Nature and man are never far from each other in Japanese culture. This connection is pervasive and runs deep. It shows up in the design of gardens that incorporate the natural landscape.
It shows up in design of houses where the inside and outside are blurred by means of translucent screens, so you can shut the door without shutting out the ambient sounds of leaves rustling and birds singing.
This intimate connection with nature also permeates Japanese religion and philosophy. For example, the word Shizen – which translates as ‘nature’ – is one of the seven principles of Zen aesthetics. The idea of shizen is that we are all connected to nature not only physically but emotionally and spiritually.
Admittedly, some of these feelings are hard to describe. The Japanese uses the proxy word yugen for such occasions. Yugen is a profound sense of beauty when we are surrounded by mystery of the universe. It is about this world, yet transcends it. It is what the playwright Zeami Motokiyo had in mind when he uses the phrase ‘subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo’. It is the feeling you get when you wander into a forest ‘without thought of return.’
The forest is in fact the preeminent metaphor for yugen. Two of Japan’s major religion – Shintoism and Buddhism – venerate the forest as the realm of the divine. In Shintoism, the spirits are not separate from nature; they are in it – among the trees, the rocks, the streams, the wind. For Zen Buddhists, all of nature is written in book of God.
There is lovely word that captures the sensation of being in the presence of the sublime. Shrinrin yoku translates as ‘forest bath’, which is the idea that one is taking in the forest through our whole being. It is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging but connecting with nature and awakening our senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch to receive nature’s refreshment.
It is no surprise that shinrin-yoku developed in Japan. The Japanese are a forest civilization. Two-thirds of the country is covered in forest, a proportion that puts other nations with the same human density in the shade. If you fly over Japan, you will be able to see how green it is: 3,000 miles of forest that stretches from subarctic Hokkaido in the north to subtropical Okinawa in the south, with the Japanese Alps in the middle. There are now 62 certified forest bathing bases in Japan, all of which are pristine forests that combine great natural beauty with healing benefits [see articles listed at the end-notes].
The embrace of the “forest culture” in Japan and other countries like Finland and Sweden holds important lessons for a world that is bent on self-destruction through rampant deforestation and neglect of pristine environments. Until the last couple of hundred years, we have loved nature because that is where we have lived for most of our life on earth. We have a genetic propensity to do so; it is in our DNA. As the Harvard biologist, E.O. Wilson puts it: “Our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises in its currents.”
The Flower that Shatters the Stone
Can we revive this hope and act on it while there is still time? Will we soften our hearts of stone and repopulate our forests, and make gardens of cities where the bulk of humanity now live, work and play? Only then can we partake of forest baths and take in the aroma of nature. This will be our “flower than shatters the stone” moment, to borrow the title of a John Denver song.
Li, Qing, Forest Bathing : How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, Viking, 2018.
“Immerse Yourself in the Forest for Better Health”, New York State Department of Environment Conservation, https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html
Extracts of a Scientific American article, “How Hospital Gardens Help Patients Heal” by Deborah Franklin, March 1, 2012.