconscious processes active in our universe requires a shift in perspective. As Jung noted in Mysterium Coniunctionis, “the conscious mind is usually reluctant to see or admit the polarity of its own background, although it is precisely from there that it gets its energy.” Or as Rumi said, “life’s water flows from darkness.”
More on dark matter:
“…love is a fusion in the sun’s core. Love is a blurring of pronouns. Love is a subject and object. The difference between its presence and its absence is the difference between life and death.”
Stephen Mitchell, “The Bone Clocks”
I.”The men where you live,” said the little prince, “raise five thousand roses in the same garden–and they do not find in it what they are looking for.” “They do not find it,” I replied. “And yet what they are looking for could be found in one single rose, or in a little water.”
II.”It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
The rich minimalism of the Little Prince’s wisdom brings to mind the apparent simplicity of the Japanese karesansui (dry-mountain-water) gardens, known as Zen gardens in the West. The origins of those gardens are long lost in historical obscurity, but most probably they go back to Shinto – the Japanese native religion, which founded the sacred in elements of nature such as rocks, trees, mountains or rivers. The wavelike patterns of the raked gravel are believed to evoke currents of running water, while lone-standing rocks could be viewed as mountains rising out of the ocean, but one would be fooled to trust such limiting interpretations. The dry garden, always viewed from inside a room and composed like a painting, is first and foremost a place of contemplation; it is meant to startle the mind of the observer into a spiritual state by purifying it from pre-conceived ideologies.
“The dry garden at Ryoan-ji consists of fifteen rocks distributed in five groups across a rectangular field of coarse sand, surrounded on three sides by a rustic wall that shuts out the world and on the fourth by a narrow veranda from which you view the garden, raised several feet above it. You cannot enter, but only contemplate it. There are no plants, unless you count the moss growing at the feet of some of the stones, or the trees looking over the wall from outside, which barely enter your field of vision and which you might notice for the first time looking at photographs afterward. There is no water, except that some people count the raked sand as a sea, from which the stones poke up like islands. The rocks are rough and uncarved, quite wild when you focus closely on them, but don’t fill much of the space. It is a place stripped practically bare, much more empty than full. Distances between the groups can seem vast, even cosmic, the dark punctuation of the rocks a heavenly constellation. The sand is more prosaically likened to clouds from which mountain tops poke up. Ryoan, in the name of the temple, means ‘Dragon Peace’; the rocks are also described as a tigress and her cubs swimming across a river. Maybe all these narratives that translate rocks and sand into something else are weak-minded efforts to get over the discomfort of an assertion of pointlessness that is at the same time inexplicably beautiful. The wall draws a clear line round the experience and says the random grouping forms a whole, but the parts will always look like fragments. You might come to accept that the fragments make sense or that the disturbance can be tolerated, even enjoyed, but you cannot escape entirely from the feeling that something is out of place. The most wonderful interpretation of Ryoan-ji known to me occurs rather late in a film by Yasujiro Ozu called Late Spring in English. The father (a widower) and the uncle of the main character (a daughter who cannot bring herself to leave the nest) sit for a long time in front of the stones without speaking, and then discuss the question of the daughter’s marriage. The distances between the stones correspond to the distance between even the closest human beings. They convey this with a soothing remoteness but without fudging; they are immovable; there are truths we cannot argue with or change. No one says anything like this, but the camera looks at the two men’s backs and then at the rocks standing there, and the stones are momentarily individuals enduring their lots, a fleeting perception from which we soon turn away.”
Robert Harbison, Ruins and Fragments: Tales of Loss and Rediscovery
The central symbol of the Zen garden is the stone. For Jung, it signified “something permanent that can never be lost or dissolved, something eternal that some have compared to the mystical experience of God within one’s own soul;” for Cirlot it is “the first solid form of the creative rhythm —the sculpture of essential movement, and the petrified music of creation.” Stones are pure and perfect in their simplicity, yet powerful, mysterious and inscrutable like the gods.
In Shinto the purified places where spirits or gods gathered were called “niwa” – a word which means “garden.” Spiritual purification, a return to soulful simplicity, seems to be a unifying idea behind all Eastern gardens. At last that was the impression I got from an exhibition dedicated to the history of gardens, which I have seen recently (http://www.rietberg.ch/en-gb/exhibitions/vorschau-gaerten-der-welt.aspx). An inscription next to an installation dedicated to a well-known Korean ghttp://www.rietberg.ch/en-gb/exhibitions/vorschau-gaerten-der-arden reads:
“Yang Sanbo became disillusioned with politics at the imperial court and retreated to his father’s country estate, where he made himself a garden. Called a Hermit’s Garden, it is surrounded by a bamboo forest. Through the middle of it, a mountain stream crashes down over a rock. Its Korean name Saswaewon means ‘the garden in which the spirit is refreshingly cleansed just as bamboo leaves are cleansed by the rain of a thunderstorm.’”
The following video shows the garden’s beauty:
Ruth Ammann, a Jungian analyst, in her book dedicated to a psychological meaning of gardens, traces the roots of the word to the Indo-Germanic word “ghordo” – fence, enclosure, stockade, hence denoting a fenced-in or enclosed area. She marvels at a coincidence:
“Incidentally, ‘paradise’ has the same meaning, originating from the Old Iranian words ‘pairi’ (enclose, surround) and ‘daeza’ (wall). Thus, paradise is first of all a place or site surrounded by a wall. However, it encloses a particularly sacred place, namely the Garden of Eden, the garden of bliss.”
At its root, a garden and a paradise are one and the same thing. Ammann points out that the garden is enclosed and bounded on the horizontal plane, but it is open on a vertical plane, that is, “unbounded toward the sky and the depths of the earth.” It connects heaven and earth, the mundane changeability with the eternal permanence. The existence of the fence makes a garden akin to a hermetically sealed alchemical vessel. It is a receptacle, where the raw “materia prima” of the chaotic nature is transformed and cultivated through the gardener’s dedication, hard work and respect for nature and its creative divinity. “Half a proper gardener’s work is done upon his knees,” wrote Kipling in his poem “The Glory of the Garden.”
Both in the East and the West, our ancestors performed sacred land-taking rituals, which, as Ammann writes, placed “the garden or the enclosed plot of ground under the protection and mercy of a godhead that represented much greater power than that available to any individual.” The gardener is responsible for attending to and nurturing his or her garden, but its ultimate prospering may in fact lie beyond the gardener’s power. That brings to mind the concept of “borrowed scenery” used by East Asian Garden designers. It involved incorporating background landscape, such as mountains or a lake, into the composition of a garden. Perhaps it is worth remembering that the whole garden is “on loan” from the mighty nature, which may claim it back at any moment. How wild should the garden be is a matter of individual taste. I cannot decide whether I prefer the wilder English garden or the geometric grace of the French one.
There is a beautiful line in The Song of Songs: “My sister, dear bride, you are a sequestered garden, a sealed fountain, an enclosed spring.” This line gave birth to the medieval concept of the Hortus Conclusus, a garden strictly shielded from the outside world, which was associated with the Virgin Mary. But perhaps the bride from the Song of Songs could also be interpreted as Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the resurrection, who mistook the risen Christ for a gardener. Or perhaps he chose to show himself as a gardener to her. In broader terms, the soul (anima) seems to have a lot of affinities with the symbolism of the garden. Saint Teresa of Avila compared a soul to a garden. Gardens are certainly places where the soul finds nourishment at the intersection of nature and culture. Whenever I stroll through a beautiful garden, I always have a feeling that it is a place conjured by my imagination, that it will disappear if I close my eyes. In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo talks to Kublai Khan in Kublai’s garden. At one point he muses:
“Perhaps this garden exists only in the shadow of our lowered eyelids. … Perhaps the terraces of this garden overlook only the lake of our mind.”
Ruth Ammann, The Enchantment of Gardens: A Psychological Approach
Juan Eduardo Cirlot, The Dictionary of Symbols
Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols