Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
UPDATE 6/4/20: Although nonessential travel to Germany is prohibited at present, the land of poets and thinkers intends to lift restrictions for EU countries from June 15, according to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Officials are also considering allowing entry to visitors from Turkey, the UK, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, although a final decision is yet to be made.
A little green emerald gem lies buried within a sea of smoke stacks and chemical manufacturing plants at the Chempark home of Bayer AG in Leverkusen near Cologne (Köln) in Germany. Chempark is home to the little miracle of Bayer aspirin, but it had another surprise in store for me when I visited on a business trip a few years ago and came upon the Duisberg Japanese Garden.
The little green gem was started in 1912 by the General Director of Farbenfabrik Friedrich Bayer & Co. – Carl Duisberg. The resultant spectacular 15,000 square meter (9 square mile) Japanese Garden (Japanischer Garten) has been open to the public since 1950, but remains little known outside Leverkusen and Bayer. Surrounded by the Bayer industrial complex, the garden is a favorite get away for employees wanting to walk and talk. When I visited on a stormy August day near sunset, the garden was deserted, but serene, welcoming and quiet. Just a few chirping birds greeted me on my walk.
On my own, this treasure would have completely escaped my notice, and I doubt that anything other than a business trip would have ever brought me there, but after the long flights and hours of stressful cramped airplane-work, followed by train and taxi travel, my unconscious was searching for a little soul-filling serenity. The hotel concierge at the Bayer hotel suggested a walk in the garden. I am very grateful he did.
Best of all, when I revisited this garden in my photographs and recollections, they mystically called out to me. To understand what I felt on that garden walk I needed a deeper understanding of Japanese garden philosophy. That drove my clicking-clattering-keyboard to Dr. Wiki and from there my mouse reached out to learn the language of the Japanese garden, the design elements and the significance of waves, circles, rocks, crane sculptures, wabi-sabi and ensō.
The Language of the Japanischer Garden
My reading revealed that order and serenity are Japanese aesthetics derived from a philosophy that tries to avoid artificiality while creatively highlighting nature. Plants and worn, aged materials are often used to remind the viewer of the fragile nature of existence and the inevitable advance of time. Loosely translated, wabi is transient and stark beauty and sabi is the beauty of natural patina and aging, while yūgen is the net wabi-sabi result achieved with grace and subtlety.
It was near sunset with golden light on the greenery and I found myself profoundly moved by the simple elegance of the garden. I soon fell completely under its spell. Apparently, wabi and sabi is also used to refer to a mindful approach to everyday life and as a reminder that the aesthetic beauty of things is “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete”, i.e., the beautiful bud will flower, wilt, die and decay as all things do to naturally come-and-go. Aesthetically, these processes are considered high beauty because they remind the viewer that an altered state of consciousness is preferred over one where the sights are just viewed. Garden nature is thus able to direct a quiet mind to develop and cultivate a discerning eye. My quiet tired mind fell open to the meditative language of the Japanischer Garden. Dr. Wiki leads me to believe now that this meditative language is achieved by: Fukinsei (不均斉): asymmetry, irregularity; Kanso (簡素): simplicity; Koko (考古): basic, weathered; Shizen (自然): without pretense, natural; Yūgen (幽玄): subtly profound grace, not obvious; Datsuzoku (脱俗): unbounded by convention, free; and Seijaku (静寂): tranquility and silence.
I am thankful to my clacking keyboard and pesky mouse for bringing me to this altered state of informed appreciation. I knew I had experienced something unique that night in the Japanischer Garden in Leverkusen. Let me share.
The artistic palate of the garden included trees, flowers, textures, colors, shimmering waters, artistically arranged stones, sculptures, wandering paths and ponds. Because of a cold damp Summer, cherry blossoms were still on the trees, surrounded by azalea and rhododendron blooms with Japanese maples giving a counterpoint. Grasses, papyrus, fuchsias, chrysanthemums, redwood trees, azaleas and rhododendrons all added their unique colors and textures. It seemed that many of the larger specimen trees and shrubs were very old, perhaps planted when the garden was established in the early 1900s.
Other elements in the garden included: water – both still (reflecting) and flowing (carrying away evil); stone – with special Shinto-Buddhist symbolism (described further below); textures – with waves of foliage punctuated by clumps of bamboo; and architectural ornaments breaking up the larger spaces into intimate seclusion – bridges, fences and gates. Statuary with stone lanterns, commonly used on pathways to shrines, was mingled with stone Geishas lighting the way and bearing gifts for the Buddha.
Waves of Vegetation
Evidently, Shinto-Buddhism emphasizes the wholeness of nature and celebrates a landscape where all things are believed to be either evolving from or dissolving into a “nothingness” akin to an Einstein infinity. Nothingness is not empty space, but instead, an infinity of potential where each single thing is like a wave arising from, and returning to the “nothingness” space. To me that night, the waves of azaleas and rhododendrons should have been visual reminders of the eternity of nature and the human cosmos. That likely explains the warm meditative feelings I had while walking in the garden.
The influence of Chinese Daoism can also be seen in Japanese gardens. Daoist legends spoke of five mountainous islands inhabited by the Eight Immortals, who lived in perfect harmony with nature. Each Immortal flew from his mountain home on the back of a crane – represented in sculptures. The mountain islands were located on the back of an enormous sea turtle – represented by rocks in the garden ponds.
The Period of the Leverkusen Garden
The Duisberg Japanese Garden began in 1912, which would have been at the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912) in Japan. This was a time when Western influences drove the captains of industry and wealthy politicians to create grand gardens with European influences. Although designed for a German captain of industry, the Bayer garden and tea house incorporate features more reminiscent of classical gardens created in the 15th and 16th centuries in Kyoto (the Momoyama period), including, for example, uses of boulders, stone bridges, stepping stones and winding promenade paths.
The Tea House
The two-tiered Tea House in the Japanischer Garten has similarity to images of Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto – e.g. Nanzen-ji in Kyoto (1688-1703). Like Kyoto, the tea house in Leverkusen is on a slight rise so as to offer views the winding stream and pond -i.e., to instill wabi (侘び), “sober refinement and calm”.
Tea Bowl Fountains
While in the garden, I noticed and photographed three simple bowl-shaped fountains apparently hewn from solid rock. I have since discovered that the simple shape and form is shibui (渋み), referring to the aesthetic of simplicity, subtlety and unobtrusive beauty balanced with subtle details and textures.
Circular Ponds, Paths and Garden Design: Around every turn, I found a new view, a constantly intriguing kaleidoscope of textures and colors. Ensō (円相) is a Japanese word meaning “circle” which symbolizes infinity, enlightenment, strength, elegance, the cosmos, as well as “nothingness”. It served as a visual reminder for me that only a person who is mentally mindful and spiritually oriented can fully relate to ensō. Emerging from the garden cocoon into the brilliant sunset, I believe I was touched by Japanese ensō.