Karesansui the dry landscape garden

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Celebrated Japanese garden scholar Mirei Shigemor identifies a total of 323 kare-sansui gardens and some 700 pond gardens as particularly significant amongst Japanese gardens He divides the development of the kare-sansui garden into four stages the first, prehistoric stage is equated wiih the huge boulders and rocky outcrops - iwakura and iwasaka venerated as the abodes of gods by early Shinto devotees An example here is Achi Shrine in Kurashiki The second stage corresponds to the Nara and Heian eras, when dry landcape gardens were built very rarely, and then only as integral components of pond gardens Mire Shigemori here cites the example of Motsu-|i Temple Garden The Kamakura era represents the third stage of kare-sansui development, in which the dry landscape, although still appearing in conjunction with tne pond garden, is no longer relegated to a subordinate role Saiho-ji Temple is a particularly useful illustration of this new equality of pond and dry landcape garden old rock group m the kare-santur dry gvtien o* Ryoan-)' Temple. Kyoto

Japanese Dry Landscape

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 of the Muromachi era when, for the first time, gardens were laid out solely in kare-sansui style.3' In the kare-sansui of this last stage I see the second great prototype of the Japanese garden, one which has Droved a source of enduring inspiration for garden architects all over the world

Shtgemori's extensive research into the term kare-sansui- "withered mountain-water" - Drought to light a number of interesting facts. The term is found for the first time in the Sakutei-ki, where it denotes small, isolated rock arrangements occurring within the larger context of the typical Heian pond garden. At this stage t is simply a technical term used by professional gardeners Over the course of time it assimilated the meanings of other, similar-sounding terms, such as ka-sensui. which literally means "pseudo mountain-and-water andscape" and was sometimes used as a general term to "garden", kare-sensui, a "dned-up mountam-wa-terscape" referring chiefly to miniature landscapes, and finally kara-sensui, "T'ang-dynasty mountain-waterscape", a term clearly beuaymg the strong Chinese influence of the times But by the end of tiie Muromachi era. having gathered under its umbrella a variety of other meanings, kare-sansui had develooed a significance entirely its own the "withered mountain-water" landscape had emerged as the new Japanese garden prototype


The rock-and-sand garden of Ryoan-ji, the "Temple of the Peaceful Dragon" in north-west Kyoto, is an example of a kare-sansui garden in its purest form - without water, without plants, without even a tree. The garden lies on the south side of the hop, the abbot's quarters, and is bounded by a low wall it is an outstanding illustration of that enduring characteristic of the Japanese sense of beauty, namely the supenmposition of natural and rectangular form

A woodcut in the Miyako meisho zue. the "Illustrated Manual of Celebrated Places in the Capital" compiled m 1780, gives an overview of the entire temple complex The pond garden in its lower zone was built by Fujiwara Saneyoihi at the beginning of the eleventh century, the main temple. Daiju-m, is still located here today In 1450 the site was acquired by Hosokawa Katsumoto. a powerful memoer of the Kyoto-based Buke clan, who made it his residence and founded the Zen temple of Ryoan-ji in the upper half of the grounds This Ryoan-ji was destroyed by fire during the Onm Wars, and Katsumoto himself died in 1473. His son, Hosukawa Masamoto, lebuilt H ie temple in 1488. It is generally accepted that its celebrated kare-sansui garden dates from this reconstruction phase.

Who it was that created this masterpiece, unique not only in the history of the Japanese garden but indeed in garden architecture as a whole, we do not know. In a recent study of the kare-sansui garden, Karl

Kare Sansui

Scale drawing of (he abbot's quarters, the hop, and the kare-sansui garden to its south This dry landscape garden is famous for the aesthetic precision with which its fifteen rocks are distributed within an empty expanse of sand

Henmg examines fifteen different theories currently circulating in the academic world regarding the answer to this very question. He concludes that Ryoan-ji's rock garden was created by sensui kawaramono, the "riverbank workers as gardeners" who became Japan's first gardening professionals. They may have been helped in their task by Zen monks. Two kdwaramono signatures have been found chiselled into the back of one of the fifteen rocks in the garden - a highly unusual practice for the time.39

The garden saw various small changes over the course of the centuries, including modifications to its surface area and alterations to its boundary walls and walkways. Its function, too, may have changed over time; it appears from a woodcut in the Miyako rinseri meisho zue of 1799 that visitors could walk through the garden - something unthinkable today.

There is evidence to suggest that the panorama designed to be enjoyed from the hojo veranda originally extended far beyond the garden wall and "borrowed" natural features from the distant landscape. The dense growth of the trees surrounding the garden has since blocked this part of the composition from view.

Both the porch and the wall to the east of the garden are relatively new. They were probably built following the great fire of 1797. According to earlier sources, there was a covered walkway at the eastern end of the garden whose open sides allowed the viewer to see through into the area beyond.

Such a brief sketch of Ryoan-ji's history is naturally unable to "explain" this masterpiece of garden archi tecture which, like all great art, remains as fresh and powerful on the fiftieth visit as upon the first.

The garden covers an area of some 400 square yards. Its novelty and uniqueness both during and after the Muromachi era - nothing similar was to be achieved until Edo times - lies in the emptiness of its surface Apart from a few traces of moss at the foot of its rocks, the garden is utterly devoid of plant life. In 1828, Ritoken Akisato, who had been employed on the reconstruction of Ryoan-ji after a fire in 1797, published the Tsukiyama teizoden, the "Transmission of Constructing Mountains and Making Gardens". It includes a woodcut of what appears to be a stereotyp cal version of a rock-and-sand garden, thereby implying that gardens in the Ryoan-ji style were in fashion at the end of the eighteenth century.

The Ryoan-ji kare-sansui garden contains fifteen rocks grouped into three compositions of seven, five and three rocks respectively and positioned within an area of raked sand. The various scholarly interpretations so far proposed fail, in my view, to provide a satisfactory explanation for the positioning of the fifteen rocks. I remain sceptical as to whether they obey "the rules of balance by odd number" or some "secret geometry", and unconvinced by the theory that the garden as a whole offers a bird's-eye view of a symbolic ocean dotted with islands or even "tiger cubs crossing the sea". It seems to me more appropriate to adopt an existential approach to Ryoan-ji, whereby the garden and its effects are simply experienced for themselves. It was, after all, created with the aid of Zen monks for

Rycan-p, a supreme example of the beauty of empty space and the interplay of right angle and natural form

The Japanese Dry Landscape Garden

Daisen-in, the Great Hermit Temple in Kyoto. Here a framed view of the rock in the shape of a boat laden with treasure, with the rock in the shape of Mount Hiei immediately behind.

the purpose of meditation. Its overwhelmingly horizontal composition invites the arriving visitor to sit and contemplate it at leisure. Indeed, the word "sit" in Japanese is a synonym for "meditation".

I have found no records to confirm what nevertheless remains my strong suspicion, namely that the composition of the Ryoan-ji rock-and-sand garden has its roots in a Zen meditational technique of staring at a fixed point. Since only in the rarest cases will art and architectural historians have been trained in such meditational techniques, they are inevitably barred access to the secrets of Ryoan-ji.

Zen has always adopted a very scientific approach to meditation. It thereby contrasts greatly with our Western philosophy and its mind games, and our Western religion based on "blind faith". Zen starts with fact. And the most obvious and immediate fact in the life of every individual is their body. Consciousness lies at the centre of the body, the senses at its boundaries, and other objects beyond it. Meditational techniques serve to divert man's energy from flowing outwards towards other objects to flowing inwards towards his centre. In Ryoan-ji, objects (the rocks) are so perfectly arranged in space (the raked sand) that the viewer eventually ceases to experience them separately. Outward energy reverses to inward energy as the viewer's concentration now turns to focus upon his own consciousness. This is the "experience" of nothingness, of the void, emptiness, impartial awareness, "self-lessness", as we can only inadequately describe it. It is not a philosophical concept but a notion deriving from personal insight.

"Consciousness has turned in upon itself; the circle is complete. You have come home."J0

But the empty expanse of sand in front of a Buddhist temple or the blank piece of paper in Zen painting is not in itself sufficient to inspire such profound insights. It needs the sophisticated interplay of form with its non-form, of object with its space. It is here, perhaps, that we find the ultimate purpose of garden art - to provide the necessary forum for such insight The garden of Ryoan-ji symbolizes neither a natural nor a mythological landscape. Indeed, it symbolizes nothing, in the sense that it symbolizes not. I see in it an abstract composition of "natural" objects in space which is intended to induce meditation. It belongs to the art of the void.


Daisen-in, the "Great Hermit's Temple", is one of the sub-temples comprising the extensive Daitoku-ji temple complex belonging to the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism. Situated in the north of Kyoto, Daitoku-ji was begun in 1326 by Daito Kokushi, Zen master and contemporary of Saiho-ji designer Muso Kokushi. Daisen-in itself was founded within the grounds of Daitoku-ji by Kogaku Shuko in 1509. The garden was probably completed at the same time as the main hall in 1513.

Karl Hennig has undertaken a detailed analysis of the authorship of the various elements of the garden. He concludes that the earliest section, centering around the turtle and crane islands, was probably the

The raked sands of the garden south of the mam hall, with the Bodhi tree in the far left-hand comer work of Kogaku Shuko himself, perhaps with contributions from sensui kawaramono, the riverbank workers who had now become gardeners. Soami, the celebrated painter who executed the monochrome seasonal and Chinese landscapes on the sliding doors of the mam hall, may also have had some influence on the garden's design.

The main hall, hondo, is surrounded by garden on all four sides. The hondo itself is oriented along a north-south axis which divides the building into two rows of three rooms. It is a ground plan which was to prove typical of the early Shoin architecture of the Muromachi era.

The garden was designed to be "read" from northeast to south-west. This is also the direction followed by the dry "river", which thus consciously or unconsciously obeys the old Heian rules of geomancy. The powerful austerity of Daisen-in is unsurpassed amongst Zen gardens. Unlike Ryoan-ji, however, its symbolism is clear and easy to grasp. Taken at the simplest level, it is a dry mountain-waterscape garden which employs a rapid succession of small scenes to describe a highly abstract landscape within a limited space. Thus the famous L-shaped north-east garden is a representation of Mount Horai and its rivers. Mount Horai takes the form of a clipped camellia, from which there gushes a "spring" of white gravel. This plunges over a "waterfall" and branches into two ever-widening "rivers". One of these flows westwards, past a turtle and baby-turtle island, into the northern garden, called chukai, whose white-gravelled surface symbolizes the "middle sea" of its name. The modest size and enclosed nature of this northern garden recall the courtyard gardens of earlier palaces. It contains one of Japan's most outstanding triadic rock compositions.

The second of the "rivers" flows past numerous rocky obstacles and over a dam before finally converging into the large garden on the south side of the hondo. In the south-western corner of this empty expanse of white gravel stands a lonely Bodhi tree, the tree under which Gautama Buddha is traditionally related to have reached enlightenment. This Bodhi tree is a clue to the garden's deeper significance.

The garden is in fact a symbolic representation of the course of human life. Thus the river of life springs from the lofty heights inhabited by the immortals, plunges joyfully down the cascading torrent of youth and into maturity. It now follows a more sedate course along which the trials of adulthood are accompanied by a broadening of experience. The rocks in the path of the river symbolize the hard lessons of life. Thus, in the second garden to the east, we find a rock in the shape of a treasure boat, floating with the current, just beside a stone in the shape of a turtle floating against the current. The first represents the wealth of experience that comes with old age, the second underlines the futility of seeking to oppose the flow of time. The river of life ends with the experience of the void symbolized by the expanse of white gravel in the southern garden. The final hurdles to be overcome have now softened from rock into two cone-shaped mountains of gravel.

The garden can be appreciated at deeper levels again,

Dry Japanese Gardens

The qa'rien as a three-d>mensjor&l panting A vnaH medieval dry garden landscape m the Zen tempie of Darsen-'n. Kyoto m esoteric interpretations accessible only to adepts of Zen Here the rocks become the difficulties encountered in the search for the answer to that most fundamental of koan - "Who am I?" (A koan is an insoluble Zen riddle used as a meditational exercise along the road to enlightenment. - Translator's note.)

Seen from an art-historical point of vk?w, Daisen-tn Garden is unique in the fact that it links for the first time the themes of the original Chinese Horai myth with the austerity of a dry landscape garden. It is similarly unique in its combination of a large number of rocks of varying shapes, sizes, colours and textures within a very small space Here as before, the forms of nature are perceived through the rectangular structure

Daisenin Section

of the temple and against the boundary garden walls, in an aesthetic interplay paralleled in the physical juxtaposition, in Daisen-in clcser than anywhere else, of "built" and "painted" landscape. Whereas Ryoan-poffers the viewer a garden which is composed frontally, like a painting, in Daisen-in the visitor is surrounded or all sides by a garden which is both painting and architecture at once.

Semhu-nash'. the Budge ot rie Hemvt's Sk-e-.e composed of two ¡tone vatr, >n Omkakitf Temple Photo Ken Xa-M


Shmju-an, the "Pearl Hermitage", lies just east of Dasen-m as another of the sub-temples comprising the Daitoku-ji temple complex in Kyoto It was founded under its present name in 1491 Karl Hennig has again made a detailed study of the various theories put forward by Japanese scholars as to the possible authorship of the garden, and concludes that ft was probably created by the poet Socho at the start of the sixteenth centuryA second theory links the garden's design with the name of tea-master Murata Juko (1423-"502) - a man who was in turn closely connected with Ikkyo Osho (1394-1481), an enlightened master and probably the leading figure in the arts of his day

The garden to the east of the abbot's quarters is a dry landscape garden in elongated form It is covered with moss, not sand as in the garden of Ryoan-ji temple, and fenced in by a low, clipped hedge rather than a wall The numerical and formal arrangement of fifteen moderately-sized rocks along a slightly curved axis m a ratio of 7 5 3 is similar to Ryoan-ji It departs from the tradition of locating such gardens south of the t\OjO, however, and resembles instead the narrow east garden of Datsen-in History relates that it was originally possible to see Mount Hiei over the hedge, whose silhouette would then have been part o: the overall garden experience

In contrast to Ryoan-ji and Datsen-in. Shmju-an draws attention by its very lack of pretention Such is ts quiet modesty that many would never suspect there was a garden here at all I would again beg to disagree with those who see the garden in terms of islands floating in the sea To me it represents a highly abstract, rhythmic composition of natural rocks on an available oblong space it delights our sense of beauty by this very simplicity Like notes on a musical score, the rocks sound against the geometric trim of the hedge and within the visual frame of the pillars and eaves of the shorn The grouping of its rocks in the ratio of 7:5:3, a harmonious means of distributing an uneven number, is found in gardens from Muromachi times on To dismiss it simply as cosmological speculation, imported to Japan by Zen priests returning from Sung-Dynasty China, is to ignore the significant role played by the numbers 5 and 7 as met'ical measures m Japanese poetry from its earliest origins

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