Do “Zen Gardens” Really Exist?

Ninna-ji garden
Ninna-ji garden

Discussion amongst scholars in recent years has provoked debate over whether there really is such a thing as a “Zen Garden”. Kyoto docent, Brian Victoria, highlights how the conversation about Zen gardens is still a contested field when he leads clients on our ‘Beyond Zen’ walk to view the garden at Ryoan-ji. This is because the influences on the creation of these gardens are numerous: Chinese, Japanese, Buddhist, Taoist, Shinto and of course “Zen” elements are all visible within the gardens. There is no doubt that there has been a “Zen” influence on these gardens and the fact that they are situated on the grounds of Zen temples and monasteries themselves is perhaps why they are more commonly attributed the term “Zen Garden,” particularly by the West. However, it is perhaps safer to refer to them as “dry landscape gardens” or karesansui (meaning ‘dry-mountain water’ in English) to discuss their multifaceted features effectively.

Images of white gravel, raked beautifully in swirling patterns springs to mind when picturing these karesansui. Borrowed cultural intercourse from China during the Nara Period (710-794) saw the first instances of this particular feature at the Kyoto Imperial Palace courtyard. As the gardens are bereft of natural water, the white gravel is often intended to represent this element and the raked patterns symbolise waves, whirlpools and natural ripples. At Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) white gravel is sculpted into a faultlessly moulded mountain, thought to resemble Mount Fuji. This is known as ‘Shakkei’: a technique of including a distant landmark into the composition of a garden, effectively borrowing scenery from the surrounding area. The raked patterns surrounding the ‘mountain’ were revolutionary in the 17th century because of their geometric and stylized character as opposed to an attempt to reconstruct nature.

Ginkaku-ji
Ginkaku-ji garden and the iconic ‘Mount Fuji’

This white gravel provides a base layer for a number of carefully and precisely placed stones in many of these gardens. First used as ancient prayer sites, it was thought the stones could tempt the gods to descend to visit earth and give blessings. As Buddhism and Chinese geomancy (feng shui) became of heightened importance, stones then started to appear in gardens as a result of these new imported meanings, intending to capture landscape in its natural form. The importance of the placement of stones stems back to Sakuteiki, a publication from the 11th century that discusses gardening as an aesthetic art. In Sakuteiki, the suspected author Tachibana no Toshitsuna, describes how ‘imperative’ the placement of stones in gardens is because their upright positioning can be so spiritually and aesthetically powerful. Docent Gavin Campbell echoes this idea, stating that “the problem isn’t placing the first stone. It’s placing the second stone.” Understanding the relationship between the stones which makes these gardens so intriguing and exciting.

Ryoan-ji Garden
Ryoan-ji Garden
Carefully tending to the gardens
Carefully tending to the gardens

The presence of both gravel and stones is crucial for what these gardens are first and foremost designed for: meditation. When docent Casper Wits leads walks to Ryoanji he explains that one can see the rock formations as mountains sticking out of the clouds or as islands in the sea. However, most important is that the garden is not supposed to have symbolic meaning, or point to something outside the garden itself. Quite the opposite. It is supposed to draw the attention into the garden and thereby allow the individual to enter a meditative state naturally, which is what makes these karesansui so unique. The garden accomplishes its spark through a mastery of disciplined observation which is what the gardens are encouraging in their visitors. You’ll never see gravel randomly scraped or rocks tossed haphazardly in a karesansui. The gardener will have carefully and consciously focused on each element.

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