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Book Review: Japanese Zen Gardens

Book Review: Japanese Zen Gardens

Japanese zen gardensYoko Kawaguchi, Japanese Zen Gardens (Frances Lincoln, 2014; ISBN: 9780711234475) £30

Strictly speaking, this should be called Japanese Zen Temple Gardens but that initial quibble aside, this is an interesting addition to the rather limited books in English on Japanese gardens. The phrase ‘Zen garden’, Kawaguchi notes, is one created in the West to describe the dry garden of rocks and raked gravel (kare-sansui). She rightly points out that it is more complex than this. It is about the spirit of the place (‘genius loci’) that defines a Zen garden. Indeed she says that a domestic garden, if it has a spiritual or religious significance for the owner, can fall into this category. However she takes this no further and all her analysis is on well-known Zen temple gardens. I think this is a pity and I would be interested if she had explored this idea further.

The book is split into two sections. The first part looks at the gardens in their historical context. This is a standard narrative, although it is not always clear the effect of Shinto beliefs and the earlier form of Buddhism (Jōdo or ‘Pure Land’) had on the Zen version of the temple garden. She does however point out the political importance that the Zen temples had, as they were associated with the samurai or warrior class that eventually were to rule Japan. Indeed many Zen temples are built on the site of earlier Jōdo temples (the most famous, Ryōan-ji is an example). As the latter was associated with the former ruling elite (the Heian aristocracy, supported by the Emperor) this could be viewed as a political act by them staking their authority.

The second part reviews the elements that make up Japanese gardens, although they are not exclusively those found in Zen temples. I think that this is a much more interesting section for the Western reader, who may struggle to understand their importance. She looks in particular at the meaning of the various rock and stone formations that have underlying Buddhist symbolism. However some predate the arrival of Zen Buddhism in the 12th century, such as the Daoist idea of having stones representing a crane (for longevity) and a turtle (good fortune).

The final sections look at tea (house) gardens, which are commonly found in Zen temples and the plants used. Tea drinking became popular in the 15th century as it was adopted by the leading warlords, one of whose number eventually became Shogun and de-facto ruler in the early 17th century. Kawaguchi explains that the form of tea ceremony adopted reflected the way the garden around the teahouse was designed. So the simple wabi-cha (tea ceremony) developed by Sen no Rikyū mirrored his style of roji (tea garden) with its more natural planting and informal path to the building. For a more detailed account of this subject, I refer you to Marc Peter Keane’s excellent book The Japanese Tea Garden (Stone Bridge Press, 2009).

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, mostly taken with striking autumn colours. These at times detracted from the text, whose purpose was to give an insight into the contemplative nature of Zen gardens. While aesthetically pleasing to a Western photographer’s eye, this period is a brief point in the garden’s yearly cycle. Indeed the author notes that in some Zen temples, flowering cherries and maples were removed as they proved too much of a distraction! These gardens are essentially white (sand), grey (rocks) and myriad shades of green (evergreen shrubs, trees and mosses).

This book is an accessible introduction to one type of Japanese garden and if it gets more people interested in this fascinating area, then it has more than served its purpose. For those, like me, who have become hooked on Japanese gardens, one might want to consider joining the Japanese Garden Society -

Louise Wickham, Historic garden consultant


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