KotoJazz 21: Moss in Japanese Gardens

In Japanese Zen gardens, “each element in the Zen garden is symbolic; stones represent mountains, sand represents water, and moss represents islands” (source: see Moss Acres link below). Each element plays a role in a miniature natural scene of great beauty.

My favorite, the fern moss, is a spitting image of larger ferns with broader frays narrowing toward pointed ends. The fern moss is ideal for shaded areas and needs minimal sunlight. The fern moss, which are relatively flat, can be complemented by other moss. The tree moss, or Hair Cap moss, has the appearance of a miniature tree. Each unit grows taller and in clumps, which more effectively represents the look of an island. Likewise, the Cushion moss, grows in distinctive rounded clumps. This gives the appearance of islands a midst the bear earth or sand, which may represent the water or sea. The moss featured in the photo above of the famous Ryoan-ji Zen Garden in Kyoto, appears to be tree moss. This particular rock has always reminded me of the famous Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, Oregon.

Mosses in Japanese rock gardens provide a very clean design and manicured appearance. Unlike grass, most all mosses are highly resilient and adaptable, and less vulnerable to extreme weather conditions of heat or cold. They simply go dormant. The moss’ unique biological structure enables it to grow places where most plants cannot, as it prefers nutrient-poor soil. Moss is able to absorb pollutants such as nitrates and ammonia, as well as humidity and nutrients directly from the air. This is why you find mosses growing virtually anywhere and on anything!

A useful tool for our daily lives, is a simple ritual the monks of Saiho-ji (near Kyoto) established for their visitors. Reminiscent of my own childhood calligraphy lessons in Tokyo, visitors to this famous moss garden and temple sit and write or trace the characters of a Buddhist scripture (sutra) while the monks chant in worshipful trans-formative music. Looking back at my calligraphy lessons at Japanese public school, this ritual is related to the calligraphy art form, which emphasizes a spiritual connection by the calligrapher with the peaceful flow and natural order of each Kanji character.

From here, visitors walk the paths of the temple and gardens, and perhaps meditate at the most famous dry Zen garden, Ryoan-ji. “Moss is the grounding element, an island of green around many of the 15 iconic rocks edged in raked white gravel,” as elegantly described by Susan Heeger of Garden Design Magazine (see link below).

Here are a few informative websites about moss:

  • Ryoan-ji Zen Garden (rock and moss garden)
  • Moss Acres
  • Real Japanese Gardens
  • Garden Design Magazine
  • Photos: Ryoan-ji Temple moss garden
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    KotoJazz 20: Flowers of Japanese Gardens

    Ikebana
    Like bonsai, the art of Japanese flower arrangement, or Ikebana, derives from Zen aesthetics and design. Carefully placed flowers are arranged elegantly with a combination of grasses and flowers. Some of these flowers are described below.

    Japanese Irises
    Irises are a classic – like cherry blossom and chrysanthemum, you’ll often see them in Japanese crests. Irises are used in water gardens, around the edge of a pond – or in dry gardens (rock, moss or gravel symbolizing a pond). Irises planted around the edges expand on the image of a pond or dry gardens as the sea or ocean. Unlike the western bearded irises, Japanese irises are commonly smaller, thinner, more delicate, and not bearded.

    Chrysanthemum
    Chrysanthemums, the national flower of Japan are symbolic of long life and health. The flower also symbolizes the autumn season. Native to China and Japan, chrysanthemums are hardy flowers, able to subsist in zones 5-9. Flowers include red, orange, yellow, white and lavender.

    Lotus
    Japan holds the lotus to be sacred, which comes from Hinduism and Buddhism. The lotus flower is likewise represented as sacred in Buddhism, symbolizing the progress of the mind toward Enlightenment. It grows from muddy depths through the waters of experience and “blooms in the sunshine of enlightenment,” according to Religion Facts. Lotus can be white, pink, red or blue. Some lotus can be perennials; survive cold winter months.

    Azaleas & “Rhodies”
    Part of the same evergreen family, azaleas and rhododendrons have similar leaves and blooms. However, azaleas, like the ones pictured above lining the garden stone steps, are much smaller in size. These are popular shrubs used in Japanese gardens. White flowering azaleas and rhododendron are used the most. Both of these flowering shrubs can be white, pink, red, orange and purple in color.

    “Hana ni arashi” (literally translated means “a storm over blossoms”), is a shortened version of, “Tsuki ni muragumo, hana ni arashi”. ” These popular Japanese proverbs mean “Life often brings misfortune at a time of great happiness” or “Nothing is certain in this world”. It is reminiscent of the popular phrase “shikataganai”, meaning “it can’t be helped”. This is the fatalistic nature of the Japanese people; fatalistic, maybe not from a western perspective of the meaning, but a general acceptance of the inevitability of things to come.

    KotoJazz 19: Japanese Maple Trees

    The two English translations of the Japanese maple, or “momiji”, are “baby’s hands” and “becomes crimson leaves”. The first meaning has some Japanese cultural significance. It is believed that passing a newborn baby through the branches of a Japanese maple encourages a long, healthy and prosperous life for the child. The second meaning is best described by a popular Japanese expression, “Yama ga moeru” which means “burning mountain in autumn”. You may have the opportunity to see an entire mountainside of wild Japanese maples turn a fiery red in the autumn season.

    Here are koto music about trees, leaves, and related themes:

  • Japanese Garden
  • Through The Leaves
  • Hidden Inside The Leaves
  • Red Koto
  • Sounds for the Soul: Koto & Nature
  • Japanese & Chinese Koto Harp & Shakuhachi Flute
  • My Sakura, Koto Jazz by Kenji
  • Raindrops from Trees (Ki Kara no Ame no Shizuku), Koto Jazz by Kenji
  • Black Pine Bonsai, Koto Jazz by Kenji

    The most popular of Japanese maples are the red and green variations, but there are countless (over 1,000) variations of colors, sizes and shapes of both the leaves and trees. The Japanese red maple has been cultivated for over 300 years. The Iroha- momiji, or green leaf Japanese maple is native to the Korean Peninsula, China, and Japan. The wild Japanese maple has green leaves in the spring and summer that turn yellow, orange, bright red, pink, or purple in the fall. Younger trees take on the shape of a large challis or bowl, while more mature trees are layered and have a dome-shaped image. Somewhat unique to the Japanese maple is that a parent Japanese maple tree may produce seedlings that have completely different shapes, colors, sizes and structures than its parent (a message here for our own parenthood?).

    The flowers come in spherical clusters and have five purple or red sepals and five white petals. They give the bare branches an attractive red glow in early spring.

    It is customary for Japanese people to take an annual autumn trek to the mountains of Japan, known as momiji-gari (“Maple tree hunting/ viewing”). This is similar to Canadians and Americans who take annual treks to the mountains for viewing the yellowing of aspen in the western Rocky Mountains; or the east- and midwesterners viewing the coloring of maple trees. However, momiji-gari has a spiritual significance. For most Japanese, this annual trek is also a Shinto spiritual trip to commune with the spirits who dwell in the trees, the mountains, and elsewhere in the Natural world.

  • Thoughts on Service & Spirituality

    The Shinto- Buddhist philosophy on life is that all sources of good, evil, and spirituality come from within. If you read between the lines it is also true of the Judeo- Christian traditions.

    … After all it is the well known Buddhist guru of the west who spoke of the way to the kingdom. ” The kingdom of heaven is within.”
    The evolution of the east and west spirituality each have their own diversions. It is worth noting them as integral parts of who we are and where we’ve come in this age of east-west harmonic convergence. And we need only see inside our self for clarification. What does our heart tell us in the midst of this age of distractions? Do we affirm we live in a time of spiritual and natural reconciliation, recovery, and renewal.

    Life has its choices. In my own life, in every hour of the day, I have the choice to make good decisions for myself, and to be a positive presence in other people’s lives. I have the ability to take the right intuitive spiritual path. We have the opportunity to keep the whole of our self intact and yet take a chance on giving a part of it away; sharing a part of the soul and spirit with another person (giving and risk taking).

    While volunteering has been a lifetime service goal for me, in the 90s, I spent 3-5 days per week over a 6- year period volunteering at homeless shelters and soup lines. I had the good intention and idealism of good ol’ fashion American apple pie volunteerism. It was exhausting. Part of me was subconsciously competing with my siblings for my jesuitical dad’s approval (a Stockholm Syndrome-esque co-dependency). I had a sister who spent two years in Africa as a Peace Corp volunteer, a brother in the Air Force and now works for the Army, and another brother whose professional life is working to service Asian American communities at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS). Tough competition. My error among many, was that I subconsciously saw it as competition. Service is never competition. If anything, it is antithetical to competition.

    While I may have done some practical good servicing the needs of others through my own volunteerism (I’ve been volunteering since I can remember), my belief about doing good in the small world of which I’m a part is now more centered, more spiritually focused. After all, how really good is volunteerism of any kind without imparting the long term permanence of the spiritual food we all seek and need? At the time, despite all the volunteer service I was doing, I failed to connect with people and truly give them what they may have needed the most; what all of us need the most — spiritual food.

    The physical handing out of food that I did almost robotically, had its limitations. It is the giving of food that “dies at the vine,” and unfortunately, my way of giving as I did in the 90s also died at the vine. I learned this hard spiritual lesson/experience by my own ‘re-experiencing’ the food bank in my own life as a receiver on the other side. In my own time of need, I went through food bank lines and saw the empty, blank, almost fearful stare from a number of people handing out food to people like me struggling to make ends meet. It felt dead and full of judgment. The experience of going through a soup kitchen felt dead, demeaning, humiliating. It was something I never want to do again.

    It matters how I showed up (in my case how I failed to show up) so many times at various soup kitchens, drop-in centers, food banks as a young aspiring volunteer in my 20s and 30s. This is not to say I didn’t do good. It is to say that in my current healthier spiritual state today, without the drama and the big ideals and sense of ego-boosting purpose behind my charitable volunteering in my life, my volunteerism is doing just fine. I am absolutely certain I am bringing more to the table of brother/sisterhood today in my daily life walk, than I was ever capable of during my younger idealistic years of volunteerism.

    So I guess the message here, to circle back to the Buddhist- Shinto message (not a “lesson”, but a “message”), is that we must be wary of where the thinking resides when “we do charitable deeds”. Do we “do our charitable deeds before others to be seen by them?” Do we do our volunteerism to self- congratulate, or to self- nurture (huge difference)? It all does have its own built-in rewards. But when we do our good, do them in secret (meaning free and independent of our ego states and self-congratulating), and the good “Lord who sees in secret, will reward us openly”. The bottom line is, can we simply give and love in our own, simple day to day lives? That has to be enough for the Lord within.

    I can only only speak for and represent myself (nothing like a statement of the obvious, but it’s amazing how so many of us today try to speak for/ represent others), I must first and foremost seek the spiritual place of centered Love within, this kingdom of the Creator, and if I do so sincerely, “all things will be added” to me – the physical, emotional, the spiritual food that sustains life.

    KotoJazz 18: Japanese Garden Bridges

    Japanese garden design is strongly connected to spirituality. Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism are often the source in the creation of different garden styles. They are intended to be places of peace for meditation and spiritual contemplation and prayer.

    While bridges have become path ways linking garden visitors from one part of the garden to another, bridges do have spiritual meaning in Japanese gardens. Some bridges symbolize the path to paradise and immortality. The famous Kyoto garden bridge, Byōdō-in, connects the Phoenix pavilion with a small island of stones, representing the Mount Penglai or Mount Horai, the island home of the Eight Immortals of Daoist teaching.

    Other special islands in the Zen Buddhist tradition, such as the crane and tortoise islands, are sacred and not accessible by bridge. If one sees a bridge to an island in this type of garden pond, these are ordinary islands called nakajima (since they are accessible to the public). See KotoJazz 9: Island of Japanese Gardens for more information.

    Bridges can also simply serve as functional links between different eco-regions or sections of the Japanese garden. Stone bridges are called ishibashi. Wooden bridges are dobashi. Arched bridges are known as soribashi and flat bridges are hirabashi. While most bridges are not colored, the red painted temple bridges come from China.

    Here are some interesting links to information about Japanese garden and bridges:

  • Origins of The Japanese Garden
  • Hoi An Bridge, VietNam(a famous Japanese garden bridge)
  • Elements of the Japanese Garden Bridge, Bowdoin College
  • Yuugiri Japanese Garden Bridge
  • Monet’s famous images of Japanese Garden Bridge Painting
  • How to Build a Miniature Japanese Garden
  • Where To Buy Garden Bridges, GardenBridges.com
  • Where to Buy Garden Bridges, Hay Needle
  • Koto Jazz 17: Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises”

    Although I have added a few new music samples to the Koto Jazz blog, see “Sample Sounds” and “Buy My Music” pages of this web site, here I take another brief break from the Koto Jazz theme to honor an artistic genius in the film medium.

    Here are some Koto jazz and related music about flying and the wind:

  • KotoJazz 8: “The Wind and The Spirit”
  • Koto Samples (“lightness of flying butterflies”)
  • “Matsukaze” (”wind in the pines”), by Taiga Yamaki III (also known as Yamaki Kengyō), and Matsukaze
  • Koto House Flying Sword Music
  • Tori No Yo Ni (‘Flying’ Like A Bird, by Sawai Koto Ensemble
  • Breeze, by Mitsuki Dazai
  • Tori No Yo Ni (Like a Bird on piano), Kotojazz by Kenji

  • Also, have a listen to my newly posted short sample tracks while reading on about my take on “The Wind Rises” by Hiyao Miyazaki:

  • Pachelbel’s Canon in D Minor, George Winston style
  • Springtime in the Dead of Winter
  • Black Pine Bonsai, and
  • Wandering Kabutomushi

  • I had the opportunity to watch Hayao Miyazaki’s final movie (admittedly, I may be the final Miyazaki fan to actually see his final film), “The Wind Rises” (for sound track, see The Wind Rises by Kaze Tachinu and other items about “The Wind Rises”). Despite the apparent limitations of the anime platform, Miyazaki proves again the seeming unlimited capacity for creativity and beauty. His presentations offered magically colorful and stunning scenery. Miyazaki’s art team presents a realistic natural world, and adds a bit of Shinto magic, with the actors revering, honoring, praying to Nature throughout the movie.

    The movie speaks of love and innocence in the midst of the global turmoil surrounding the world wars. Miyazaki deliberately steers the movie away from the darkness of the day into a dreamland of gorgeous flower laid meadows, and shimmering streams. Poignant was the time Naoko prayed to the forest pond for Jiro to appear. As Yoda would say, “appear he did.”

    Even Jiro’s ongoing dreams about flying and building planes showed reverence to the nature of the wind’s powerful energy, and his building planes pays honor to the wind. We join as active participants in Jiro’s flying dreams. In the film, Jiro’s dreams feel as real as real life. Jiro is the main character in the movie, based loosely on aerospace engineer, Jiro Horikoshi. Miyazaki again nails it with his unique ability to interweave near realistic dreams into the surreal reality of the characters’ life experiences– more realistically than any director (I would argue), and again, more realistic to the real life experience.

    It definitely hits a chord with the integral role dreams play in our lives (see Carl Jung’s work on the “Interpretation of Dreams.” While his colleague Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams focused more on the “retrospective”, Carl Jung’s dream approach is and I quote the above link, “‘prospective’– it treats dreams like a map of the dreamer’s future psychological evolution towards a more balanced relationship between his ego and the Self.” This approach is very apparent in Miyazaki’s film.

    The story may have glossed over the pain and suffering of his dying lover (Naoko), dying communities during wartime, and the insane violence surrounding war, but this was intended and done so elegantly as the story was not about death and war. In fact, it provided the back drop necessary to evoke the story of a champion of perseverance and Zen-like focus in a world where, at times, there appeared to be none. It brought out the true authentic, peace-loving nature and Shinto spirituality of the Japanese people. In real life, war deceptively shrouded this fact by the blind powers of Japan’s relatively small military industrial complex (small at least compared to America’s own still lingering military industry). There is a message for each of us again, to look inward rather than outward for reflection and resolution.

    Given Miyazaki’s place of prominence with this final movie, it is appropriate to comment on this masterpiece and the majesty of his life’s work.