Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dichotomously Branched Tree

Ryoan-ji, Kyoto (Jun 2, 2012)

One of the most famous zen gardens in Kyoto is the dry landscape rock garden in the Ryoan-ji temple. Possibly designed by the celebrated painter and monk Soami in the XIV century, it is a long rectangle with 15 carefully arranged stones surrounded by white gravel. The stones are organized in three groups, and it is said that you can only see up to 14 stones at any time, with all 15 boulders visible at once only after achieving enlightenment. A recent article on Nature (Van Tonder, Lyons & Ejima, 2002) showed that the garden has a tree-like axial symmetry. The "branches" of the tree are located in-between the stones, and the "trunk" is instead passing by the center of the main hall, which traditionally is the intended point from where to admire the garden. This symmetries would disappear even by small random shifts of the rocks, revealing how the composition must have been carefully studied by the garden creator. Structures of this type have been shown to appeal to human brain visual sensitivity at an unconscious level, and is found in many examples of abstract art. 

Water basin at Ryoan-ji
This is probably the most popular garden we saw, and in fact there was a large crowd sitting in the veranda, looking at the stones with both regular eyes (and maybe the third one focused on the last stone). Taking a photo of the whole garden was impossible, in part for its long and narrow shape (forget 14 stones, I could not even get more than half of the boulders within the same frame -- my 50mm lens is definitely not enlightened), but mostly because the sheer number of people moving around was making any photo not very zen-like. So, instead of escaping it, I decided to embrace the crowd, and use it as main focus of the image. The little girl in the photo above was the younger of two sisters, visiting the garden with their parents. I found it interesting that their parents were exposing them to such sophisticated art even at that young age. Outside the garden, the temple complex also has a large pond around which I found the little moss-covered basin in the photo on the left. While not the most famous ritual basing in the complex, is shares one important characteristics with it: it is very low, so that one has to lean down to one's knees to get the blessing from the purification water.


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