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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

Landscape as Feng-Shui

Originally published as Master of Landscape Architecture Thesis, Cornell University, 1984.


Feng-shui, as relevant today as centuries ago, offers three degrees of application with landscape: 1) for environmental analysis and land use planning; 2) for designing gardens and other landscapes; 3) for cultivating a deep regard for the lands and waters with which we live to better integrate life with nature and the cosmos. The I Ching says:

By looking up in order to contemplate the Heavenly bodies, and by looking down to examine the natural influence of the earth, one can acquire knowledge into the causes of darkness and light.

What is feng-shui?

The incredulous, pointing to the esoterica would think the deeper mysteries of feng-shui nonsense. To what do they refer? Authors of the Encyclopaedia Sinica, cited by Joseph Needham, called feng-shui the “art of adapting the residences of the living and the dead so as to cooperate and harmonize with the local currents of the cosmic breath.” That’s a definition to question. Michael Loewe wrote that feng-shui is a form of oracle in which patterns in nature could be read by the gifted. To shamans, feng-shui was a form of geomancy, the divinatory study of the earth, where the artificial fashioning of signs could reveal the quality of relationship with the natural and social environment. “Are you kidding?” the incredulous ask.

Are more ‘palatable’ citations in order? Hosts of references provide more ‘right-brain’ translations: wind for feng, water for shui -- or wind-water. So Jan DeGroot, 19th century Dutch missionary, referred to the atmospheric influence of rain and wind over the land and the livelihood of its people. And Han-Ch’ing Wang wrote that feng-shui referred to the study or art of determining the relationship between the natural and man-made landscape and the consequences upon both nature and human beings. Steven Feuchtwang called feng-shui “the power of the natural environment.”

From landscapes’ perspective, feng-shui is an evolution through the intricate weaving of solidity, wetness, heat, cold, atmosphere and space over time – the structure of the lands and waters, the processes that shape them, and the period of time taken for these processes. Feng-shui, then, refers to the shapes and textures into which landscape is sculpted and moulded, carved and forged, boiled and baked by winds and waters of Heavens and Earth. It can be read as physical, mental and spiritual forces.

From the human perspective, feng-shui is no less a science as it is an art; no less an art as a conversation between landscape and the people intent to be in its presence. Feng-shui is a contractual arrangement having three degrees of compliance. First, the landscape demands sound environmental management coupled with sensitive design. Second, the landscape suggests the mitigation of discordant effects when people occupy a less than ideal site. Third, the landscape obliges people to avoid natural features that are unsuitable for settlement.

Feng-shui provides opportunities to integrate one’s life with the natural and cosmic process. If a potential inhabitant promises to establish a favourable relationship with landscape’s environmental conditions and celestial events, the landscape will return the favour by enabling inhabitants to benefit from cosmic attributes and natural harmony, gifts bestowed by the earth, waters and skies, the sun, moon and stars. Complying with feng-shui is equivalent to being in the right place doing the right thing facing the right direction at the right time.

Legend has it that feng-shui is almost as old as China itself, developed by the 27th century BCE ‘Yellow Emperor’, Huang Ti. It’s also said that Huang Ti discovered the Elixir of Immortality at the mountain range called Huang Shan in Anhui Province. The human – cosmos relationship must have shifted dramatically at that period in history, the Great Pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge I having been constructed then, as well.

The Canon of Dwellings, complied in the 3rd century CE is thought to be the oldest written text of feng-shui, according to Dutch missionary Jan DeGroot. The Canon, an early text of practical Taoism, called the natural order an expression of the finest state of being, affording a healthy relationship between landscape and human habitation. The I Ching says:

In it are included the form and the scope of everything in the heavens and on earth, so that nothing escapes it. In it all things everywhere are completed, so that nothing is missing. Therefore, by means of it we can penetrate the Tao of day and the Tao of night, and so understand it.

The grounding for feng-shui is the unfolding of the universe. Cosmologies cite the primordial reference, Wu Chi, the state of undifferentiated non-duality. Represented by a circle, Wu Chi is the basis for the Supreme Pool, the Primordial Vapour, the Great Primal Beginning, otherwise called T’ai Chi. Its essence is Pure Potential, the fundamental Universal Law of Change.

T’ai Chi produces motion, the male manifestation, Yang. When motion reaches its limit, T’ai Chi produces rest, the female manifestation, Yin. When rest reaches its limit, there is return to motion. The support for motion is rest; the support for rest is motion. They need each other. The alternation of motion and rest is the expression of ‘vital energy’ or ‘life-force’, chi, giving birth and support to all things.

Yang is the vital energy of Heaven and Yin is the vital energy of Earth, so it’s said that the Tao of the Heavens perfects Yang, and the Tao of the Earth perfects Yin. Yang means ‘sunny side’: heavens, sun, mountains and height, summer and heat, south, aridity, motion, growth and life are expressions of Yang. Yin means ‘dark side’: earth, moon, valleys, rivers and ravines, winter and cold, north, moisture, stillness, decay and death are expressions of Yin.

The interaction of Yang and Yin produces the Five Operations, or five constituent operations of nature. Generally called the Five Elements, they are processes, not substances that can be touched. Arthur Waley makes a convincing argument for calling them ‘operations’ instead of ‘elements’. These Five Operations are the natural agents of the breath of Yang and Yin and effect all physical changes – Wood, the essence of vegetation; Fire, the essence of heat; Earth, the essence of inanimate substances; Metal, the essence of solidity produced within the earth; and Water, the essence of fluidity. The Five Operations interact through Orders of Production and Destruction that give birth, arise and promote growth, decompose and cease, and repeat the cycle.

The Five Operations are distributed as chi in harmonious order, producing the Four Seasons. Their interaction brings the myriad things into being. There is no end to their evolution, for this is nature unfolding and folding. As it folds, the Five Operations produce Yang and Yin, motion and rest. The combining of motion and rest produces T’ai Chi, the Supreme Pool. The I Ching says:

The primal powers never come to a standstill; the cycle of becoming continues without interruption. There arises again and again a state of tension, a potential that keeps the powers in motion and causes them to unite, whereby they are constantly regenerated. Tao brings this about without ever becoming manifest, and is designated as good.

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And there’s more …