“Daitokuji” is copyright by Datigz, 2005 and made available under an Attribution-Non-Commercial Share Alike Licence 2.0
Imagine that someone has wiped clean the pattern in the gravel at Ryoanji and handed you the rake with the instructions, “Make whatever pattern you think best.” What pattern would you rake? What patterns wouldn’t you dare to rake, and why not? What would you do in this situation?
In Part II of the treatise on raking the sands of karesansui, Martin McKellar and Andrew R. Deane describe a journey of discovery, both personal and professional, in pursuit of understanding the meaning and methods of raking the sands of karesansui.
(If you have Japanese enabled on your browser, mouse over Japanese terms to see their kanji and definitions. The entire list is available here.)
All photos by Martin McKellar unless otherwise noted.
One cold, rainy day last December, I visited the Nezu Museum in central Tokyo with Martin McKellar, and, after enjoying a particularly interesting exhibition on kimono, we took to wandering through the delightful tea gardens, eventually winding up in the renovated cafeteria which overlooks a valley of dark green pines and camellias. Not surprisingly for such a wet afternoon, the chatter soon turned to our shared interest - dry landscape gardens - and we were soon deep in conversation. Much of what we explore in this article had its genesis in that afternoon exchange of questions and replies concerning the theory and design of raking patterns in karesansui 枯山水 gardens. In our first article, “Pulling the Rake” , we discussed the physical execution of raking patterns into gravel. In this article, we consider the theory and philosophy behind the configurations that are raked into expanses of gravel within dry landscape designs.
In order to clarify our thinking, we use the term “design” to mean the architectural plan or layout of a garden, and the term “configuration” to mean the overall pattern raked into a section of crushed gravel within a dry landscape design. Other terms we use are “tracery” for the delicate interlacing of lines within a configuration, “pattern” to imply an original tracery from a famous garden worthy of repetition, and “motif” for any distinctive and recurring form such as the checkerboard of interspersed raked and flattened squares known as ichimatsumon (市松紋). In keeping with the serendipitous peregrinations of our December afternoon at Nezu, this article adopts a Socratic approach.
When I first began discussing the practical act of raking dry landscapes with McKellar several years ago, I had not considered the theoretical aspects of creating configurations suitable to the garden design as a whole. In fact, I had not even considered where such patterns came from. Like most visitors to famous dry landscapes, I simply looked on from a nearby veranda and assumed that the configurations I was viewing were permanent and predetermined, rather like wallpaper. They came, so to speak, with the garden. Furthermore, rightly or wrongly, I believed that so-called Zen gardens had a single undisputed purpose: to facilitate Zen meditation which in turn leads to satori (悟り), or enlightenment. This was McKellar’s initial misunderstanding also, and it remains a commonly-held belief among many westerners and possibly quite a number of Japanese. Such dry landscape gardens may or may not have been designed with meditation in mind, but it is doubtful that this was their sole purpose.
If these gardens had been endowed with this solitary purpose, then they would have been constructed unilaterally to include only those elements which facilitate meditation. Any elements which competed with this purpose would have been excluded as superfluous. Because dry landscapes appear to be a reduction to the elemental, it is easy to see why westerners think as they do. Western gardens, on the other hand, have ambitious but comparatively protean goals such as “beauty”, “grandeur” or “leisure”. How these goals are determined depends largely on the creativity and genius of their designers, whose names are equally flamboyant: Capability Brown, Gertrude Jekyll, and Geoffrey Jellicoe. Zen gardens designs allow for much less flexibility. So much for the shift in my understanding. I was curious to learn how McKellar’s journey towards better understanding had begun.
To some extent, our journeys were parallel. We had both imbibed the stereotypes perpetrated by the majority of western books on dry landscape gardens which appeared one after another since the publication of Loraine Kuck’s seminal volume, One Hundred Kyoto Gardens, in 1935. Kuck was for some time the neighbor of D. T. Suzuki, the celebrated writer on Japanese culture who tirelessly devoted much of his writing to opening up Zen Buddhism to the western world. In her book, Kuck first mentions karesansui 枯山水 as a particularly Zen manifestation in garden design, and she uses the term “Zen garden” frequently. Leonard Koren points out that, “It is not until after the Second World War, in the 1950s, that the concept of gardens of gravel and sand and their surroundings as an expression of Zen even appears in the Japanese language, and then mainly as applied to the garden at the temple Ryoan-ji.” So, our western view of dry landscapes has been curiously shaped by an early 20th century passion for Zen Buddhism, and our responses have become automated.
“This rigidity is a perfect starting point for me,” McKellar notes, “I accepted Ryoanji as the model of the ideal dry landscape garden. When I first became the custodian of the Harn garden, there wasn’t really any room to accept design aspects of the garden’s plan or the initial configurations of its raking patterns if they differed from what I saw at Ryoanji. In other words, I approached my vocation with almost no theory about dry landscape gardens, and I had to evolve an understanding over time.” It is this evolving awareness that we will discuss here.
 Koren, L. (2000). Gardens of gravel and sand. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press; p. 32 (Italics mine). L. E. Kuck (1935). One hundred Kyoto gardens. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. is out of print, but occasional copies do appear in online book dealers’ catalogues. Suzuki wrote several books on Zen Buddhism, most of which are currently available. A good place to start is Suzuki, D. T. (1959). Zen and Japanese culture. New York: Princeton University Press.
 The reactions and responses of the visitor to dry landscape gardens bear further investigation, and will be the subject of a third article.
In the Beginning: A Look at the Origins of the Harn Karesansui Garden
We ground our discussion by turning first to the configurations and patterns originally raked into the dry landscape garden at the David A. Cofrin Asian Wing of the Samuel P. Harn Museum at the University of Florida. McKellar elaborates: “Originally, Kurisu, Int. [http://www.kurisu.com/#design] was hired to design an Asian garden which had been incorporated into the architectural plan for a new Asian wing proposed for the Harn. During the process of constructing the addition, a totally unrelated decision was made to construct a cement roof over the loading dock. After seeing that the flat area of the roof ran at the same level of the Asian wing, Mr. Kurisu proposed a dry landscape garden there at no additional expense.”
The creation of the karesansui garden took advantage of an opportunity that presented itself during the construction process, although it presented a number of challenges with its construction. Any time you build a garden on a rooftop you are beset by limitations. The major hurdle at the Harn was that the location of the rooftop on which the dry garden was eventually constructed was dictated by the location of the loading dock and not by how the garden would integrate into the overall design of the new wing. As a result, it is not visible to the public from the museum interior and the pathway to it is difficult to locate. Secondly, the surface of the roof is cement, so plants cannot be used in the design unless they are placed in pots raised above the surface. Watering also poses problems.
McKellar reminded me of the ingenious ways that gardens are introduced into restaurants and placed on private balconies in Japan. Weight restrictions also limited the type and size of rocks, as was the case at the Harn. The layer of gravel on top of the cement platform is approximately four inches thick, and the cement used for the walkway was chosen with material weight in mind. “I do not know to what degree weight affected the choices of rock size and gravel type,” comments McKellar. “Much thought went into the garden, and Mr. Kurisu is an accomplished and highly esteemed designer. He was there for the positioning of each rock as a crane lowered it into the garden. You’ll notice that no windows in the galleries look out on the dry garden, which Mr. Kurisu labels a ‘dry Zen-like garden’. I mention this merely to point out the improvised nature of the location of the garden.”
The hesitant description, Mr. Kurisu calling his design a “dry Zen-like garden”, led McKellar to do a little initial research. “I turned to the official wording to learn the purpose of the garden and the intent of the designer,” McKellar explains. “I was unfamiliar with this style of garden. I read about dry gardens built at Zen temples, starting with what is arguably the best known example, Ryoanji. I made my first visit to Ryoanji in 2008. It includes fifteen rocks, some of which are surrounded by moss, and raked gravel. Nothing else. As such, Ryoanji is an extreme example, but I took this as the ideal or archetypal dry landscape garden.” While McKellar was researching dry landscape gardens, a group of friends who visited the new dry garden at the Harn Museum reacted with excitement. His friends were familiar with “Zen meditation gardens”, and they appreciated the Harn garden. However, several of them commented on the differences they perceived between the Harn garden and the Zen gardens they had experienced in Kyoto, particularly Ryoanji. The dry landscape garden at Harn includes features not commonly seen in a traditional Zen garden, principal among these being the curving path which penetrates the expanse of raked gravel. There are also lamps to light the path, spotlights to illuminate particular rocks and trees, and stumps for visitors to sit on. It was this reaction to the unique elements of the Harn garden which prompted McKellar to ask a fundamental question regarding how he ought to maintain the garden. “Those features are indeed unusual, I thought, but are they an issue?”
The answer is complicated, as they say! Yes… and no. For some visitors they are significant, and there is a saying prevalent in the museum world about visitor responses to art: “Museum visitors like what they know.” Certain patrons who knew Ryoanji questioned features in the Harn garden that were dissimilar to those found at Ryoanji, but in retrospect the response to the Harn garden is really a factor of education. McKellar is quick to admit his own ignorance, although he points out that he did not begin his work as custodian of the dry landscape garden at Harn with the idea that educating visitors would be a part of the job. “My initial belief”, he admits, “was that I needed to maximize the garden experience for visitors. If visitors thought of this as a meditation garden, then I needed to align their experience with what they would have had at Ryoanji. And, of course, this belief led me to question the non-traditional features, like the path into the garden and the landscape lights beside it. Were they a distraction and, if so, should the distraction be minimized?”
McKellar began his journey by looking to other dry gardens, traditional and contemporary, for inspiration and understanding. However, his responsibilities for raking the Harn garden started immediately; therefore, he was forced to make immediate decisions concerning the patterns and configurations before having the opportunity to research other gardens. During the previous three years, he has traveled in the United States of America and Japan studying famous and lesser-known gardens alike. Concurrent to assuming caretaker responsibilities for the Harn garden, McKellar began visiting dry landscape gardens in the United States and Japan and when possible, talk with their gardeners. He sought to understand the gardener’s creative flexibility and the purposes to which such flexibility could be put.
Grabbing the Rake and Giving It a Try
When staff from Kurisu, International completed work on the dry landscape garden, a member of the company also raked the gravel. McKellar recalls that the design for the garden itself was clearly the work of Mr. Kurisu, but he is unsure whether the raking configurations were completed to the specifications of Mr. Kurisu. McKellar inherited the original configurations exactly as they had been raked by a member of the Kurisu, International team. His initial visits to the garden left him with vague impressions, and there was too much new information to absorb. “I had few expectations of the design. After repeat visits, I began to question the details. I was unable to change anything about the garden except the configurations raked into the gravel, and after checking with the Asian art department at the Harn, I received permission to change these.” McKellar’s initial thoughts revolved around the idea of the power that the lines in the gravel have to literally channel the gaze of a visitor. “The ability of the pattern to influence the experience of the visitor became paramount for me.”
McKellar’s first step was to break the configurations into their component patterns and to decide what the purpose of each pattern was and how that purpose contributed to the overall effect. However, features such as parallel straight lines drawn across the gravel represented ocean waves to McKellar, and he did not question them at all. Other features, on the other hand, were completely new to him, and he was initially unsure how to interpret them or how to respond to them. In particular, two locations where sweeps of gently-curving lines had been superimposed onto areas of straight parallel lines seemed to indicate currents in the water. The mystery was heightened as the ends of both of these curving lines were heart-shaped. “These two fluid lines gave me the idea that I could be creative with the configurations, that I could communicate an idea to the viewer independent of the other patterns. This was new to me.” The markings were unlike anything he had experienced at Ryoan-ji, and yet he found himself responding positively to them. “I’ve seen the gardens made by Mr. Kurisu in Delray Beach. These gardens don’t include this type of - what should I say? - non-geometric patterns.”
His reaction to the lines that bordered the walkway, however, was somewhat less elated, and he removed these immediately. “These lines, similar to the lines around the rock islands,” he adds in justification, “seemed to validate the presence of the walkway in the ocean-scape. The pathway is a convenience for the visitor to view the garden from different angles, but its presence reduces the ability of the viewer to imagine the raked gravel as an ocean.”
McKellar divided the configurations and patterns into three categories: familiar elements, like straight parallel lines across the garden space, used in expected ways; familiar elements, like parallel lines used along the path, used in unfamiliar ways; and unfamiliar elements used for reasons unknown. Categorization helped him spring into action. If action was expected, as it was in this case, then categorization allowed him to act on his conclusions. In hindsight, there was an unrecognized problem as the familiar elements did not receive the rigorous evaluation they deserved and needed. It took him two years of studying other gardens before he was prepared to rethink his original assessment. There is a saying that what you know you don’t know is not the problem! The problem is what you think you know and therefore don’t question.
 A staff person from Kurisu, Int., Takamitsu Kowata, visited the garden some months after McKellar had started raking it, and suggested that he make a double circle pattern beneath each mushroom-shaped pathway light. McKellar did so reluctantly because it drew attention to the lights. However, when the lights were switched on at night, the majority of the garden lay in darkness and the circles beneath the lights rewarded viewers.
Once McKellar decided that he was entitled to change the essential configuration of the raking patterns at the Harn dry landscape garden, he went in search of support. “I looked for examples of gardens where the gravel configurations were intentionally changed by the gardener.” The first example he found was Honen-in in Kyoto. A photo caption in Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form offered the following justification: “A sand mound at Honen-in, a Jodo sect temple located on a wooded slope in Kyoto. Priests periodically change the design to reflect the seasons.”
A second text that resonated with him reads, “Since these sand mounds are also meant to evoke water and cleansing of body and soul before entering the sacred precincts of the temple, the designs on top of the mounds incorporate the motif of water in the form of ripples, waves, or the Chinese character for water. Every two weeks or so a young monk reworks these sand mounds early in the morning, finishing them up with a fresh raked design on top. The choice of the design is left to the imagination of the monk assigned to the task, but the patterns are always abstract and restrained.” These passages implied that the raker was entitled to alter the configurations at will, even in deference to external elements such as the season. McKellar was curious. How would one express the season in the raked gravel at the Harn garden?
By far the most intriguing implication of the statement by Mehta and Tada is that the configuration can have a purpose beyond aesthetic pleasure. If raised mounds can represent the water with which visitors cleanse themselves, and if a pattern consistent with this message is used, then the pattern’s purpose is to reinforce the religious experience of the informed visitor. “The visitor is asked to imagine purifying himself through the act of walking between the two bodies of water.” In other words, the raked configurations bear the responsibility of making the presence of the mounds meaningful to the visitor. McKellar wondered how the raked configurations at the Harn might bring the viewer closer to the purpose of the garden. He re-visited Honen-in on a second trip to Kyoto to learn more about the significance of the rakings and the limitations put on their creators. but he was unable to speak to a raker. However, he was able to confirm that the configurations did indeed change.
Undeterred, McKellar made the most of his subsequent visits to Kyoto. One of the first gardens he visited was the Mirei Shigemori Garden Museum in Kyoto. “Shigemori acquired this property in 1943, and gradually redesigned the garden and the house, adding two tea huts called Muji-an and Kokokku-an in 1953 and 1969 respectively.” The garden includes areas of raked, coarse, light-colored sand, and McKellar was fortunate to attend a Wednesday morning session given by Shigemori’s grandson. Although the tour was delivered in Japanese, Shigemori-san responded to McKellar’s questions in English. Shigemori-san rakes the garden every morning, and more importantly, he does indeed change the configuration that he rakes into the sand. One feature of the design that caught McKellar’s attention was that there was a stepping-stone path through the garden, although a tome-ishi (止め石), or a stopping-stone bound in black rice-straw twine (shuronawa 棕櫚縄), was placed on one of the stepping-stones at the path’s entrance to indicate that the path should not be used.
A second temple that McKellar has repeatedly visited is Ginkaku-ji, which contains a famous dry landscape design comprised of an expansive raised bed of raked sand called the Ginsadan (銀沙灘), or “Sea of Silver Sand”, and a large flat-topped cone of sand rising from the far narrowing end called the Kogetsudai (向月台), or “Moon-viewing Platform”. This unique design dates from the middle or late Edo period (1603-1868), and was not a part of the original Muromachi-period (1338-1568) gardens. Ginsadan is raked once a month by a team of six professional gardeners hired especially for the onerous task. Since the area of sand is expansive, the configurations complicated, and the design element of particular importance to the temple, it never changes. “It is too large an effort for the staff or monks at Ginkakuji,” muses McKellar. “I wonder when the monthly maintenance was contracted to an outside group of professionals?” However, Ginsadan is cleaned and touched up by staff between the monthly renewals.
The small garden south of the abbot’s quarters at Ginkaku-ji, on the other hand, is maintained entirely by temple staff. It’s complicated configuration is renewed every seven to ten days using tools designed exclusively for the purpose. What this implied to McKellar was that configurations do indeed vary from garden to garden, and that quite often an individual is free to devise his own configuration and to create the tools to produce it. Here at Ginkaku-ji, the configuration represents an ocean, an island and waves.
The third garden McKellar revisited was the karesansui at Ryoan-ji. His photographs of the garden show one pattern of raking which always remains the same. The garden is believed to have been created in 1499 and to have remained undamaged, and therefore essentially unchanged, when the temple burned to the ground in 1790. “It did not occur to me to ask myself what a different pattern might look like, or if it might be worse or better and why. I simply recorded this as an example of an unchanging design, a direct line from its construction in 1499.”
“At first, when I looked into gardens that had expanses of white sand or gravel that contained configurations or patterns,” McKellar elaborates, “I didn’t distinguish between temples, public gardens and private gardens, and I certainly wasn’t prepared to distinguish between the sects of different temples. When I saw a photograph of a Japanese-style garden that contained raked sand or gravel, I made a point of learning more about the garden.” And perhaps understandably, McKellar believed at the time that anything he observed could be applied to the Harn garden. This presented him with two possibilities. The first possibility was that the configurations could vary according to season, although exactly how to do this was not apparent at first. McKellar began to experiment with seasonal patterns: small circles that represented rain dropping onto the surface of quiet ponds for spring; turbulent designs for summer; traditional wave patterns for fall; and cold, rigid, formal patterns for winter. “I don’t think I used one straight line for the summer patterns, but I used mostly straight lines for winter, with wavelets around the islands.”
“My limited understanding of Japanese culture allowed me to believe an awareness of the seasons was fundamental,” McKellar continues. “I was raking the garden every week. Was I bored making the same pattern? Perhaps. Perhaps, also, I wanted to give the visitors a reason to return to the garden and discover something new. The response of visitors encouraged me. They expressed delight at discovering new details and expressed delight with the concept that the lines in the gravel could reflect the season.”
The second challenge McKellar faced was to maintain one or more patterns that would promote the purpose of the garden. McKellar felt at the time that the Harn dry landscape was intended to be a Zen meditation garden. However, seeking confirmation of this belief in the literature proved difficult. Some writers supported the idea that karesansui gardens were used for Zen meditation.  Other writers claimed the idea that Zen monks actually meditated while viewing gardens was mistaken, a notion first proposed in the late 1930s. Even the association of the gardens with Zen principles is challenged. Even the term “meditation” seems to have never been used in the historic literature, and never by the Japanese themselves. From a purely practical standpoint, a wide expanse of white gravel is often too bright to be comfortably used for mediation during the day, and at night, without the aid of illumination or moonlight, it is too dark to see the garden at all. So the gardens are rarely objects for meditation in the strictest sense, but they do reflect the tenets of Zen in other ways. “My unquestioned belief turned out to have questionable validity. And yet, when you search the Internet, you find images of monks or their subordinates in meditative poses facing karesansui gardens.
As a result of his research, McKellar has stopped using the term “meditation garden” to describe the dry landscape at the Harn, and in its place he now prefers the term “contemplation garden”. Contemplation also seemed to fit what he himself feels when looking at a dry landscape garden. “I consider the idea of simplifying life and of thinking expansively while looking over a vast seascape.” On the company website, Kurisu, Int. states that contemporary gardens are adaptations to present day life: “Our vision: to create restorative experiences which demonstrate the necessity of natural places to physical, mental, and social well being.”
It is possible to see contemporary karesansui gardens that adhere to the design criteria that shaped gardens like Ryoan-ji. In North America, such examples would include the dry landscape gardens at Portland Japanese Garden and the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Florida. “These gardens could have been designed and constructed 400 years ago and recently transported, unchanged, to the US.”
 Mansfield, Stephen (2009). Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meaning, Form. Tuttle Publishing; p. 35.
 Mehta, Geeta and Kimie Tada (2008). Japanese Gardens: Tranquility, Simplicity, Harmony. Tuttle Publishing; p. 32.
 Mehta, Geeta and Kimie Tada (2008); p. 110.
 Mansfield, Stephen (2009); p. 90.
 Goto, Seiko (2003). The Japanese Garden: Gateway to the Human Spirit. Peter Lang; p. 104.
 Roth, Douglas M. Japanese Garden Journal. Retrieved 1 Jul 2015 from http://www.rothteien.com/landing/myths/zen-garden.htm. See also the Wybe Kuitert Landscapes webpage (retrieved 1 Jul 2015 fromJuly 1, 2015. www.wybekuitert.nl/gfx08/pdf_TheZenGarden01.pdf). In Kuitert’s The Zen Garden, he discusses how Loraine Kuck’s One Hundred Kyoto Gardens (published 1935) introduced the idea that Zen principles were reflected in dry gardens.
 Keane, Marc Peter (1996). Japanese Garden Design. Tuttle Publishing; p. 62.
 See, for example, the photograph of many people sitting cross-legged and staring into a garden retrieved 1 Jul 2015 from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/events/2015/01/09/culture-entertainment-things-to-do/zen-meditation-tour/#.VTD_gKallhA; and this photograph of a man dressed as a monk and sitting cross-legged staring into the karesansui garden at Tofukuji in Kyoto retrieved 1 Jul 2015 from http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/english/tv/corekyoto/.
 Retrieved 18 Apr 2015 from http://www.kurisu.com/#vision.
Innovation and Limitation
The more McKellar learned about gardens, the more receptive he became to changes and modifications to the original or familiar design parameters. The desire to learn how garden designs had evolved led to McKellar wishing that he could demonstrate to visitors to the Harn that gardens could and perhaps ought to vary from our expectations and fixed perceptions. Gardens do indeed need to address our contemporary life. “Visitors frequently brought to the Harn garden the same expectations that I initially brought. When they asked why it didn’t look more like Ryoanji, I needed to be able to tell them.” In addition to the many coffee-table books which depict Japanese gardens both in Japan and in the U.S., McKellar found influential ideas from unexpected sources. One such source was an NHK English TV broadcast, “Begin Japanology: Nighttime Scenery”, which covered the exterior lighting designed by Motoko Ishii for the newly renovated Kabukiza Theater in Tokyo. The lighting is cool and white during the summer when passers-by are suffering hot and humid weather, but, over a period of months, the lighting grows warmer, more golden, so that when December rolls around, it is warm and golden. “What a marvelous idea! I wondered whether this could work at the Harn dry garden.” It is precisely this sort of innovative thinking that McKellar feels is necessary to adapt traditions to a contemporary setting.
Indeed, innovative approaches to traditional karesansui designs had already attracted McKellar’s attention. The work of Mirei Shigemori, who was active from 1924 through 1975, has had arguably the greatest impact on contemporary dry landscape design in Japan. In particular, Shigemori’s innovative garden at Tofuku-ji Temple in Kyoto intrigued McKellar, and for an unexpected reason. “I heard his design for one garden used the former supports for the temple outhouses instead of rocks. Of course, this sounded ridiculous, almost blasphemous. Surely the Japanese sense of propriety would forbid such an outrage, especially in a temple precinct? How delightful to discover I was resoundingly wrong, again! Shigemori used the cement foundation pillars in one garden to form his design of the Big Dipper constellation.”
Although this compelling example of a designer responding to traditional principles in a creative and novel way was what brought McKellar to visit the garden in 2014, it was not his biggest surprise. While looking at the second of four gardens, the garden south of the main hall, McKellar saw lines carefully raked around the downspout. “My intuitive response was that making lines around an object in the garden draws attention to it and validates it. Surely elements that do not contribute to the imagined mental picture should be disguised or at the very least played down? This was my thinking when I removed the lines running parallel to the pathway at the Harn garden. Yet here at Tofuku-ji was a design that drew attention to a gutter downspout! Seeing this forced me to re-evaluate the use of wavelets surrounding the paved walkway into the Harn garden.” The Japanese have always been capable of screening out or innovatively including unwanted intrusions in scenery. It might almost be said to be a prerequisite in a country where so often an industrial monstrosity must be erected beside a thousand year old temple. The downspout is there by necessity, so one might as well include it in the raking configurations. McKellar was learning flexibility.
“I don’t have a rational explanation for my response. The outhouse foundation stones, the constellation design and the gutter downspout taken altogether impressed on me the notion that I could be less rigid in both my expectations of and my requirements for a contemporary garden.” And there was a further wholly practical consideration: If McKellar raked lines parallel to the edge of the sidewalk at the Harn garden, he could quickly and easily touch them up, whereas if he raked lines perpendicular to the sidewalk, gravel would build up along the concrete edge of the walk. “You can see a noticeable rise in the gravel where the parallel lines abut the walkway”, McKellar points out. “But, when you make one sweep of the rake parallel to the walk, these gravel swells are easily eliminated.” Any raking configuration, then, must also address the practical limitations imposed by the design of the garden, and such things are usually learned the hard way: through trial and error.
 NHK World TV. Begin Japanology: Nighttime Scenery. First broadcast January 16, 2014; Personal communication. NHK TV; Personal communication. Motoko Ishii Lighting Design.
 Mehta, Geeta and Kimie Tada (2008); p. 107.
 Mansfield, Stephen (2009); p. 115.
A Classic Revisited
Knowledge and inspiration are sometimes gained serendipitously, even coincidentally. Even though McKellar knows Manhattan well, he had not heard of Isamu Noguchi’s Sunken Garden at the Chase Manhattan Plaza. Noguchi visited Ryoan-ji in 1931 and again in 1950, and the dry landscape garden there made a strong impression on him. “The first image I saw of Noguchi’s garden showed large stones amidst a severe landscape. The similarity to karesansui plus his own testimony to the influence of Ryoan-ji made me eager to see the garden in person.” McKellar visited the Sunken Garden in October, 2014. “I immediately felt at home with some aspects of the garden. The stones had been brought from the Uji River in Kyoto. Around the stones were quartz cobblestones and their alignment made a strong impression on me. They appeared like the marks left by a giant rake that had been pulled across the surface.” Although it seemed to McKellar that Noguchi might be consciously evoking the raking patterns of dry landscape gardens, the designer himself has given conflicting responses to queries: “They’re also a representation of the raked gravel in a more traditional Japanese garden”, or, “the concentric patterns of the paving may be said to be like the contour raking in Japanese gardens but they go back more to their Chinese origins of stylized sea waves.”
Noguchi intended the garden to have strong seasonal elements and he originally proposed that the sunken areas have seasonal plantings. In the summer, the garden was to contain water. “I want to drain the place in the winter and put in some small trees, maybe. We might have other plantings in the spring and fall. It ought to change with the seasons.” The idea of seasonal elements resonated with McKellar: “I was struck by the majesty of the garden. It can be viewed from the plaza level or from the lobby area below the plaza. Strangely, there is no seating provided for individuals who might want to sit and contemplate the garden. I wonder why?” Indeed, photographs of the original installation show no benches around the top of the garden. In addition, McKellar noted that some of the rocks are immersed into the garden’s surface, similar to rocks in a karesansui design, while the larger ones appear to be bursting from the surface, as was Noguchi’s intention. McKellar thought that this might have been the result of working with a shallow construction depth such as the one at the Harn. “The stones at the Harn sat above the level of the gravel. If the gravel were imagined as water, then its level needed to be uniform, I believed. But originally gravel had been mounded up against the base of the rocks, probably to conceal the unsightly underside edges of the rocks which would normally be buried in an earth-based dry landscape garden.” For the first year of his custodianship, McKellar assiduously removed the gravel rises from around the base of each of the rocks at the Harn and raked the gravel to a uniform level across the entire surface. “Gradually I came to accept the idea that gravel could be water in one location and land in another, both within the same garden. I piled the gravel back up against the bases of the rocks to conceal their unsightly bases.” But the experience pointed to the complex issue of responsibility: Was it the gardener’s job to recreate a view that mimicked nature accurately, or was it the viewer’s job to interpret the configurations metaphorically, to see the gravel in one location, for example, as water and in another as land around the base of a mountain?
The Noguchi garden exhibits strong influences from traditional Japanese karesansui gardens, but it also includes several key innovations that manifest the originality of the artist and the design theories of the fifties and early sixties. One innovation was the accessibility: the garden can be viewed from two levels and by many people simultaneously. “I remember visiting the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s copy of Ryoan-ji garden in the 1980s,” McKellar remarks. “At that time you entered the garden alone, replacing your shoes with paper slippers and sitting on the veranda and contemplating the garden one person at a time. Noguchi’s garden is adapted to a crowded plaza in an urban environment.”
Of the gardens McKellar visited, the Sunken Garden by Noguchi is the least like a karesansui garden, in part because it was constructed most recently, but also because the inlaid cobbles mean that there is no gravel to be raked. The configurations and patterns chosen by the designer are permanent, immutable, static. The lessons that McKellar took away with him were that it is acceptable to adapt a garden to location and time, and to add seasonal elements (although these do not appear to have been implemented in the Sunken Garden). Therein lies a connection to Honen-in.
 Ashton, Dore (1992). Noguchi East and West. Alfred A. Knopf; p. 111.
 The New Yorker (14 Dec 1963; photocopy reference from the Noguchi Museum; page number and author unknown); Commissioned Works of Art (Chase publication 1999; photocopy reference from the Noguchi Museum; page number and author unknown).
 The New Yorker; Op. cit.
 See, for example, ‘Green oasis amidst sky-reaching stone’ (Herald Tribune; 1964).
Removing the Ego
In December of 2014, McKellar revisited Honen-in and a Japanese friend arranged an interview with the person in charge of raking. What McKellar learned had a profound impact: “Mr. Kido, the monk responsible for the configurations and patterns which are raked into the two mounds of sand flanking the entrance pathway, demonstrated a self-effacing humility. He sat just out of sight during the interview, and I spoke to him through Mrs. Masako Kajita, the English-speaking wife of the head monk at Honen-in. Only when she didn’t know the answer to my question would she pause, consult with him - again out of my sight - and then give me an answer.” Mr. Kido said that watching the raking was only appropriate for young monks in training, and he never announced his schedule in advance. He preferred to work privately, but if a visitor came upon him during the process, he would continue with his work. McKellar came away from the interview feeling deeply humbled. The identity of the gardener should not be “felt” by the visitor, nor should the configurations in the gravel stand out as the dominant element within the total garden experience.
Until this interview, McKellar had welcomed the response of visitors to the patterns he raked into the gravel at the Harn and he had unabashedly communicated his intentions to them. “I considered myself an artist and the gravel my canvas. I had recently made one of my most elaborate configurations. Although it was a small area at the far edge of the garden, it appeared to overwhelm the stillness of the garden, and even I questioned its high intensity.” Visitors seemed to like it, but McKellar found himself questioning such endeavors in hindsight. On the one hand he was gratified to create an experience that surprised and delighted visitors, but on the other he felt that the thirst for recognition was detracting from the overall impact of the garden. One of his colleagues referred to the embellished configurations as “ego-raking”, a term that McKellar feels describes the situation perfectly.
On the strength of these lessons, McKellar decided immediately to stop creating what he calls “high intensity” configurations. The intention was to have the garden function as a composite unit rather than as a collection of disparate elements that distracted the visitor from the whole. A few months after his interview with Mr. Kido, McKellar came across photographs of similarly intense patterns in the dry garden at Tofuku-ji. Such intense patterns may work within the context of the large garden that Shigemori designed for Tofuku-ji, but not within the context of the Harn garden, McKellar thought. Perhaps the size and design of a garden might determine the intensity of the configurations and patterns it could support? The Harn garden is not large, nor does it have an uninterrupted expanse of gravel. These factors limit the the possible configurations.
Although McKellar came away from Honen-in with an unexpected idea of how one should relate to the garden and to the task of raking, he did not learn much about seasonal elements. “I knew that Mr. Kido made images that referenced the season. A maple and a gingko leaf floating on water evoked the fall season, for example. But I do not understand clearly how he shapes seasonality to the composite garden experience.” Although Mr. Kido repeats images that he has used in the past, he also creates new images, and it was this process that McKellar wished to study.
 Koren, Leonard (2000). Gardens of Gravel and Sand. Stone Bridge Press; pp. 77-83.
A Change in Design
Recently, the dry landscape garden at the Harn was extended, and some modifications were made to existing areas. A raised area of horizontal roof bordered the garden to the south, and visitors had commented about its interference with the overall design. Kurisu, Int. was hired to create an extension to the garden that covered this area, and the resulting changes have posed new challenges. The flat area has been covered with gravel, but it is one foot higher than the main garden and separated from it by lattice fences. It was developed without any patterns or configurations raked into the surface. “I used to consider this area as “the neighbor’s property”, an area not directly connected to the garden, and therefore not my responsibility. Cleaning, yes, but not raking. However, during a recent visit to the garden, Dr. Kendall Brown, the current president of the board of the North American Japanese Garden Association, recommended that I create a configuration for this area. His opinion is that even small areas can have a powerful impact.”
McKellar is reluctant for a number of reasons, not least of which are practical considerations. He has only limited time each week for the care and maintenance of the garden, and the extension has added new burdens to the list of weekly tasks. He is also finding it difficult to conceive of the space as anything other than a flat roof covered with gravel. “What pattern would be appropriate for such an area? The main garden feels like the ocean, but this area is separate. It seems to me as if it could be a wooded area.” McKellar made a long, linear trail through the gravel, to represent a stream with small eddies in it. “This idea felt right. As always, the execution looked stiff, and I will need more practice, but this simple evocation of a stream feels right for the space. The two-story walls on three sides give you the feeling of a stream running through a deeply eroded channel.” This is also a pattern that will change with the seasons, although gravel lacks the plasticity of sand and therefore limits the scope of expression. “I cannot add a maple leaf, as at Honen-in,” McKellar laments.
Purification and Preparation
One unexpected outcome of the visit to Honen-in was that McKellar’s personal agenda was brought into direct conflict with the responsibilities he shouldered at the Harn. And he began to think more specifically about the spiritual role of the dry landscape garden. “I had read about kami (神; resident deities), about “prepared nothingness”, and about ma (間), or space. I had this idea that the garden should be a reasonable temporary resting place for kami. The kami should feel comfortable alighting in the Harn garden, even if for the briefest time. To welcome them, the garden needed to be completely cleaned, prepared and purified. There is a sense that when every last leaf is picked up, when every stone has been washed, the walkway swept and the gravel raked, the garden is ready to receive the kami. You sense the garden has snapped into a perfect tension, like putting the last building block into a large construction project.” McKellar cites a passage from Seiko Goto’s book The Japanese Garden: “From its earliest period, Shinto required scrupulous cleanliness. Because it considers kami pure, the soul must be pure to approach them. Therefore the essence of evil is physical or spiritual pollution, and goodness is identified with purity.” Goto points to one of the earliest uses of the term niwa (庭; garden): “The word… originally meant a gathering place of the gods. The site of a demolished shrine with its white gravel is called a garden in the Ise Shrine. This “garden” is an empty space defined by simple walls, into which only kami can enter. People pray toward this empty space imagining there are sacred spirits inside the boundary.”
Arata Isozaki, in Japan-ness in Architecture, warns about the incorporeal nature of kami: “But this notion of kami is not anything solid or constant, but was originally an invisible presence invited from somewhere. The objective locus of festival and ritual is just a device for their advent. Thus the kami never manifests itself and can easily depart. The place to invite such kami may be essentially void - a “central nothing.” Being void it can also absorb. Being amorphous, its notional manifestation can last forever. Such a central void calls not only for kami, but also for a different value system.”
For McKellar, this notional element implies existing as an idea rather than something real, and amorphous meaning that kami are without clearly-defined shape or form. After all, kami have many places to rest, and perhaps they will not stop at the Harn garden for a thousand years. Thus the term “nothingness” takes on new meaning: a place where the kami are not; a blank space, literally ma. And so McKellar works with a purpose: to “prepare in the desert a highway”, to quote an old hymn, to make ready a garden-space fit for the kami. “There is no image involved which I will try to copy or to incorporate into the tracery in the gravel. It is a goal I am striving to reach, but I must decide how to reach it. The emphasis is completely different. I’m trying to appease kami, not human visitors.” Although he has read volumes and visited many gardens, McKellar feels at times that he has painted himself into a corner. He is motivated to create an environment that is unlikely to be appreciated by visitors for what it is, and even he himself is unsure of what it should look like.
2 Goto, Seiko (2003). The Japanese Garden: Gateway to the Human Spirit. Peter Lang; p. 10.
 Goto, Seiko (2003); p. 16.
 Isozaki, Arata (2006). Japan-ness in Architecture. Massachusetts Institute of Technology; p. 142.
Every garden begins as an embryo, passes through various conceptual phases, crystallizes into a concrete design, and finally undergoes spasmodic birth as physical manifestation. This was the case with the design of the dry landscape garden at the Cofrin Asian Art Wing of the Harn Museum and with the raked configurations of the gravel. In the west, our understanding of this journey from ideal to flawed reality is a legacy of Plato’s theory of forms, and something like this philosophy is encapsulated within the famous Zen kōan (公案), “What is your original face?” The point is that there is an ideal, not just in the artist’s mind, but originally at the theoretical level, from which the artist draws. Therefore, whatever the artist conceives can never quite emerge as physical perfection: there will always be compromise in a reproduction.
Furthermore, gardens are by nature transitory works of art, for no matter how solid the material from which they are created may appear, they are subject to the forces of time, erosion and renewal. This is even more true of karesansui gardens in which few or no living plants are incorporated into the design. In this sense, then, dry landscape gardens are as much places of perpetual mutation as are perennial flower borders.
Even if the gardener attempts to rake the same configuration into the gravel time after time, minute variations always occur. Like the tiny errors which creep into the repetitive strains of DNA, these miniscule differences progressively evolve into new and refreshingly robust configurations. All things tend towards decay, disintegration and disorder. This is the second law of thermodynamics. A gardener who attempts to reproduce exactly the same configuration each time he picks up the rake has set himself up to defy physics itself. It can’t be done. Wind and rain and human imperfection work tirelessly against the endeavor. Nothing can ever remain precisely as it was. And so a wise gardener knows this, respects this, and resorts to working with nature rather than against it.
If you were to set up a time-lapse camera to keep vigil over a freshly-raked expanse of gravel, you would observe in the speeded-up footage a gradual eroding of the crests and a filling of the troughs. In short, the gravel would level itself out rather like the mitigation of sloshing waves in a bathtub.
In some temples, the same elemental configurations are attempted each time the gravel is raked. To the casual observer or occasional visitor, the dry landscape might well appear exactly as it did in the book or in the brochure which lured that person thither. But perhaps the custodian perceives a myriad variation which correlates to subtle deviations in human temperament, sporadic swings in strength and health, even the vagaries of seasonal weather. It is like the hand-painted patterns of Meissen teacups. Each cup and saucer reproduces a recognizable pattern, but none are exactly alike. For one thing, they are hand-painted. And, of course, there are multiple painters.
Imagine now that a custodian is permitted total leeway to follow whim and fancy each time he rakes the gravel. How much greater the variations introduced, how much more exhilarating the genetic upheaval to the garden’s ancestral lineage. Some configurations work, and some do not. Like evolving species everywhere, there is a limit to the extent to which a thing can evolve in a single generation. This is true of dry landscape gardens as much as it is true of the raking configurations they contain. A refresh in the design can only go so far before it tears apart the original concept. So the custodian must remain alert to the tension he places on the configurations he rakes: too far or too radical, and the whole thing collapses. There must be balance between dynamic progress and original stasis.
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