Zen Garden in Acton
by Abigail Willis
Year-round interest is the Holy Grail for many a gardener but it’s easier said than done – rare is the garden that dazzles in December.It’s not however an issue at 55 Carbery Avenue, where the garden manages to look good regardless of the season, weather or even time of day.
Tucked behind a Tudorbethan semi in Acton, the garden circumvents the seasonal slumps of the typical British garden by the simple expedient of not being a typical British garden. It is in fact a fully-fledged Zen garden, its – seemingly unlikely – presence here in W3 explained by the fact that the house is better known as Three Wheels Shin Buddhist Centre.
An offshoot of the Shogyoji Temple in Japan, the Centre was founded in 1994, with the garden being built from scratch shortly afterwards. The idea of a Zen garden was suggested to Reverend Sato, the priest at Three Wheels, by English art history professor John White (who went on to design the garden).Drawing on his first-hand knowledge of Kyoto gardens and his long-standing professional interest in pictorial space, Professor White has created what he describes as ‘an English Zen garden’ which, despite being closely related to Japanese Zen gardens, has a few quirks of its own.
The garden takes the form of a karesansui or dry garden- a sea of exquisitely raked Cornish granite gravel in which are arranged a sequence of twelve rocks (as opposed to the fifteen more commonly found in Zen gardens). As is traditional, the garden itself is enclosed – in this instance within a cob wall, on footings of Welsh stone and topped with slate tiles. Designed as an aid to meditation, this is a garden for viewing rather than walking around, and the half-timbered meditation shelter that overlooks it features a weathered oak floor positioned at precisely the right height for optimum contemplation.
Appropriately for a garden whose theme is ‘Harmony within Diversity’, construction was accomplished by some 80 volunteers from around the world. As they worked together they built not just a garden, but a greater understanding of each other. Everything was done by hand and even the huge ‘planting’ holes for the boulders were excavated without recourse to mechanical diggers, with stones being ‘walked’ into place with tripod frames. Materials were sourced exclusively within Britain, with Reverend Sato and Professor White travelling to Cumbria to handpick eight of the boulders that are the backbone of the garden (the other four came, rather less romantically, from a local stone merchant).
As Professor White explains, his work at Three Wheels is an attempt to take the principles of the Japanese Zen garden and extend them. Thus while most Japanese Zen gardens only feature two geological types of rock here there are eight (another manifestation of “harmony in diversity”). Professor White points out the greater range of colours and textures in the rocks – some soft and round, others hard and jagged, with seams of pink and white in places, reminiscent of waterfalls and other landscape features.
The placement of the rocks is likewise not quite what might be expected in a traditional Zen garden – Professor White highlights the fact that his grouping of the three largest stones (evocative of a Buddhist triad or the Christian Trinity) is much more spaced out than is usual. This arrangement was apparently viewed with some dismay by Masayuki Ogawa, an expert Japanese gardener from Kyoto, who helped supervise the building of the garden – “But he came around to it in the end!” reports Professor White.
Nonconformist quirks aside, the sequence of twelve rocks was nevertheless created with infinite care and is designed to be ‘read’ in a clockwise direction – although Professor White claims not to have drawn out a formal plan, his design being “more to do with poetry than calculation”. In keeping with the Buddhist belief that ‘All is illusion’, some of the rocks are buried very deep, others simply rest on the surface. Symbolism abounds, from the mountain-islands rocks and gravel oceans, to the number of rocks themselves, twelve being evocative not only of months of the year, signs of the zodiac and the Apostles but also recalling the twelve chromatic tones of Gagaku, a form of classical Japanese music.
A sense of craftsmanship permeates the garden, from the thatched timber meditation shelter, built by hand using traditional oak-frame and wattle and daub techniques, to the meticulous raking of the gravel. This highly skilled task – a meditative activity in itself – is done every two weeks, and takes up to five hours, using a special lead-lined rake to create the waves and ripples. Originally only Reverend Sato did the raking, but he has now trained an assistant to take on this task.
The garden was completed in 1996 and has evolved subtly over subsequent years. Colonies of cushion moss have attached themselves unasked to some of the rocks, creating the effect of a mountain tree-line, while the forests of stalked cedar moss at the base of the ‘islands’ are now well established. Trees, such as magnolia, pine and maple that were planted as saplings in a single strip behind the cob wall, have grown, obscuring the neighbouring buildings and creating a tranquil shakkei, or surrounding landscape.
While the colours of the trees change with the seasons, variations within this flowerless garden are more subtle. Light conditions and weather affect it (the black marble cobbles that describe the gravel perimeter look magnificent in the rain); the garden is different by moonlight, when cloud shadows chase over the gravel, different again under a covering of fresh snow.
Worlds away from the average suburban plot,the Zen garden encourages the visitor to connect with nature on a profound level. A poem written by Professor White as an aid to experiencing the garden invites viewers to ‘become one with the garden and move beyond thought or imagination’. Or as, Professor White puts it to me as I leave, “Zen gardens are not about rocks, they are about space.”
The garden is open to the public on selected days through the NGS and meditation classes are held here every Monday evening, from April through to December (see website for more details).
Three Wheels Buddhist Centre
55 Carbery Avenue, W3 9AB