Gardens have been playing an important role in every civilization. Being half natural and half artificial, they function as a buffer or bridge that connects humans to the beauty of nature, without bringing in any danger posed by nature.

In Japan, gardens were first developed as part of “Shinden-zukuri” mansions that the aristocrats built during the Hei-an period (794-1185).  Water played an important role because it was relatively abundant in Japan due to the humid climate.

The model of Higashi-sanjo den, by Wikiwikiyarou (own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The model of Higashi-sanjo-den, a typical Shinden-zukuri mansion by an Hei-an aristocrat. Water plays a significant role.

Ponds, connected by bridges, were considered something that would bring people to another, higher world. Especially when the “Western Paradise (jodo)” concept of Buddhism became widespread after it was brought to Japan in 6th century.  The aristocrats tried to re-create the paradise in their garden. Western Paradise is a painless, suffering-less land where Buddhas live, after their transcendence.

By the 12th century, the aristocrats were losing their power to the military elites.  The subsequent Kamakura era (1185-1333) was the beginning of the military dynasties, and lasted until the middle of the 19th century.  Compared to the aristocrats who loved delicate, spiritual and romantic (and impractical) culture, military elites focused on practicality and simplicity.  They tried to avoid unnecessary frills that had no useful function.  Since their morale had a lot in common with Zen philosophy, military elites sought advice from Zen monks, and Zen monks influenced them in many aspects of their lives, including architecture and gardening.

Kamakura style architecture is based on Shinden-zukuri, but is a lot more streamlined. Gardens that accompanied residential buildings and temples were also refined and made progress aesthetically. It’s partly because gardening was theorized through “Sakutei-ki (Gardening manual),” which is believed to have been written somewhere later, during the Hei-an or early Kamakura era.  The word equivalent to “Kare-sansui” already appears in Sakutei-ki, but it’s not very clear if it was used to describe the Zen rock garden that was established at later years.  Nonetheless, we can assume that the methods to combine multiple rocks as part of garden design already existed around the 12th  century.

The theories in Sakutei-ki were executed by ishidate-so (meaning stone designer monk), Zen monks who exhibited highly advanced skills to design gardens.  Monk Muso Soseki (1275-1351) was the pioneering ishidate-so.

By Y.Torayama (Y.Torayama 撮影) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Eiho-ji Zen Temple, founded by Muso Soseki in 1313. His early works focused on re-creating famous scenic/sacred views (often in China) by taking advantage of local natural environment (such as the rocks seen behind the bridge). This garden is based on sacred Mount Lu in China, which was known for its incomparably unique formation. Ponds still play significant role. Public domain

By Y.Torayama (Y.Torayama 撮影) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Zuiho-ji Zen Temple, founded in 1327. After 13 years after Eijo-ji (above), Muso Soseki created a landmark zen garden taking advantage of natural geographic formation. He made a small cave by excavating rocky surface, which is accompanies by a small pond. Public domain

The fact that Zen monks led the early stage of garden design helped the emergence of Kare-sansui (Zen rock garden), primarily due to two reasons: 1) Zen monks, including Muso Soseki, often led a nomadic life to accomplish hard meditation training in the mountains and caves, by the waterfalls or by the ocean. They spent an enormous amount of time by nature, often harsh, almost dissolving into it. They were probably the ones who observed and felt the very core of nature with the keenest sense and concentration. 2) Zen temples were usually located in remote mountains with limited access to water.

Although ishidate-so’s were invited by social elites to design their large, budget-full gardens, they also designed the gardens for Zen temples.  But Zen temples were often located in remote areas with limited land and poor access to water.  In order to let the beauty of nature emerge in poor and small lots, they increasingly relied on condensation and abstraction.

If there is little water, you cannot make ponds and grow a lot of trees. If you don’t have a lot of room, you cannot make mounds to express the grandeur of mountains. What would you do?

Rocks played significant roles. In a highly crystallized world of abstraction, they would mean mountains, islands, Buddhas, animals, or stones for meditation.  

Saihoji Kare-sansui, 2013, by Yanajin33 (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Saiho-ji Zen temple, re-founded by Muso Soseki in 1339.  This garden is considered to be one of Muso Soseki’s masterpiece Kare-sansui. It is based on an ancient Chinese story of persevering hard training in waterfall. You can see how his work evolved from Eiho-ji and Zuiho-ji in terms of condensation and abstraction. 2013 by Yanajin33

People expected a lot from gardens— a buffer between artificial sphere and nature, a bridge between humans and another world, and a catalyst to connect real life to a boundless imaginary world.

By freeing itself from physical constraints, Kare-sansui successfully elevated the beauty of nature into something more transcendental. The philosophy and the artistic inspiration was accepted not only by Zen monk ishidate-so’s but also by social elites such as Shoguns and aristocrats. Muso Soseki passed away in 1351, but his works were remembered, copied and refined by garden designers who followed.

In the next chapter, we will review Muso Soseki and his follower’s Kare-sansui works in more depth. It will be released as paid contents. Please subscribe from the Digital subscription page.