Zen, trees and emptiness: scientists discover the meaning of a peaceful garden

Frustrated by your attempts to create a Zen garden? Can't get the placement of the rocks to agree with the sweep of the gravel? Science now has the answer: simply lay the rocks out so that the points halfway between them all form the outline of a tree's branches. Then make sure that the point from which visitors view the garden is the base of the tree.

Frustrated by your attempts to create a Zen garden? Can't get the placement of the rocks to agree with the sweep of the gravel? Science now has the answer: simply lay the rocks out so that the points halfway between them all form the outline of a tree's branches. Then make sure that the point from which visitors view the garden is the base of the tree.

Sounds simple but confounding? Yes, but that's probably how Zen gardens are meant to be: it's the empty space, not the objects, that you're meant to react to.

Now a computer-aided analysis by a team from Kyoto University, Japan, has shown that one of the most famous Zen gardens – at the Ryoanji temple in Kyoto – conforms to the rule: it found that the empty space of the garden evoked a hidden image of a branching tree, sensed in the unconscious mind.

Although the layout of the handful of rocks and moss was made sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries, its unknown creator left no explanation – although it has since been described, unconvincingly, as "a tigress crossing the sea with her cubs" or "the Chinese symbols for heart".

But Gert van Tonder and two colleagues at the university have told the science journal Nature they believe they have uncovered its appeal. "The implicit structure of the Ryoanji garden's visual ground ... includes an abstract, minimalist depiction of natural scenery."

Using image analysis to find the midpoints between each individual rock uncovered a simple branching shape, with the "trunk" of the tree lying at the point in the temple from which the garden would most commonly be viewed. They also reckon that the designer knew what he was doing – when they tried random layouts on the computer, it destroyed the "trunk" of the tree, and so the unity of the placings.

"We believe that the unconscious perception of this pattern contributes to the enigmatic appeal of the garden," Dr van Tonder added. They suggest too that abstract art may have a similar impact. "There is a growing realisation that scientific analysis can reveal unexpected structural features hidden in controversial abstract paintings," he said.

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