Zen Garden, or No Zen Garden?

I’ve always preferred rituals that involve food – like a reliable Tuesday night pasta, or a cup of tea halfway through the afternoon. In recent years, however, I’ve started meditating at a Zen Buddhist centre. The practice has opened my eyes to the beauty and power of simple daily rituals. At retreats, called sesshin, there are no words required, each daily activity is signaled by a bell. We meditate, eat, work, chant, sleep. Each action is framed by a series of rituals, passed down over thousands of years. What I’ve found within these is space – they allow room for stillness, intention, and focus.

Garden of the Crane and Turtle, Hosenin Temple

With my newfound appreciation of ritual, and constant love of gardens, it seemed natural to explore Japanese Zen gardens, and their role within the highly ritualised spiritual practices of Zen Buddhism, as part of this month’s Ritual issue.

Google ‘Zen gardens’ and you’ll be hit with page upon page of ways to ‘Zen-trify your Garden’. Apparently all you need to do is to place a Buddha statue here, a few clumps of rocks there, a water bowl just off centre and boom, instant Zen. Mindfulness and enlightenment are just around the corner …

In addition to the un-enlightening DIY enlightenment tips, I also uncovered the interesting idea that so called ‘Zen gardens’ may not be actually be intrinsically related to the spiritual practices of Zen philosophy after all.

There’s conjecture that rather than being a specific aid to Zen Buddhist training, the ‘Zen Garden’ may, in fact, be a recent construct, driven by tourism rather than religion, in the early 20th century.

According to Professor Wybe Kuitert in his text The Zen Garden: ‘The idea that gardens express Zen is relatively recent; it is not found in the old Japanese garden texts, neither in the early twentieth-century literature on the garden art of Japan.’

Kuitert suggests that it was in Loraine Kuck’s book One Hundred Kyoto Gardens, published in 1934, that Zen began to take a major role in the interpretations of Japanese garden art.

The argument, I think, is that whilst gardens have been built around temples for many thousands of years, they were not always innately spiritual endeavours. Often they were made by menial stone workers, not Zen priests, and were not expressions of a deeper artistic and spiritual concern, but intellectual exercises in scale, space and perspective.

‘The building of a garden was a calculated intellectual activity, not an instantaneous act out of religiously inspired intuition’, Kuitert writes. ‘In medieval Japan it found its place in Zen temples and warrior residences because it enhanced a cultural ambiance. That its appreciation involved religious aspects rather than artistic ones is questionable.’

Genko-an Temple, Northern Kyoto
Entrance to Koto-in temple, Kyoto

Does this Zen or no Zen garden issue really matter? On balance, I do think it’s interesting to explore how we take elements from other cultures and assign our own meanings to them, framed by our cultural references rather than those of the thing we’re describing. But I can’t help thinking that it’s not as cut and dry as our friend Kuitert suggests. Intuitively it’s hard to believe that Zen Buddhism doesn’t have an influence on Japanese temple gardens. Maybe the influence is not as direct as we’d like, and maybe spending time in a Zen temple garden won’t lead to instant enlightenment, but I do know gardens have been an important part of a number of Zen Buddhist practitioners’ individual spiritual practices for thousands of years.

Take Musō Soseki (1275-1351), for example. He was a Rinzai Zen monk and garden designer and whilst his dedication to Zen has been questioned by Kuitert, I like the sound of him. This is what he says about gardens:

‘Those who believe mountains, rivers, the great earth, grasses, trees, and stones to be as of their own being seem, once they love garden landscapes, to cling to the profane world. Yet they take this worldly feeling – springs, stones, grasses, and trees in their changing appearances following the four seasons – as a means to search for truth. For the seeker after truth, this is the true way to love a garden. Therefore there is nothing bad about loving a garden. Nor is it to be praised. There are no merits or demerits with respect to a garden. These are in the mind of men.’ 

Shunmyo Masuno is a contemporary Zen priest and highly regarded landscape architect. In the book Zen Gardens: The Complete Work of Shunmyo Masuno by Mira Locher, he discusses the way his garden-making supports his Zen practice. ‘My feeling when designing a garden is that I am especially conscious regarding generosity or the giving of oneself. That also is an act of discourse. This is different from giving money, I put the teachings of Buddhism into the garden … Garden design is precisely my place of training.’

Regardless of the questions of their deeper meaning and religious context, Japanese temple gardens are deeply beautiful spaces. The way the richness of the natural world is reflected and somehow heightened within a Japanese temple garden is mesmerizing.

The simplicity and symbolism in the arrangement of natural elements – rock, water, gravel, plants, and the profound negative space offered by the dry stone gardens (karesansui) are rarely found in other styles of garden making. Like all gardens though, they’re places of contemplation, calm and truth.

When asked how he would like people to view his gardens, Shunmyo Masuno says this: ‘I want people to see the garden as a place for observing themselves intently … not comprehending the garden that extends in front of ones eyes as an objective target, but just considering it as part of oneself – I want people to view the garden they are gazing on and their own selves as one. Things are as they seem. The rocks in a garden, also the trees, water – everything is there as itself. This is called truth.’

Zen garden, or no Zen garden, you can’t argue with truth …

Enkoji Temple, famous for its autumn colours
Miscanthus at Shisen-do Temple, Northern Higashiyama, Kyoto
Genko-an Temple, Northern Kyoto
Shisen-do temple, Northern Higashiyama, Kyoto
The Shuhekien Garden, Sanzenin Temple