It's a long way from Japan to Nottinghamshire, but anyone who wants to rediscover a oneness with nature should seek out the oasis of oriental tranquillity that is Pureland. Sally Ballard visits a monk and his garden
Out of the rural flatlands that swamp the Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire borders, something rather unexpected rises - a perfectly-landscaped Japanese garden. Its gentle contours form undulating hillocks, with flowing streams and curiously twisted trees all growing in a lush, verdant landscape.
Pureland Garden is the work of one man - a Buddhist monk called Maitreya. For more than 20 years he has laboured to create a garden that could provide a tranquil backdrop to his meditation teachings. The result is so authentic, that even the western plants seem to have taken on a Japanese aspect.
"When I came here it was a wild field," he says, "and I didn't know what to do with it. I thought I would try to make a more peaceful environment so I thought about making a Japanese garden."
Maitreya, whose name means "loving teacher", is the son of a Japanese potter. He left Japan more than two decades ago after a turbulent adolescence during which he searched for enlightenment and inner peace. He found both while studying meditation at a monastery and decided to share his new-found Buddhist faith with others.
He now runs meditation sessions for adults, as well as making school and university visits to explain his philosophies. He says modern education has much to answer for.
"It shows you how to be clever, to survive and prosper in the world of greed and materialism. It says you must be clever in this field and that field. Education today has nothing to do with finding the truth of yourself.
"That is why I have come to dedicate my life to teaching people how to return to the original oneness. Sometimes children understand better than adults. They are closer to that world, there is not much clutter in the system".
He says one way to get rid of the clutter is to get involved in a garden. Maitreya believes gardening, or sitting in a tree's leafy shade, is a form of meditation. Both are an appreciation of nature, which is the very essence of being at one with the universe and the self.
"A garden and the hobby of gardening gives a peace of mind people have forgotten about in this busy world," he says. "But going into a garden is as if you are going back into your real self, before stress and struggle came into your life. You are going back to nature. Gardening is becoming more and more popular because people realise they need that time - quiet time and space - to be in unity with nature."
Well that's the theory. The trouble was, the acre-and-a-half patch of turf he selected for his garden of enlightenment near Newark, was less than luxuriant. "When I came here there was nothing, just brown sandy soil - like the Gobi Desert. I thought I must make it more green and lush and pleasant. So I planted almost randomly."
He also missed the hilly terrain of his homeland, so he arranged for a mountain of boulders to be transported from Derbyshire, as well as huge piles of earth with which to mould hillocks, and started shovelling.
"It has all grown up very well," he says of his labours.
Grown up well is an understatement. Mossy paths twist around ponds rippling from the spray of a waterfall. At every turn lies a fresh view - an arched bridge spans the bamboo-fringed pools swirling with koi carp; there's a pagoda among forest trees and bonsai willows; a Zen garden gleams, with its raked white sand and harmoniously placed rocks. Variegated holly trees are trimmed lollipop-style, lilac trees fan out like cupped open hands, lofty leylandii stretch skywards...
"The main essences of a truly Japanese garden are mountains, water and trees. Stillness is also very important, as is water which is natural and flowing, peaceful and harmonious," explains Maitreya of his designs.
The garden and Maitreya's teachings reflect the importance of tranquillity and the sense of being at one with nature and the universe - a state of harmony that many have yet to find, he says.
To achieve this, the garden operates on two levels. It acts as a beautiful backdrop for those who attend his regular meditation sessions. And it attracts garden enthusiasts, some of whom are overwhelmed. "Some people have said 'I cried in the garden it is so peaceful and beautiful.' That kind of appreciation gives great joy - that people have seen and felt the sense of peace."
Maitreya's meditation sessions usually start with a talk about the state of the world and the pressures of daily life. "When we talk about the world today we are talking about something apart from nature. We are interacting with greed and materialism. It is a commercial world of competition. There is just struggle, not harmony, not peace.
"We have bigger cars, bigger houses, more food available. But that is all we have. Nothing inside. That is when people start looking for something deeper, something greater and more pure." That is when they turn to Maitreya for help.
This diminutive man, wearing a blue cotton wrap, blue cotton trousers and sandals, says: "Meditation helps clear the emotional garbage and frees the individual to look at life from a different perspective."
Although Maitreya exudes a Zen-like serenity himself, he does admit to a passion seemingly at odds with his diminutive stature and blue cotton uniform - motorbikes. He has a Honda Golden Wing on which he zips around the country lanes.
"I only use it in fine weather," he says. "I cruise on it. I never drive fast. I like to look around at the countryside. I like the sense of flying - into the universe, into nature."
Which brings us back to the garden. "We all belong to nature, and this nature is peaceful, beautiful and magnificent. We can experience this beauty just by seeing it and communicating with our inner self. That is a moment that sometimes brings a tear."
The Japanese Garden is open to the public Tuesday to Sunday from mid-March to the end of October. For details of the garden and the Relaxation and Meditation Centre, contact Maitreya, Pureland, North Clifton, near Newark, Nottinghamshire NG23 7AT. Tel: 01777 228567
GROW YOUR OWN
Want to create a peaceful and harmon-ious Japanese-style environment in your own garden or in your school grounds? Maitreya has these suggestions: * Simplicity and naturalness are important. The design should emulate nature with gentle flowing shapes, curving pathways and nothing to jar the eye. The creation of stillness and calm is the essence.
* Consider the four elements of nature earth, water, fire and air. Use rocks, white sand, water, stepping stones and lanterns to reflect them.
* Plant acers, azaleas, bamboo,wisteria, camellia, all of which willimmediately bring an oriental feel to a garden. Moss and green groundcover plants add lushness.
* Be ruthless and radical. Shape plants into windblown, twisted, and lollipop forms. Many English shrubs can take on an oriental look with some artful pruning.
* Remember, a Japanese garden can be created in the tiniest of spaces. You don't need the luxury of one-and-a-half acres to create peace and quiet.