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  The Garden - Symbolism & Esthetics

AN INTRODUCTION by Dr. Koichi Kawana
(Sumi-E Ink Painting by Haruko)

The traditional Japanese Garden combines characteristics which have been developed over many centuries and which reflect the differing influences prevailing during particular periods of history. Some persons who have visited many such gardens deny the existence of a "typical traditional Japanese garden" claiming that the gardens they have seen differ greatly one from another. However, this is comparable to stating that an"'average Japanese" does not exist because each Japanese is so different. Just as most Japanese share characteristics which can be identified, so it is possible in most cases to identify a traditional Japanese garden by analyzing its general appearance and savoring its atmosphere.

It should be noted that, until this century, such gardens were seldom, if ever opened to the public. They were built by the ruling elite to meet their personal requirements or as temples to create in their surroundings a mood appropriate to worship and contemplation. Shugaku-in, one of the largest gardens in Kyoto, was built for a retired emperor so that he might spend his remaining years in tranquility. The garden of the Silver Pavilion or Ginkakuji was created for the Shogun Ashihaga Yashimasa in order that he might escape the maddening conflicts and violence taking place in the capital nearby. Japan's greatest general hoped to earn merit by initiating the building of the famous garden on the Ratsuna Detached Palace for the son of the reigning emperor.

Gardens or niwa provided a means of achieving the peace of mind for which rulers so desperately sought during the periods of strife and conflict which marked much of Japan's history. In its origin the garden was representative of utopia or, more often, a paradise of Buddha. Both were Chinese concepts. The first, brought to Japan in the sixth century, was the product of China's ancient mythology. The other gained credence as Buddhism came to influence all sectors of Japanese life. Indigenous factors, such as Japan's insularity, also had an impact on the development of gardens.

The character of most of today's famous gardens owe much of their development to the influence of Zen Buddhism which was brought from China in the thirteenth century and became a major influence in Japan in the two following centuries.

A real appreciation and understanding of the traditional Japanese garden is complex and difficult. The visual entities which may appear as a design in the Western sense of forms, textures, and colors are less important than the invisible philosophical, religious, and symbolic elements. This is shown clearly when we examine the derivation and importance of the key elements present, in some form, in almost every Japanese garden. These elements include water, islands of stones, plants, and garden accessories.

Japan is a group of islands surrounded by oceans and seas. From ancient times, the Japanese people had an affinity for the sea. Water as a design element in the garden is crucial. One of the most popular styles of garden is called chisen, in which a pond or lake occupies the most significant portion of the garden. Water's importance is not as a substance but as a symbol and expression of the sea. Even the quantity of water present is unimportant. If space is a problem, one is supposed to be able to enjoy the tranquility of the sea in contemplation of a bucketful of water contained in a stone water basin.

The presence of water itself is not required. In the dry garden of karesansui style, the sea is symbolized by grey gravel or sand and the state of the sea is expressed by sand patterns or samon created by raking the sand to form certain designs.

A sea without islands is unthinkable and in the creation of such islands the Japanese owe much to the concepts imported from China mentioned previously. One of the earliest developments was the shumisen-shiyo, a utopia or sacred place remote from ordinary human society. In this tradition an island of immortal and everlasting happiness called Horaisan or Horaijima became an important element in the garden. Later, as a result of the growth of Buddhism, the sacred island was replaced by shumisen, the legendary mountain on which Buddha was believed to have lived. Often the names were used interchangeably.

Crane and tortoise islands belong in this category. According to Chinese mythology, the crane lives a thousand years and the tortoise ten thousand years. Symbols of auspiciousness and longevity, the actual beings are often simulated by the shape of the islands. Another auspicious symbol is the kibune or treasure ship which sails the seas and is represented often by a rock or group of rocks.

Such islands, due to their sacred character, are inaccessible to human beings and no bridges are constructed to reach them. In contrast, ordinary islands called nakajima are accessible to the mainland by bridges and it is on these latter islands that one may find teahouses and arbors.

In dry gardens, islands are symbolized by rocks of interesting shapes set in gravel or sand. Groups of stones representing a rocky seashore may be arranged near the edge of a lake or its gravel or sand depiction. The “three Buddha” arrangement called sanson is one of the most orthodox styles in the art of stone arrangement. It consists of three rather vertical stones. The largest stone, which is always placed in the center, represents the Buddha while the two smaller stones placed nearby represent two Bodhisattvas. This arrangement is used commonly to express horaisan, shumisen, or a waterfall.

Trees and plants used in the garden are closely interwoven with the spiritual and physical life of the Japanese people. The pine is a major basic structural tree. Traditionally it is called tokiwa and, as an evergreen, it expresses both longevity and happiness. The black and red pines symbolize the positive and negative forces in the universe. The Japanese black or male pine called omatsu represents the former force and the red or female pine called mematsu represents the latter force.

Bamboo is usually found in such gardens and plum trees are often grown there. Combinations of pine, bamboo, and plum are used in decorations to mark the New Year and the most auspicious occasions. Bamboo is an evergreen also and is credited with auspicious characteristics similar to those of the pine while the plum is thought to embody the qualities of vigor and patience since it is the first to bloom after a severe winter.


ThMany unique Japanese concepts and esthetics involved in traditional Japanese gardens stem from Zen Buddhism. Whereas the previous importation of Buddhism had come from Tang China, Zen concepts came from Sung China. Its influence on the art and architecture of the country has been impressive and lasting.

Esthetic values which are believed to both Japanese and Westerners to be uniquely Japanese in origin such as simplicity, naturalness, refined elegance, subtlety and the use of the suggestive rather than the descriptive mode of communication are either products of Zen thought or were reinforced by it. It is said to be impossible to describe Zen in words since the doctrine denies this possibility. The doctrine rejects intellectually devised images in favor of direct experience.

Shortly after the doctrine's introduction into Japan, its monks began the construction of gardens. The essential design elements included in these gardens came to be the main elements of what is know today as a traditional Japanese garden. Naturally the employment of these elements provided the monks with an opportunity to express the “Way of Zen”. In them, Zen principles were translated into very special esthetics.

In describing these Zen concepts English is used where there is a commonly definable equivalency. Where the concept is unique to Japanese thought, the Japanese term is used alone. Among the concepts important to garden building are; Asymmetry involving a preference for the imperfect over the perfect form and shape and a preference for odd rather than even numbers.

Simplicity which looks to the achievement of “nothingness” or mu. Koko refers to aging accompanied by maturation and mellowness stressing the importance of aged quality and time.Naturalness or shizen requires avoidance of the artificial or forced.
Yugen is the achievement of profundity with mystery, the use of darkness to create stillness and tranquility and the utilization of the technique of Miegakure or avoidance of full expression which requires the hiding of a part of the whole.Wabi, sabi, and shibui translated as austerity, elegant simplicity, and tastefulness. Seijaku or the attainment of stillness, quiet, and tranquility.

Japanese monks returning from China brought back Zen teachings and many art objects common in Sung China. The latter were products of Zen philosophy and were prized highly by are connoisseurs among the aristocrats, monks and warriors of the time. Most important, however, in influencing the development of gardens were the black monochrome landscape paintings called suiboku sansulga.

In order to reach-the essence of things, all non-essential elements must be eliminated. Color is avoided whenever possible. Black sumi ink is the one true color and in it one can see endless varieties of all colors. Translating this to a garden calls for the predominant utilization of monochromatic green. Flowers in natural colors should be used only to enhance the value of the monochromatic color.

Under Zen influence the dry garden became one of the dominant types of gardens and stone came to be most important as a part of garden design. What the suiboku painting had expressed with bold brush strokes was achieved by the proper placement of a few rocks and trimmed shrubs to symbolize the grandeur of mountains and nature compressed into a small cosmos. Void or negative space expressed by gravel covers the majority of the ground and is as important to the garden as is the stone arrangement. Irregular shaped, dark colored stones are selected to carry out the concepts of yugen and shibui.

The tea garden was created by Zen teamasters. Tea was introduced to Japan by Eisai, a Zen monk, who brought it from China about 1200 A.D. Later, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the art of the tea ceremony or another “way” (do or michi) of Zen Buddhism was developed. To emphasize Zen principles, a unique tea house and tea garden was developed.
Zen elements were added to the tea garden when Sen-no-Ri Ryu (1522-1591) developed the “cottage” or soan style of tea ceremony. The tea garden was called roji which was supposed to bring to mind a forest path to a remote village or mountain. Naturalistic planting was preferred and artificially trimmed or colorful plants rejected. Since it was a pathway, stepping stones were a main feature of this garden. But in such gardens, smaller and unobtrusive stones were used for this purpose.

Ornaments common to these gardens such as water basins and special stone lanterns had a direct relation to the ceremony itself. Usually the objects used were old, weathered and covered with moss to reflect the Zen esthetics. It is interesting to note that even though both the dry garden and the tea garden express Zen esthetics, the tea garden was designed to be walked in while the dry garden was to be viewed in contemplation.

In order to provide an atmosphere of other-worldliness and isolation for participants in the tea ceremony, the more formal tea gardens are composed of an outer garden, a middle garden, and an inner garden in which the teahouse is located. After slowly traversing these spaces and arriving at the teahouse, the participants are supposed to be in a mood of tranquility which will help them to concentrate on the meaning of the ceremony. For this reason utmost care must be taken in the design of the garden and architectural entities, to achieve simplicity and naturalness and to evoke the qualities of secluded quietness, stillness, and tranquility. In this sense, with the exception of the dry gardens belonging to Zen temples the tea garden, compared to any other part of the Japanese garden, is the best place to discover Zen influenced esthetics.

In order to evoke the criteria of Zen esthetics mentioned before, the suggestive mode of expression became a main approach to garden design. Specifically, the designer must adhere to the concept of miegakure since Japanese believe that in expressing the whole the interest of the viewer is lost. The designer must motivate the viewer to achieve empathy with the garden and use suggestive means to arouse the viewer's imagination, making possible the expansion of the garden beyond its physical bounds.

The teahouse or arbors in the garden are partially hidden behind trees or fences and beautiful garden accessories such as stone lanterns are set beside trees and shrubs in a manner to avoid total exposure. The main body of a rock is set deep in the ground. The human desire to expose every inch of a costly object is suppressed. Colorful objects are eliminated as building materials. Natural and subdued colors are praised. Symmetry in shapes or forms are avoided whenever possible. The shape and counter of the lake and the form are irregular. The grouping of stones and trees are odd-in number.

An important concept in the garden is "simplicity" or kanso. In this concept, beauty is attained through omission and elimination. Simplicity must not be confused with plainness which is, in many cases, monotonous or a lack of refinement.Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means. Buildings, bridges, fences, and pavement all utilize natural material constructed in a most imaginative and refined manner.

The esthetic concept of naturalness or shizen prohibits the use of elaborate designs and over refinement. The garden designer must conceal his creative innovations under the guise of nature. A close examination of many garden walks and pavement reveal the most intricate and creative patterns but they are tendered inconspicuous by the utilization of natural and subdued colors and textures. Meticulously trained and trimmed over sized bonsai style pines appear to be century old trees which have developed naturally in the garden..

The actual physiological phenomena conceived in the Zen esthetics of wabi, tabi, shibui, koko, yugen and seijaku is the state of things seen by the eye of an ordinary person such as weathering or fuka, erosion or shinbaku, and wear or mematsu. However, such natural phenomena were regarded highly as esthetic values as a result of their impact on the Japanese intellectual/emotional response. For this reason the “element of time” became an important ingredient in the development of the garden.

Time allows Zen qualities to be present. Koko implies that things improve or mature with time. The Western concept of “an instant garden” is denied in Japan. With time and proper care the true beauty of the property designed garden will manifest itself.

The seven criteria of Zen esthetics which have been introduced are not to be viewed separately because they co-exist one with another in all Zen-influenced Japanese gardens. The analysis of the dry garden and the tea garden who that, in spite of their differences in style and design, they both follow the criteria mentioned. The same can be said for the other fields of art which have been influenced by Zen such as painting, calligraphy, flower arrangement, tea ceremony, ceramics, and Noh drama.

-Dr. Koichi Kawana



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