Japanese Garden Design: Zen Buddhism And Confucianism

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The design of Japanese garden establishes an independent school for itself. The gardening strategies are inherited from China, and gradually develop their own characteristics under the Japanese cultural connotation. Among all genres of Japanese garden design, the most representative one is Karesansui garden, or shall we call it Japanese rock garden, or Japanese Zen garden. In the remote past, Japanese garden design shares more similarities to Chinese gardens. During the early Heian period, the Japanese scenic gardens look more similar with the gardens in Tang Dynasty. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the late Heian period, Japan’s taste for culture and art experienced significant changes, so as the taste for garden design. Japanese artists started to find out their own way of gardening, based on their own understanding of Buddhism. Consequently, Karesansui style was given birth to. In this paper, I would like to depict a general image of the Japanese Karesansui garden from several different perspectives. First, I will generalize the beginning of Karesansui garden based on the recorded information in the Japan’s earlies garden manual Sakuteiki. Then, after having a basic understanding of Karesansui, I would then move to the Zen aesthetics principles that are supporting the garden design. We will be able to learn essential concepts of wabi-sabi, yugen, and how do these concepts apply to reality. Following that, I would then make a comparison of Japanese gardening with the Chinese style gardening. How do the two be different from each other, and do they share similarities with each other? Lastly, I will use a specific example to further detail the ideas of Karesansui gardens. We will be able to take a closer look at the first Karesansui garden—Ryoanji.

The term “Karesansui” was believed to be first introduced in Japan’s earliest garden manual Sakuteiki in Heian period. Sakuteiki means “Notes on Garden Making”. In the fifth chapter of Sakuteiki, the concept of Karesansui and certain principles were introduced. It says : “Sometimes rocks are placed in where there are no ponds or streams. This is referred to as Karesansui.” “When you build a Karesansui (dry landscape), you should first model the whole site to look like the base of a mountain or a hillside field, then arrange the stones so that they fit in with your overall design”(Sakuteiki, edited by Joe Earle). From these words, we learn a basic sense of Karesansui—no ponds or streams, only rocks are placed in the garden. The author of Sakuteiki also introduced the strategy of building a Karesansui. In this manual, Karesansui was a special element in garden design, but later believed to be the foundation of the establishment of Karesansui garden. Then in the 12th century when the political power fell into the hand of the samurai class, Buddhism became popular in Japan. It is during this period that the great Zen Buddhist monk Muso Soseki(1275-1351) founded the independent Karesansui style of garden design. If to say that the Chinses garden can be concluded as perceiving the nature from man-made sceneries, then the Japanese garden would be more like perceiving the men’s intelligence through nature. The Japanese garden is “suggesting” rather than “representing ” the nature. The term Karesansui literally means the dry landscape. This idea of “dry” contrasts with the pursuits on liveliness and flourishment in a Western or Chinese garden. Chinese gardens would be seen as a manifestation of imitating the nature, while Japanese gardens declare the idea of symbolism. The central expressive elements in Karesansui is the white sand and rocks. Plants are rare, and they do not take the role of protagonists in a rock garden. One can barely find any water scenery or plants like blooming flowers or trees. Muso Soseki, the great Zen Buddhist and garden designer in the Kamakura period, wrote a poem with the tittle Ode to the Dry Landscape (Kasenzui no in), which begins as:

Without a speck of dust’s being raised, the mountains tower up;

Without a single drop’s falling,

The streams plunge into the valley.

The idea in this poem resonates the experience that Robert Carter recorded in his book The Japanese Arts and Self-Cultivation. Carter writes that, when he was welcomed by a Zen Buddhist Philosopher Nishitani Keiji in Kyoto, he was asked by the Zen master whether he had heard “the garden roar”(Carter,70). Visitors are supposed to hear the roar of the water when observing the rock landscapes in this waterless garden. This poem also helped us to reveal a corner of the philosophical principles behind the garden design.

Before moving into a more detailed interpretation of Japanese rock gardens, I believe it would be essential to learn about the ideologies and principles that support the garden design, and the Japanese aesthetics in general. The Japanese Karesansui garden, or we shall call it the Japanese Zen garden, is apparently supported by the principles of the Japanese Zen Buddhism. The contemporary Japanese philosopher Daisetz T. Suzuki briefly explains Zen in his book Zen and Japanese Culture as “one of the products of the Chinese mind after its contact with Indian thought, which was introduced into China in the first century A.D. through the medium of Buddhism teachings” (Suzuki,1). The Zen thinking was born in China, but it was appropriately inherited by Japan. The Japanese Zen behind Japanese art is modified and developed into the culture connotation. Suzuki then later explained that, “Zen is discipline in Enlightenment”(Suzuki, 5). Enlightenment, or satori in Japanese, is no less than a true freedom. It can only be understood through intuition, through personal experiences, not through words. What need to interpret Zen is beyond logic and verbal language. As such state of mind is impossible to reach for ordinaries, I would then generally explain few terms derived from Zen Buddhism for the purpose of understanding Zen gardens. Two of the most important concepts to understand Japanese art are wabi-sabi and yugen. The literal meaning of wabi is poverty. While the poverty here does not equal to a state of being materially poor. As Suzuki said, “To be poor, that is, not to be dependent on things worldly—wealth, power, and reputation—and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position”(Suzuki, 23). It is more like a cleanness in mind. It is a mind state that free of worries from the moral life. Wabi asks one to free one’s mind from everything that would distract the inner peace and calm. Then, let us take a glimpse at sabi. “If an object of art suggests even superficially the feeling of a historical period, there is sabi in it. Sabi consists in rustic unpretentiousness or archaic imperfection, apparent simplicity or effortlessness inexecution, and richness in historical associations; and lastly, it contains inexplicable elements that raise the object in question to the rank of an artistic production”(Suzuki, 24). In short, the basic idea of sabi can be concluded as aloneness, naturalness, and imperfectness. The aloneness brings an image of standing and starring in front of the ever-changing world all by oneself. Sabi also connects with the image of “a patch of green”. Although this “a patch of green” is seemly weak in the winter snow, it represents the upcoming spring and the sprout of vitality.

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The concept of yugen and sabi would be inter-penetrable to each other. Yugen was adapted by Zeami Motokiyo—the son of the founder of Noh theater for the purpose of establishing aesthetic principles for Noh. Yugen would be translated to English as “cloudy impenetrability”, “obscurity”, “unknownability”, “beyond intellectual calculability”(Suzuki,69).The general sense of yugen is “…the sense of the mysterious quiescence beneath all things. The world this imagery evokes is a muted, tranquil world in which nothing remains immutably fixed, a world of mist, rain, and wind, of snow and withering flowers”(Kaula, 221). In Japanese literacy works, yugen lies in the depiction of impermanence of life, mourning for the loss of love, flowers in mists, or clouds covering the moon. Yugen is elusive. While as both being elusive, the elusiveness of yugen does not equal to the elusiveness in western works such as Ulysses, The Divine Comedy, or Faust. It lies in the difficulty of exactly transcribing what the creator wants to tell the audiences in words, or the difficulty of grasping the theme of the entire work. Yugen is instantaneous, indirect, and uncatchable.

In a Karesansui garden, the ideas of wabi-sabi and yugen are manifested through the simplicity, serenity, and impermanence in garden design. The size of the gardens is relatively small, and the garden would be enclosed by fences or walls to isolate the garden from outside. What’s inside the garden is as less as possible. There are no exquisite or luxurious decorations, even the living plants would be considered as a distraction. The ground is usually covered with white gravel, which is a representation of purity and cleanness. The existence of white gravel isolates all the uncleanness and pollution from mortal life. The combination of white gravel, rocks and moss brings the audience a sense of motionless and permanent. As Parkes said, the best way to approach a rock garden is “slowly, deviating from what is nowadays helpfully sign posted as the ‘Usual Route’”. By visiting a rock garden, visitors can leave the “commotion of traffic and bustle of the city” behind, and spend one day “admiring the ponds, rocks, trees…”(Parkes, 130). The serenity from outside would go inside to one’s mind. All scenes would be fixed once being arranged. Waterscapes are avoided, as water itself represents unpredictability. Audiences would be able to understand the order and eternity, and the pursue of nature’s fixed beauty in Karesansui. The only thing one could find in such garden is endless quietness and peacefulness. Karesansui garden brings an extremified sense of primitive, and unaffected simplicity.

As we have known that the design of Japanese gardens was greatly influenced by the Chinese Buddhism and philosophy, I will then indicate the differences and similarities between Chinese and Japanese view of nature. The ancient Chinese garden was nurtured by the scholar’s culture, the Confucianism philosophy. The garden designers are mostly elites, scholars, and the owner of such garden is usually the politician or the noble. While the origin of Japanese garden lies in religion. The garden designers and users are those Zen masters. This fact builds a basic knowledge for understanding the differences between these two styles of gardens.

According to the ancient Chinese view on nature, all the natural phenomenon and human beings are animated by the cosmic energy-qi, or ki in Japanese. The energy qi connects men with nature, and it makes the relationship between men and nature into a continuum. Resultantly, the style of an ancient Chinese garden always follow the rule of “ though the landscape is manmade, it is almost like that it is created by the heaven”. In addition, the idea of qi is also represented through Chinese’s view on rocks. As the ancient philosophers believed, rock is dynamic rather than a quiescent object. When reading the stories of the monkey Wukong transformed through rocks in the novel the Journey to the West, we realize that Chinese people believe that rocks contains spirituality and humanity. Correspondingly, garden designers showed their understanding of nature’s intelligence through the large amount of rock installation in classical Chinese gardens. As an extension of Chinese thinker’s idea of continuum, I believe rock is viewed as a continuity of the nature. Such spiritualty in rocks are often embodied in those rocks that are well polished by time and nature. Thus, the selected garden rocks are usually asymmetric, irregular, and unadorned. These traits would help the rocks to prove that they were the total masterpiece of nature without any artificial marks. The rocks from Taihu lake is the most representative category of garden rocks that fit all the standards. By appreciating the garden rocks, the audiences would be reminded of the beauty and energy of nature in macrocosm when imaging how rocks were created by heaven and earth. When signing for the trace of time and nature power’s polishing, people’s thoughts are then led to the exploration of the continuity and connection of all modalities.

The stone reminds people of the past, the water reminds people of the future. Water and stone are the most indispensable components of a garden. A peak can represent the view of rolling mountains, a spoon of water can represent the view of thousands miles of rivers and lakes.This poem resonates with the Chinese belief that the beauty of the macrocosm is concentrated in the microcosm, which remains as one of the tenets of Japanese garden design.

Chinese traditions appreciate rocks for the passed time and the energy of nature they represent. In addition, a single rock can be an independent masterpiece. While in the Japanese culture connotation, rocks are appreciated for being the sources of ideas and mind, especially for the Karesansui gardens. In “The Role of Rock in the Japanese Dry Landscape Garden”, Graham Parkes said that: “Japanese Buddhism adds pedagogic and esoteric dimensions by inviting us to regard rocks and other natural phenomena as sources of wisdom and companions on the path to deeper understanding” (Parkes, 142). For Zen Buddhism, everything in the physical world would be the manifestation of Buddha Dharma. When emerging oneself into a Japanese Zen garden, one’s important lesson is to cultivate oneself through communicating with nature and finally understanding the nature’s central teachings-Buddha Dharma. As a result of the difference in the perspectives of appreciation, the design of the Japanese Zen garden emphasizes not too much on the physical senses of aesthetics, but more on the untranslatable intuitions that people may feel when walking around a Zen garden. As the Zen master Dogen(1200-1253) wrote, “At the time of right practice, the voices and form of river valleys, as well as the form and voices of mountains, generously bestow their eighty-four thousand hymns of praise.”(Parkes, 141 ) This sentence explains a hint of the Japanese view on nature. For the rocks, Dogen then wrote that “rocks and stones, large and small, are the Buddha’s own possessions”. As he believed, nature is the sermon of Buddha, so as the rocks. In addition, human beings would be able to understand the Buddhism teachings by understanding the principles of nature phenomena. Dogen’s assertion of Buddha nature claims that, “Buddha-nature is not just sentient beings but also ‘fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles’ ”(Parkes,141). By contemplating in front of the rocks, the power of the motionless rocks allows people to imagine a flowing river or a cataract that are not physically there. The Karesansui garden is not only an expression of the garden designer’s own enlightenment, but one can also feel the enlightenment by making efforts on communicating with nature. Just like all the aims of practicing any traditional Japanese art, the purpose is to, in the end, realize the principle of Zen-enlightenment, which would make you hear the sound of water by looking at the rocks, or understand life and death by looking at the drifting clouds. It can also be said that, people are experiencing part of the self, which is a process of approaching enlightenment, through appreciating rocks and hearing rock’s “mute speech” in a Japanese Dry Landscape garden. This idea resonates with Robert E. Carter’s explanation for enlightenment. “Enlightenment is the direct experience of oneness with all that exists, and such a state of being is one in which one seems to become one with the flower, the rocks in a landscape garden, or the sorrows and suffering of others” (Carter,13).

Instead of focusing on each single rock, the Japanese garden designer paid more attention on the sense of integrity between the arranged rocks and the garden as a whole. This idea can first be seen from the principles of selecting and arranging garden rocks for a Japanese garden. In Sakuteiki, although it represents more of the Heian period ideas of garden aesthetics, we can still get a sense of the general idea behind garden design. “When you place stones, it is first and foremost necessary to grasp the overall sense, following the topography of the site and seeing how the pond lies one must think over the particular aesthetic sense of all parts of the place. Then recall landscapes scenery as it is found in nature, and seeing how different all the parts of the site are you must place the stones by combining these impressions”. As we shall see, the sense of integrity is emphasized instead of the individuality of the rocks. Rather than the place where the stone comes from, the more important thing is whether the shape of the stone fits the entire atmosphere of the garden.The differences between Japanese Karesansui gardens and Chinese gardens are more likely to be perceived from the physically different garden arrangements. While as Japanese Zen is not completely alien to Chinese philosophy, so as the aesthetic principles of garden design. Both Japanese and Chinese garden engage with nonverbal teaching and learning.

As all modalities in nature have their own principle, the Confucianism promote the idea of exploring knowledge through the study of principles, or to say “ge wu zhi zhi”. Nature is given the philosophy of life as instructions for human being. For example, pine trees are related with the spirit of fearlessness; mountains refer to steadiness. By putting morality into the appreciation of nature, people can not only enjoy beauty through intuition, but also gain the distillation of morality.

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Japanese Garden Design: Zen Buddhism And Confucianism. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/japanese-garden-design-zen-buddhism-and-confucianism/
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