Waterfalls are a key part of the Japanese garden and symbolize the Buddhist and Taoist impermanence of life. If there is not the actual falling of water in a garden, stones can imply the presence of water falling. The pairing of a waterfall with tall rocks or symbolic mountains in a garden is symbolic of the “yin-yang” contrast of “mountain and water”. This contrast extends to the permanence of rock or mountain paired with the impermanence of water, and the upward movement of the mountain toward the heavens paired with the downward movement of waterfalls from the heavens as described in the Zen Buddhist tradition (C’an Buddhism from China); permanence versus continuous renewal and change. The symbol of the waterfall, according to the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, is akin to the concepts in Tantrism in that the waterfall is in continuous motion, shape and form remains the same.
Waterfalls have long been a central theme of Chinese landscapes as well, since the time of the T’ang Dynasty to the Sun Dynasty, according to the Penguin Dictionary definition. The waterfall offers a natural element in continuous motion to bring the “look and feel” of nature in a limited surrounding. We look for waterfalls in nature not only to observe its serene beauty and flow, but also to be in the presence of a therapeutic natural white background sound and spray able to drown out any noise (within and without) that might disturb our calm.
Waterfalls have their therapeutic elements. Hydrotherapy uses the physical properties of water for therapeutic purposes to support good blood flow and even treat diseases. Ishnaan (Cold Water Massage Therapy) is an Indian term for the point at which the body temperature feels warmer than the coldness of the water, thus increasing blood flow and triggering endorphins. This is similar to the use of hot and cold contrast at traditional Japanese onsen, in the presence of natural flowing hot springs. It has been suggested by Indian Sikh Gurus as a way to cleanse the mind and soul.
However, scientists behind these forms of therapy do not say much about the ion balancing nature of waterfalls nor the therapeutic qualities of its sound. Waterfalls are sources of both physical and spiritual purification. WebMD asserts that waterfalls produce a high concentrate of negative ions, which in our bloodstream “produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin.” This is known to reduce depression and stress. The presence of waterfalls foster a serene place of spiritual worship and meditation. It provides a powerful regenerative presence in our lives. It is also symbolic of the Buddhist cycle (or wheel) of life, as it evaporates into the air from the sea only to return again to earth at the summit of a mountain to cascade down a waterfall into a crystal clear alpine lake, mirroring the waterfall image behind it.
Japanese garden designers have studied the elements of waterfalls in nature. Often waterfalls in Japanese gardens are single falls or two- to three- step falls, the more common being the latter. They can either be smooth or uneven at the lip of the fall, thus affecting the sound of the water flow from splashing to girgling to a subtle shimmering.
Additional information about water and waterfalls can be found at the following KotoJazz blogs:
KotoJazz 7: Water, Water Everywhere: https://kotojazz.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/kotojazz-7-water-water-everywhere/
KotoJazz Water references: https://kotojazz.wordpress.com/?s=water