Doubt –  Learning to see the Japanese garden

 Mark Bourne looks back on his experience as an apprentice to a Master Gardener in Kyoto, and shares a rare glimpse into the challenges of that world. Adapted by permission from the article in the January 2011 PACIFIC HORTICULTURE MAGAZINE.


“There is nothing in the Japanese garden that you cannot see.”

That was not the lesson I had expected to learn when I moved to Kyoto in search of an apprenticeship. I had intended to pursue a brief period of practical study before entering graduate school to study Japanese history, rounding out the research that I had done for an undergraduate thesis on symbolism and literary aesthetics in the gardens of the Heian period. While researching that paper, I had become focused on understanding exactly how master Japanese gardeners imbued a garden with the symbolism and imagery that are so often discussed. I held the conviction that the path to understanding the Japanese garden lay in learning to understand the language of stone. If I had known how many years would pass before I started to understand this language, I cannot imagine that I would have continued.

It is tempting to say that my apprenticeship was the most horrible experience I have ever had, but such a simple statement avoids the complexity of that time, and the insights into the garden that I continue to draw from the experience. I have no doubt that my view of the Japanese garden is profoundly different from any understanding that might have emerged from academic study alone.

The foundation of the traditional Japanese arts is apprenticeship. With all of the idiosyncrasies and irregularities that learning directly from a working master encourages, this remains the path to mastery. My own entry into that world began with my introduction to Kitayama Yasuo in June of 1995. I would soon come to know him as oyakata, which translates clumsily as “boss” or “master,” but which describes a relationship that goes well beyond either. I had moved to Kyoto in January, through a program that placed University of California students in public Japanese foster homes as volunteers. The foster-care home where I volunteered was run by the City of Kyoto and cared for nearly sixty children between the ages of thirty months and twenty years.

Located in the main Hall of Kennin-ji Zen Temple in Kyoto, these three gardens present three distinct styles of garden within the Japanese tradition: opposite, tsuboniwa (courtyard garden), left, roji (tea garden), and bottom, karesansui (dry garden). And though each style is distinct in both the physical form and the poetic imagery of the garden, all are readily identified as Japanese gardens, even by casual observers, by the consistent treatment of materials.

(Author’s photographs. Click for larger images.)


My introduction to Mr Kitayama involved layers of introductions, from the director of the home to the director of another foster home, and through a series of gardeners, until, one day, I was told: you will meet a gardener. This extraordinary series of introductions reinforced my sensitivity to the intricate fabric of relationships in Kyoto, making me feel that my every misstep, or moment off-guard, might be witnessed by all the people who were helping me—the director of the foster home, oyakata, the abbots in the temples. It seems that Japanese people have this feeling as well: many apprentices had to return to their hometowns, suffering from emotional exhaustion—neurose, as it is called in Japan, using the German word and pronunciation.

Beginning apprentices are not expected to understand much. They are to do as they are told, and to apply themselves. This might seem romantic, working with an open mind and a simple spirit, in harmony with the garden, guided by benign instructors. Even after living in Kyoto, this exotic vision endured for some time—a certain intoxication born of unfamiliar surroundings. But romance eventually wears thin. It is difficult to always respond with “yes”—to always accept criticism, no matter how small, with gratitude. After months of working sixty, seventy, or more hours each week, with no end in sight, it was no longer a special experience; it was real life. I was exhausted, cold, and hungry. Rain dripping through maple leaves into the water basin of a temple garden was no longer poetic; it was the same rain dripping down the back of my neck, and it was simply another irritation as I tried to clean the garden.

A Visceral Response

In Japan, the process of learning a craft is often described as “remembering with the body,” pointing to the development of an intuitive awareness that cannot be explained through the progress of rational thought. The creativity of the Japanese garden is not rooted in the act of analysis; rather it is an immediate, visceral response to the unique qualities of site and materials. Expressing oneself through intuition in this way seems like a great freedom, liberating the spirit from the logical mind and its plodding certainty. This may evoke the popular image of the struggle to master Asian culture, but unlike the movies, there is no cut to the victory scene. In real life, the riddle of understanding without knowledge is a calamity for the sense of self, because it also involves losing the sense that our actions contribute to some clear goal. Lacking the benchmarks of progress and achievement that in Western perspective, anchor our identity to the flow of time, leaves us adrift in a sea of action without purpose or progress. This is where the true challenge of apprenticeship emerged, trying to reconcile the world of the books - the world that I had studied as a student -with the reality that submerged me.

Written explanations of the Japanese garden often tum to an elaborate, esoteric language that evokes images of deep tradition, complex symbolism, and poetic allusion. Drawn from a style of analysis found in Japan, these complex explanations can be intimidating, and yet, they are also comforting: we are trained to believe that we can grasp the object with our minds and make logical sense out of seemingly haphazard arrangements of stone and plants. Those complex analyses create the sense that there are “handles” we can grasp in order to understand what we are seeing, thereby providing a rational justification for the beauty that we find in the garden. Unable to discover these handles in my own direct experience however, and thus struggling to understand without any way to grasp what I was being shown or asked to do, I arrived at a state of profound doubt. Yet, the deep fascination that had first drawn me to study the Japanese garden never diminished.

As I studied temple gardens from the engawa, 縁側 or on lunch breaks in the inner grounds of the Imperial Palace where we were pruning, the gardens remained resolute in their silent presence. Stones and soil and plants know nothing of doubt.

It is the silence that eventually held me. I stopped looking beyond the garden for explanation, and began to realize that it is possible to “question” the garden directly. This calm, clearheaded observation of the garden seems like quite a normal thing, but I don’t think I would have learned to see the garden in this way without the constant pressure applied by oyakata and his insistence that we understand the work of our hands directly. The questions that emerge from this study are simple, almost surprisingly rudimentary: How many stones are in the garden? How far apart are they? What shape are the stones? What are the plants in the garden, and how have they been pruned?

Mastering the Medium

Taking a step away from the expectation of a tradition shrouded in symbolism, and observing the Japanese garden using the same methods that would be applied to any other art, these questions seem not so unusual. For example, when viewing a painting in a museum, you might ask questions about its origin and history, about the patron, and about the artist who composed it; you would almost certainly examine the details of the medium, type of paint, the colors, the brushstrokes, the mounting, and so forth. In that setting, it is expected that the details of the physical composition are equally as important as the emotional content or symbolic value; it is even likely that method, medium, and message would be considered inseparable. Apprenticeship is no more, and no less, than practical training in a visual art.

Careful examination of the physical details of the garden had transformed my understanding of the garden as an art, but I also wanted to discover and practice the art of the garden as I had seen it described, bringing meaning and symbolism into my own work beyond the vaguely reassuring generality that “the garden is a symbolically meaningful space.” I continued to search for this symbolism throughout my apprenticeship, and there were two processes that gradually deepened my understanding of the way that the Japanese people see their own gardens.

As apprentices we were all required to study Chado 茶道, the “Way of Tea”. The practice of Chado engages many Japanese arts, and familiarity with this one art was considered essential for our development as garden designers. When placed in the context of literature, history and an appreciation for the aesthetic sensibilities cultivated in the traditional Japanese arts, the true depth of the garden came to life. The descriptions of Japanese symbolism that I had read, and that I was searching for, seemed pale in comparison to this rich and subtle sensitivity to the human environment. While I was discovering this rich world, I was also examining the garden from an informal anthropological perspective, trying to undestand how specific symbols were expressed in specific gardens, and then further questioning whether these interpretations could be reliably linked to the original creators of the gardens. Once again, I found that my search for symbolism did not come to a conclusion that I found compelling. Perhaps the clearest explanation of this emerged during a recent visit to Japan: I was discussing modern analyses of the garden with oyakata, and he tumed to the moon as an example.

The moon is an important image in Japanese and the practice of “moon viewing” has a long connection with the Japanese garden. He pointed out that in sixteenth century Japan, the idea that humans might travel to the moon was entirely inconceivable. It is impossible for us to grasp what the moon meant to people of that era. To apply our present understanding of the world to those historic gardens as explanation can only lead to a gross misunderstanding of what the people who created them thought and felt. I found this to be the core of the issue: although the gardens of Kyoto had been created in a context that was rich with symbolism and literary imagery, the original meaning of that imagery is lost in modern explanations of a garden - just as the “meaning” of the moon has changed.

This appears to reduce the garden to little more than a damp mass of raw materials, denying all meaning beyond the simple fact of the distance between objects. If the garden consists of simple facts, surelv one of those sirnple facts must be the profoundly transformative experience of sitting on the engawa, 縁側, looking out onto the expanse of raked gravel and mvsterious meanings, and discovering an entirely new sense of self in that mere moment. However, that experience -that transformation, is not the garden’s transformation: it is our own transformation. The garden is not complete without the viewer. The magic that we experience when we look at the garden does not emerge from some exotic source; it is palpable, immediately part of that moment when viewer and garden meet. All of the beauty, tranquility, and joy that you find in the garden emerge from within yourself. The differentiation between the Japanese garden and other gardens is not in the experience of the viewer, it is in the craft that the garden’s creator uses to bring that experence to the surface, to transcend the limitations of the mundane world, and open the gate to the infinite.

When I returned to California, I started to test the idea that the Japanese garden presents a vision of beauty that is rooted in the appreciation of nature, employing the habits of observation that I had acquired as an apprentice. Discovering the forms and patterns of the Japanese garden in the wilds of the Santa Cruz Mountains has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and has been a major driving force behind my experimentation with native plants and gardens. This discovery ultimately lead to the realization that the possibilities of the Japanese tradition go well beyond the garden as we know it, and may suggest entirely new ways of creating human habitations.

This California garden blends Japanese and Western design. The author graded the site, built the path, and created the stone group using principles of Japanese gardening learned in Kyoto. The client, an artist and painter, has used the slopes and the boulders as a foil, creating a planting layout which turns to Western horticultural ideas for inspiration.



Mark Bourne worked in many noteworthy Kyoto gardens as an apprentice. . He founded Windsmith Designs in 1999, specializing in gardens using local materials and plants. He designs, photographs and writes about gardens (both wild and built) from his home near San Francisco.




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