Gardens have been an essential part of every civilization. From the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” to Singapore’s “Garden by the Bay”, humans have been passionate about taming nature’s abundance and beauty in a safe, manageable environment. But while a variety of garden styles were developed throughout the world, the Japanese Zen rock garden stands out for its unusual approach – by denying water, presumably the most important element in order to create a garden.
It seems even more peculiar if you remember that the climate in Japan is moderate and humid. Why did the Zen rock garden, or “枯山水 (kare-sansui, meaning creating gardens using no living things),” emerge from a water-rich country, letting unique beauty emerge through its absence?
“作庭記 (garden design manual),” Japan’s oldest text book on garden design written somewhere during the 11th ~ 12th century summarizes the overarching traditional garden design principles. They are: 1) to carefully observe the geographic formation and characteristics of the pond that will be located at the center of the garden, and 2) to place elements around it by focusing on harmony and making sure that they follow the law of nature. Water was, indeed, the core element of traditional Japanese garden. Kare-sansui emerged as a counter or mutation to the traditional approach.
The history of the Japanese garden: Shinden zukuri and Jodo-shiki garden (8th ~ 12th century)
The earliest Japanese garden style can be traced back to the Hei-an era (794 – 1185), during which gardens were designed as part of the “寝殿造り (shinden-zukuri)” style mansion lived in by aristocrats. The shinden-zukuri was a series of residential units that formed a shallow U-shape together with auxiliary buildings. The main unit, the shinden or the bedroom unit, was the main building found at the bottom of the U-shape (# 1 in the below example), which were connected with the sub-units using corridors. The entire building area surrounded the garden, most of which was a large pond with islands connected by the bridges.
The model of Higashi-sanjo-den, a typical shinden-zukuri mansion lived by an Hei-an aristocrat.
Consistent with the “作庭記,” the water body was the most important element in the shinden-zukuri garden. Aristocrats chose a site that was close enough to the river, and dug a creek to their site. The creek typically entered from the back of the building (which usually faced North-east), flowed under the corridors and poured into the pond that faced south.
The structure of shinden-zukuri, or traditional Japanese architecture in general, was supported by pillars and beams with no load-bearing walls. In absence of the fixed, sturdy walls, the house was semi-open to the surrounding environment and the residents could choose to leave the rooms open to outside, or to semi-closed using screens, partitions or furniture, depending on the weather or the activities. Buildings and gardens were designed as contiguous architecture, whose highlight was the garden view from the shinden, or the master bedroom.
The area in front of the shinden room was covered with white sand to be used for various activities, beyond which was the large pond with small islands connected by the bridges painted vermilion. The aristocrats often partied on the boats. The entire garden surrounding the pond usually echoed famous scenic places in China or in Japan.
In such an exquisite environment, aristocrats indulged in observing subtle changes in natural beauty, engaging in elusive, romantic relationships while playing the game of politics. (read more about the Hei-an culture and “nono no aware”)
Ponds were also considered something that would bring people to another, higher world. Especially when the “Western Paradise (Jodo – a painless, suffering-less land where Buddhas are believed to go after their transcendence)” concept of Buddhism became popular, the Hei-an aristocrats sought to re-create the paradise in their garden. It was called Jodo-shiki (Jodo style) garden and is characterized by the horizontally expansive, calm water surface that looks peacefully beautiful against the smoothly curved hills/mountain ranges. The shinden-zukuri and Jodo-style garden have become the foundation of traditional Japanese garden.
The format of the Jodo-style became a foundation for the traditional Japanese garden, which continued to be expanded and refined as 池泉回遊式庭園 (chisen kaiyu-shiki teien – stroll-around-the-pond style garden). It placed a pond (often a complex-shaped body of water with small tributaries) at the center, and surrounded it with winding lanes, gazebos, tea houses and temples. As a water-rich country, Japan maintained the water-oriented garden style throughout its history, both before/after the emergence of kare-sansui.
If water was the central element for the traditional Japanese gardens, rocks were another critical feature. For example, the abovementioned text book, “作庭記 (garden design manual),” started with a statement:
(The most important thing in erecting rocks is to have overarching design philosophy.)
Here, the author (there are multiple theories who that was) used the phrase “erecting rocks” to mean “designing a garden,” because rocks were such an important part of garden design. Indeed, the ancient Japanese worshiped “holy” rocks because they believed that they were visited by deities in nature. Rocks that carried natural solemnity were highly sought-after for religious uses, but were also used in gardens to express natural elements such as mountains, waterfalls, islands, animals and/or mythical/religious symbols. When kare-sansui emerged after the Hei-an era, rocks played a central role in the absence of water. Consistent with traditional garden design philosophy seen in the “作庭記 (garden design manual),” rocks were mostly used as found – no cutting, shaping nor polishing – to appreciate their naturally occurring appearance.
The history of the Japanese garden: Muso Soseki and emergence of kare-sansui (12th ~ 14th century)
By the 12th century, the aristocrats were starting to lose their power to emerging military leaders. The Hei-an culture, monopolized by aristocrats and focused on fine, delicate, spiritual and romantic (basically impractical) elements, was also forced to change to accommodate the “samurai-spirit” fostered in the barbarian Eastern regions, which Kyoto-based aristocrats found rough, unpolished and unrefined. Architecture was not an exception.
But an unexpected group of people emerged to elevate the otherwise plain, practicality-driven samurai-style culture for a unique synthesis: the Zen priests. Military leaders needed mental stability and strength to survive day-to-day battles, and they found the stoic, self-restricting philosophy of Zen useful to keep samurai warriors’ moral high.
Zen is one school of Buddhism which distinguishes itself from other schools for its indomitable dedication to meditation. Zen believes that a religious breakthrough can only be achieved by strict physical practice, not only by studying textbooks (Buddhism had plethora of textbooks due to its philosophical nature). As prominent Zen priests continued their meditation training, while mentoring military leaders and aristocrats, they often used various forms of art to record their religious enlightenment. Garden design became one of the major art practices of Zen priests primarily because temples almost always had gardens, and probably also because a garden was closer to nature. (Read more about why Zen priests became leading artists and creators in the Middle Ages)
Zen priests who excelled in garden design were called “石立僧 (ishi-date sou, or rock-erecting priests).” They were virtually the first group of professional garden designers in Japan who helped advance the art of landscaping with a solid philosophy, methods and expertise. As Zen priests, garden design were part of their religious pursuit. 夢想礎石 (Muso Soseki, 1275-1351), the most important and pioneering ishi-date sou in this period described his gardening philosophy in “夢中問答集 (Muchu Mondo-shu),” a compilation of his sermons published in 1344.
…there are people who embrace mountains, rivers, plants and rocks…every element in nature as the core part of their lives. It’s different from gardening as a hobby, because it can become their sincere religious pursuit. By attempting to embrace elusive nature reflected in water, rocks, plants and trees that keep changing as the seasons change, you can become closer to fundamental truth of the world we are in and who we are. Although people cannot stop criticizing others who create gardens just to show off or from dilettantism, we have to remind ourselves that nature does not care either way. It’s only humans who want to judge others, and it has nothing to do with the true object of creating gardens. (Translation by Mihoyo Fuji
Such Zen-inspired beliefs of 1) accepting ever-changing nature as is, and 2) denying a self-centric approach in art helped advance Japanese gardens from a fine, elegant and presentation-oriented style to a minimalist, empty and metaphysical style. It eventually crystallized as kare-sansui, and it was Muso Soseki who cemented its principles. We will now visit some of his masterpiece gardens to observe the emergence of kare-sansui.
The life and works of Muso Soseki
Muso Soseki was born into a high-ranking samurai family in 1271 in the Mie Prefecture (about 100 kilometers East of Kyoto), but was sent to a temple to become a priest when he was 9. When he was young, he traveled frequently to learn different Buddhist schools’ teachings. At the age of 20, he decided to dedicate himself to Zen. As Zen focuses on meditation, Soseki continued traveling the country and practiced meditation deep in nature, such as in mountains, by waterfalls and in caves. These experiences are believed to have influenced his garden design philosophy.
As he continued to practice Zen, he became an accomplished, highly sought-after priest although he did not seek fame. In 1313 when he was 40 years old, he was invited to stay in the Gifu Prefecture, where he founded 永保寺 (Eiho-ji temple). It has one of his oldest surviving gardens. As you can see in the images below, the temple was constructed on the exposed bedrock and Soseki designed the garden surrounding it: the waterfalls run over the cliffs and pour into the pond. An arch-shaped bridge in front of the main religious building divides the pond into two distinct sides – one next to the bedrock, and the other by the river on a plain. Soseki also situated a “zazen stone” for meditation on top of the hill from where you could overlook the entire premises.
After his years at Eiho-ji, Soseki kept traveling, meditating and teaching. He was at Kamakura (100 kilometers south of Tokyo) when he established 瑞泉寺 (Zuisen-ji) temple there in 1327. Whereas 永保寺 (Eiho-ji) followed the format of a shinden-zukuri/Jodo-style garden, he made a bold move in designing Zuisen-ji: he adapted his garden to fit nature, instead of changing nature to create a garden.
As you can see in the images below, he made a cave for meditation in the exposed bedrock that was sitting at the north of the Zuisen-ji site, and excavated the ground in front of it to create a pond. He then established a zazen-meditation area by leveling rock surfaces in the middle of the cliff.
The rest of the garden was designed surrounding the cliffs, had waterfalls, bridges and stairs that led to the upper level of the garden, from which you could see Mt. Fuji to your right, and overlook the Pacific Ocean. Compared to the Eiho-ji, which followed the format of the traditional Jodo-style, Zuisen-ji was almost a large sculpture of naturally occurring rock formations. Zuisen-ji could be considered Soseki’s first step to dismantle the aesthetics of the traditional garden design to eliminate any excess frills to reveal the essential elements deep in nature.
After 1333, in his sixties, Soseki was invited back to Kyoto where he helped found/re-establish several major temples, some of which still survive to this day. One of the most prominent examples is Saijo-ji, which is also known as koke-dera (the moss temple), the one Steve Jobs loved. Saiho-ji was originally founded in the 8th century, but it was almost forgotten when Soseki was asked to re-instate it. After elevating the traditional pond-centric garden style to a more rudimentary, philosophical style, Soseki let a mesmerizing two-story garden emerge at Saiho-ji.
The ground level employs a technique called chisen kaiyu-shiki. It has a pond at the center, and lanes, gazebos and vista points quietly surround it. It is visually rich because water nourishes the abundant flora. Hundreds of years after Muso Soseki, today there are about 120 different moss species that display their quiet vigor. It is almost as if you can hear them breathe.
But Soseki’s creative energy did not stop there. He designed the upper level in a totally different manner. After displaying so much of the dynamism coming from living organisms surrounding water, Soseki eliminated them all at once. What was left was more direct, the crude face of nature whose beauty/solemnity was condensed in the rocks. This is one of the oldest surviving 枯山水 (kare-sansui). The history of kare-sanusi started here.
The most prominent kare-sansui at Saiho-ji is situated on the slope of a hill, beside a small religious building. Surrounded by raw nature sit several forceful, but succinct rocks. If the ground level garden was to enjoy nature’s visual abundance, this area was for mediation – to dissolve into nature and become part of it. It is hard to feel it from pictures, but when you actually stand there, you feel the primeval nature of the slope that gradually leads into the semi-dark Koin-zan Mountain. It is overwhelming rather than pleasing. Soseki created three meditation levels here: the lower level for beginners, an intermediate level, and the upper level for advanced practitioners. The upper level had two zazen-ishi or meditation stones. The multi-level stage was likened to an old Chinese myth and represents carp ascending a waterfall to become dragons. When you meditate here, you become one of the carp trying to swim higher to reach religious enlightenment.
Called the kare-taki (dead waterfall) rock arrangement, this meditation area became one of the textbook kare-sansui gardens and was copied by the garden designers who followed Soseki. As the phrase “dead waterfall” suggests, the absence of water became the source of creative/religious endeavors. If the gardens before Soseki were appreciated by viewing or walking through them, Soseki’s kare-sansui were appreciated by immersing yourself in them.
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