A JAPANESE GARDEN HANDBOOK
PART ONE: DESIGN & CRAFT
Chapter 5: The Dry Landscape Garden
In this Chapter…
- An Extraordinary Vision
- Origins and the Zen of Sterility
- Going Mental
- Less Is More
- The Most Difficult Part
- Cubs and a Querulous River
- At a Rakish Angle
- Water, Water Everywhere…
An Extraordinary Vision
It is an extraordinary vision – a stone garden is a contradiction in terms. But this is because it is a vision, and it demands attention. - Donald Richie (1924-2013)
The dry landscape garden is the most widely known and most celebrated of Japan’s gardening styles, and it invariably forms a part of the stereotypical image that most people associate with Zen Buddhism and the temples of Kyoto. As a distinct garden style, the dry landscape traces its lineage to the Heian period (794-1185), although its origins are lost in ancient Shinto religious sites. In essence, the dry landscape garden is simply a symbolic representation of mountains and water using rocks, sand, gravel, and moss. Needless to say, such a venerable garden style has attracted a number of appellations. The eleventh-century Sakuteiki (作庭記 A Record of Garden Making) uses the term karasenzui (枯山水 “dry or withered mountains and water”) to indicate a part of a larger estate garden in which water was not physically present, thus Jirō Takei and Marc Keane translate karasenzui as “Dry Garden Style”. Another ancient term, kasansui (仮山水, 假山水 “pseudo or false mountains and water”), was also used, and the implication was specifically that the landscape should be viewed as symbolic rather than representational. Both these terms were replaced around the close of the Muromachi period (1338-1573) by the more familiar term karesansui 枯山水 (“dry or withered mountains and water”), which referred to the entire design of a garden and not merely a part of the larger design where water was absent.
Several contemporary terms are also encountered, including the catch-all ishiniwa (石庭 “rock garden”; a.p. sekitei). One term that is particularly useful in distinguishing between the dry landscape gardens of the Heian period and those of the Muromachi and Momoyama (1568-1603) periods is zenki-shiki-karesansui (前期式枯山水 “primary style dry or withered mountains and water”). These latter gardens are generally inspired by Zen Buddhism. A less common term for these Zen gardens of meticulously-raked course white sand is shiro-roji (白路地 “white path or roji”). Such gardens are often narrow rectangles in shape, hence the name, and run along the side or across the front of temple buildings.
Origins and the Zen of Sterility
Gardens are stable, endearing,
cast from rock, rain and hail;
dark days and cold nights
do not ruffle them.
– Andrew R. Deane
Günter Nitschke cites the research of celebrated scholar Shigemori Mirei (重森三玲 1896-1975), who divides the development of the dry landscape garden into four historic phases: “[T]he first, prehistoric stage is equated with the huge boulders and rocky outcrops – iwakura [磐座, 岩座] and iwasaka [磐境] – venerated as the abodes of gods by early Shinto devotees [see Shintoism]… The second stage corresponds to the Nara [710-794] and Heian [794-1185] eras, when dry landscape gardens were built very rarely, and then only as integral components of pond gardens… The Kamakura era [1185-1333] represents the third stage of kare-sansui development, in which the dry landscape, although still appearing in conjunction with the pond garden, is no longer relegated to a subordinate role… According to Shigemori, the fourth and final stage runs from the end of the Kamakura era up to the modern age. The turning point came with the Higashiyama culture [1443-1490] of the Muromachi era [1338-1568] when, for the first time, gardens were laid out solely in kare-sansui style.”
In the western mind, however, the dry landscape garden is now almost exclusively - and misleadingly - associated with the Spartan aesthetics of Zen temples. These landscapes were not meant to be entered physically, but to be contemplated from the verandas and studies of nearby buildings. The Zen connection is further strengthened when scholars compare the dry landscape garden to a visual three-dimensional kōan (公案), a Zen riddle designed to elicit enlightenment: “The rock gardens are a concrete expression of Zen thought, which is not accessible to ordinary people. For that reason they appear impenetrable.” Not everybody admires this impenetrability, though. Alex Kerr points to the strange dichotomy of Japanese aesthetics – an almost Baroque profusion of sensuality on the one hand, battling against what he calls the “process of sterility” that manifests itself in the “tendency to fill every garden with raked sand and every modern structure with flat concrete and granite” on the other.
Prior to the fourteenth century, dry landscape compositions were generally subsections of larger gardens or temple complexes, and it was only during the Muromachi period (1338-1568) that they became independent garden designs. Leonard Koren points to the first mention of karesansui (枯山水) as a particularly Zen manifestation in garden design in a 1935 book One Hundred Kyoto Gardens by Loraine Kuck, who lived in Kyoto from 1932 through 1935: She called them “Zen gardens”. 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. “It is not until after the Second World War, in the 1950s,” continues Koren, “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.”
Dry landscape gardens are sometimes referred to as “mental gardens” or “gardens of the mind”. “The rock gardens’ resonant, austere appearance,” explains Abd al-Hayy Moore, “echoes an intense spiritual striving, and indeed many of these rock gardens are places for the prolonged and rigorous practice of Zen meditation, some even providing flat-topped rocks on which to meditate [zazen-ishi 座禅石].” One of the earliest examples is believed to have been the garden designed for Shōhuku-ji by monks recently returned from study in China. The temple was founded in 1382, during the Nanbokucho period (1336-1392), a sub-period of the Muromachi period (1338-1568). There is evidence to suggest, however, that dry landscapes first appeared in two Kyoto temple complexes: Daitoku-ji, which was founded in 1319, razed in the fifteenth century, and finally rebuilt in the sixteenth century; and Myōshin-ji, which was founded in 1342. But elements of the “mindscape” had been around for centuries in the form of dry waterfalls or dry stream beds.
Less Is More
The Japanese do not need to fill a container (a vase, a narrative, a floral arrangement, a tea ceremony) - it may be left as it is (what we call empty) because it is enclosed (by its structure, its architecture, its perimeter, its purpose) and hence already full. - Donald Richie (1924-2013)
Karesansui (枯山水) is characterized by a minimalist approach in which nature is represented in abstract, using only the judicious placement of rock, sand or gravel, moss, and shrubbery. Designed to eradicate all superfluities and to force the mind to slow the processes of thought, it expresses the taste for austerity and simplicity. Tom Wright calls this “the idea of doing the most with the least,” and Marc Keane likens it to cubist art, as it reduces elements to their “most simplified state – planes and volumes.” On the other hand, Alan Watts believes that the intention is not to make a “realistic illusion of landscape, but simply to suggest the general atmosphere of ‘mountain and water’ in a small space… helped rather than governed by the hand of man.” The dry landscape garden has the added advantage that it is virtually impervious to extremes of weather and cannot be readily destroyed by fire, water, ice, or wind. Droughts do not harm it, nor do earthquakes damage it excessively. But a more practical reason for the prevalence of dry landscapes may have been simply the absence of natural springs or flowing water at the garden sites.
Yvon Chouinard, President of Patagonia Incorporated, tells a joke in an article in Outside magazine that is apt here. “There once was this Zen master sitting on a small stone bench, studying his small Japanese rock garden…” There are only five rocks in the garden, each individually selected for perfection, patina, and its harmony with the other four. One day, a visitor is admiring the master’s garden and complimenting his excellent taste. “How perfect it is!” he exclaims at last. But the Zen master is not to be taken in, and he shakes his head, turns to his visitor and replies, “No, but it will be perfect when there are only three stones.”
The Most Difficult Part
One day, a student asked Taiga Ike ([池大雅] 1723–1776), an accomplished painter of the Bunjin [Literal Representation] School of Japan, “What is the most difficult part of a painting?” Taiga said, “The part of the paper where nothing is painted is the most difficult.”
In trying to offer the flavor of Zen Buddhism to Western students, Alan Watts uses karesansui as an example. The following passage captures something of the paradox of simplicity that characterizes a superb dry landscape: “The best image might be a garden consisting of no more than an expanse of raked sand, as a ground for several unhewn rocks overgrown with lichens and moss, such as one may see today in the Zen temples of Kyoto. The media are the simplest imaginable; the effect is as if man had hardly touched it, as if it had been transported unchanged from the seashore; but in practice only the most sensitive and experienced artist can achieve it. This sounds, of course, as if “Zen flavor” were a studied and affected primitivism. Sometimes it is. But the genuine Zen flavor is when a man is almost miraculously natural without intending to be so. His Zen life is not to make himself but to grow that way.”
What emerges is a sense of naturalness and unaffectedness, as though the rocks had merely grown out of the ground, and the garden had always been there.
Yet another fruitful approach to dry landscape gardens can be found through studying the negative space in ink-paintings, particularly the zenga (禅画) works by such legendary Tang Dynasty (618-907) artists as Wu Tao-tzu (吴道子 685-758) and Wang Wei (王維 699-759), Sung Dynasty (959-1279) artists such as Xia Gui (夏圭 c.1180-1230), Ma Yuan (馬遠 c.1165-1225), Mu Qi (牧谿 1200-1274) and Liang Kai (梁楷 fl. late12th early 13th), and the most accomplished Japanese masters, Musō Sōseki (夢窓疎石 1275-1351), Kichizan Minchō (吉山明兆 1352-1431), Shubun (周文 1414-1465), Soga Jasoku (曽我蛇足 d.1483), Sesshū Tōyō (雪州等揚, 雪舟等揚 c.1420-1506), and Miyamoto Musashi (宮本 武蔵 1582-1645). Of the minimalist approach of ink-wash painting (sumie 墨絵) art, Alan Watts writes, “By filling in just one corner, the artist makes the whole area of the picture alive.” This amounts “almost to ‘painting by not painting,’ or what Zen sometimes calls ‘playing the stringless lute.’ The secret lies in knowing how to balance form with emptiness and, above all, in knowing when one has ‘said’ enough.” It is as if the dry landscape were a representation of nature suddenly appearing from the great void, the way a mountain flashes momentarily from the darkness that imprisons it in a flash of lightning. There is a perfect harmony between the stones and the raked sand, between form and emptiness: The space between the rocks becomes as important as the rocks themselves. The Japanese often read these wide expanses of shikisuna (敷き砂 “spreading-sand”) as representations not only of the vast and open ocean, but of munen (無念 “no-mind”). “One could say,” adds Sunniva Harte, “that rocks placed in a sea of sand also symbolize how each thought within a person’s mind or heart should be balanced – once a thought becomes unbalanced, all others are thrown out of kilter.”
Cubs and a Querulous River
Without doubt, the most celebrated dry landscape is the one overlooked by the abbot’s quarters at Ryōan-ji. The temple was founded in 1450, although the dry landscape is generally accepted to date from the reconstruction of 1488. This garden exhibits the genre in its purest form: It is composed solely of fifteen rocks arranged in groups of seven, five and three, surrounded by islands of moss, in a rectangle of meticulously raked shirakawa-suna (白川砂 “white river sand”). The “Garden of Crossing Tiger-Cubs” (Tora-no-ko-watashi-no-niwa 虎の子渡しの庭) receives its nickname from a Confucian allegory of a just ruler protecting his people from ferocious beasts. It is sometimes more generically interpreted as a tigress shepherding her cubs across a querulous river. However, not all visitors see allegories in the rocks. Donald Richie, for one, rejects such affected thinking: “To look at a Japanese landscape is, often, to think of art,” he postulates while writing his travelogue on the Inland Sea. “To look over the middle Inland Sea is, for me, to think of the rock garden at the Ryoan-ji in Kyoto - a rectangle of white sand from which rises a number of large stones - and to realize what this amazing piece of landscape is about. It is not about a mother tiger and her young crossing a river, nor about geometry, nor music, nor astronomy, nor mathematics - proffered explanations all.” So, what is this famous dry landscape about? “It is about islands in the sea,” he concludes.
At a Rakish Angle
Zen gardeners devote many hours to this mechanical chore [raking patterns]; the repetitive activity clears the mind of mundane concerns and helps produce a state of pure concentration. - Bruce A. Coats
If there is art in the original conception of the dry landscape garden, there is also art in the constant renewal of the raking patterns. Leonard Koren adds that we often overlook these patterns as merely the background to the rock compositions and plantings. The stones and plantings are relatively permanent, but new patterns are raked into the gravel each time rain, wind or time have broken them down or destroyed them. “The making of gardens of gravel and sand… represents a conscious attempt to not let nature blithely proceed a will,” writes Leonard Koren. “A well-maintained gravel or sand garden demands constant opposition to Nature’s tendencies with regular cleaning, weeding, raking, and/or re-forming.”
Raked gravel adds a textural element and helps to create or enhance ambiance. Depending on the style and size of the ridges created, a softly lapping ocean or a rapidly-flowing river may be invoked, and the ridges will catch the sun as it travels across the sky, providing onlookers with ever-changing panoramas. The lighter the hue of gravel, the more effective the garden will be under moonlight. Raking the sand is also a Zen ploy used to assist a monk in putting aside daily concerns and personal thoughts: It is a form of meditation in motion (dōchū-no-kufū 動中の工夫). Raking the sand into intricate designs, or even into straight and parallel lines, takes enormous concentration. These designs are normally re-raked every two to three weeks using a variety of wooden zig-zag or bamboo dowel rakes.
In additional to the raking patterns themselves, lighting effects can be introduced to dry landscape compositions by the judicious pruning of surrounding foliage to control shadow and intensity of filtering sunlight. In some gardens, neighboring scenery, such as mountains, hills and trees, is borrowed as a backdrop (shakkei 借景) in order to throw the starkness of the dry landscape into even greater contrast. “Viewed in time lapse,” remarks Leonard Koren, “the garden would appear as a living organism, slowly writhing and changing shape.”
Common raking patterns are listed below. Several of these can also be found in fabric designs for traditional clothing such as kimono (着物) and yukata (浴衣). Although these patterns are well-established like those used in European heraldry, there is some latitude in how they are carried out, and each person who rakes or remakes the design does so according to his own individual concept of the overall design. The term mon (紋), which is translated as “pattern”, is also used in Japan to designate a family or clan crest, and in this sense, the pattern used by a particular temple or garden can become as familiar as crest. An example of just such a distinctive raking pattern is the one found at Ginkaku-ji (see below for photograph). The poetic term ginshanada (銀砂灘 “silver sand and open sea”) is often used for larger expanses of sand or gravel raked into wave patterns. This is especially the case where such dry landscapes are viewed by moonlight from overlooking buildings.
- aranamimon (荒波紋 “stormy waves pattern”): This term can refer either to large, rough ridges that invoke stormy seas or to an expanse of chaotically-interwoven semi-circular ripples. In this latter manifestation, it appears like the surface of a pond cratered by numerous raindrops so that each set of concentric rings has merged partially with its neighbors.
- ichimatsumon (市松紋 “pattern”): A checkerboard pattern of interspersed raked and flattened squares, the weave of which changes direction like woven threads. The celebrated dry landscape in front of the Kaisandō (Founder’s Hall) at Tōfuku-ji, Kyoto, is raked in this pattern.
- mizumon (水紋 “water pattern”; a.p. suimon; var. sui 水 “water”): A generic term for concentric ripple patterns or wavelets surrounding rocks. In their purest form, mizumon resemble the concentric rings on the surface of water broken by a thrown pebble or a drop of rain. When they surround a rock, they appear like waves breaking around an island.
- ryūsui (流水 “running water”): Sand raked to resemble flowing streams or rivers.
- sazanamimon (漣紋 “ripple pattern”; a.p. renmon): A generic name for a pattern of continuous waves or ripples drawn across a large expanse of sand or gravel. The rake may be drawn in straight parallels, in straight lines interspersed with a gently waving lines, or in parallel gently waving lines.
- seigaihamon (青海波紋; 清海波紋 “blue sea waves”; a.p. seikaihamon): Sand raked into tightly-interlocking semicircles to form a uniform pattern like the scales of a fish.
- tachinamimon (立波紋 “standing-waves pattern”; var. tatsunamimon 太津波紋 “great waves pattern”): The term for large, sharply-angled zig-zag patterns of waves.
Water, Water Everywhere…
In dry landscape design, the natural world is reproduced in several compositional elements, the most important of which are the dry stream, the dry waterfall and the dry pond.
karenagare (枯流 “dry stream”): Gravel and cobblestones are used to represent the flowing water of a stream or river. Such stream beds may be spanned by stone slab bridges (ishibashi 石橋) and stepping-stones (sawatari-ishi 沢渡石), or intersected by dry waterfalls, in order to increase the illusion of flowing water.
karedaki (枯滝 “dry waterfall”; a.p. karetaki): The flow of water is suggested by either carefully arranged rocks chosen for their color, texture and striations or by cascades created from raked sand and gravel. The term for the stone set vertically as a representation of the fall of water is kagami-ishi (鏡石 “mirror rock”). Nansen-ji and Daitoku-ji contain fine Mirror Rocks, and in both cases, bluestone (ao-ishi 青石) is the favored material. Tenryū-ji has a celebrated dry waterfall flowing into the pond behind a three-slab stone bridge by the garden designer Musō Sōseki (夢窓疎石 1275-1351). Perhaps the earliest example of a three-tiered dry waterfall in the style of a Chinese ink-painting is named Kōinzan (洪隠山). Designed and created by Musō Sōseki between 1339 and 1344, it forms the center of the upper garden at Saihō-ji. The designer himself is said to have meditated regularly atop one of the large flat rocks that overlook it. Dry waterfalls on steep slopes overlooking ponds were a hallmark of Tokugawa-period (1603-1868) temple gardens, and notable examples can be found at Emman-in and at Chisaku-in. The Hyakunin-isshu (百人一首 A Hundred Verses from Old Japan) contains the following tanka poem about the once-famous dry waterfall at Osawa-no-ike, the remains of which were excavated by Shigemori Mirei (重森三玲 1896-1975):
taki no oto wa
nao kikoe kere
Though the sound
of the cascade
long since has ceased,
we still hear the murmur
of its name.
kare-ike (枯池 “dry pond or lake”): Usually bordered by shoreline rocks, the dry pond may contain island rocks. Shōfuku-ji’s dry landscape, dating from 1843, contains an excellent example that is designed to be viewed from the nearby hall.
Reading about dry landscapes should include:
- Berthier, F. (2000). Reading Zen in the rocks: The Japanese landscape garden. Trans. with a Philosophical Essay by G. Parkes. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
- Deane, A. R. and M. McKellar. Pulling the rake - A practical guide to raking a karesansui garden. Retrieved 9 Apr 2015 from Japanese Gardening.org.
- Koren, L. (2000). Gardens of gravel and sand. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press.
- Mansfield, M. (2009). Japanese stone gardens: Origins, meaning, form. Foreword by D. Richie. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
Here is no water but only rock… T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, V; 331-34.
It is an extraordinary vision – a stone garden… Richie, D. (1995). Partial views: Essays on contemporary Japan. Tokyo: The Japan Times Ltd.; p. 95.
…thus Jirō Takei and Marc Keane translate karasenzui… Takei, J. & M. P. Keane (2001). Sakuteiki: Visions of the Japanese garden. A modern translation of Japan’s gardening classic. Boston, Rutland & Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.
Gardens are stable, endearing… Deane, A. (2012). Gardens. In Sunlight and shadow: Poems written in Japan. Retrieved 27 May 2013 from http://www.wordforword.japanesegardensonline.com/styled-9/index.html.
[T]he first, prehistoric stage is equated with the huge boulders and rocky outcrops… Nitschke, G. (1993). Japanese gardens: Right angle and natural form. Köln: Benedikt Taschen; pp. 88-9.
These landscapes were not meant to be entered physically… Refer to The contemplation garden for a fuller discussion of these gardens.
“The rock gardens are a concrete expression of Zen thought…” Berthier, F. (2000). Reading Zen in the rocks: The Japanese landscape garden. Trans. with a Philosophical Essay by Graham Parkes. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press; p. 10.
Alex Kerr points to the strange dichotomy of Japanese aesthetics… Kerr, A. (1996). Lost Japan. Melbourne: Lonely Planet; pp. 61-2.
Leonard Koren points to the first mention of karesansui… Koren, L. (2000). Gardens of gravel and sand. Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press; p. 32. Loraine Kuck’s book (Kuck, L. E. (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.
Kuck was for some time the neighbor of D. T. Suzuki… 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.
“It is not until after the Second World War, in the 1950s…” Koren, L. (2000); p. 32.
One day, a student asked Taiga Ike… [Source unknown].
“The rock gardens’ resonant, austere appearance…” Moore, A. al-H. (1992). Zen rock gardening. Philadelphia & London: Running Press; pp. 25-6.
The Japanese do not need to fill a container… Richie, D. (1999). Tokyo: A view of the city. With photographs by J. Sackett. London: Reaktion Books; p. 135.
Tom Wright calls this “the idea of doing the most with the least…” Wright, T. (1990). Zen gardens: Kyoto’s nature enclosed. Photography by M. Katsuhiko. Kyoto: Mitsumura Suiko Shoin; p. 69.
…and Marc Keane likens it to cubist art… Keane, M. P. (1996). Japanese garden design. Photographs by Ōhashi, H. Drawings by the author. Rutland & Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle; p. 137.
On the other hand, Alan Watts believes… Watts, A. (1999). The way of Zen. New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics; p. 194.
Yvon Chouinard, President of Patagonia Incorporated, tells a joke in an article in Outside magazine… Jenkins, M. (2001, November). King of the dirtbags. Outside, p. 53.
One day, a student asked Taiga Ike… [Source unknown]
The best image might be a garden… Watts, A. (1999); p. 102.
Of the minimalist approach of ink-wash painting (sumie 墨絵) art, Alan Watts writes… Watts, A. (1999); p. 179.
“One could say,” adds Sunniva Harte… Harte, S. (1999). Zen gardening. London: Pavilion Books; p. 21.
“To look at a Japanese landscape is, often, to think of art…” Richie, D. (1971; 2002). The Inland Sea. Introduction by P. Iyer. Berkely: Stone Bridge Press; p. 90.
Zen gardeners devote many hours to this mechanical chore [raking patterns]… Coats, B. A. (1989, November). In a Japanese garden. Photographs by M. S. Yamashita. National Geographic. 176, No.5, p. 649.
“The making of gardens of gravel and sand…” Koren, L. (2000); p. .
“Viewed in time lapse,” remarks Leonard Koren… Koren, L. (2000); pp. 70-1, n. 8.
taki no oto wa … Nitschke, G. (1993); p. 43.
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