Monday, August 28, 2017

Zen in the Art of Japanese Rock Gardens

Of course, you will find rock gardens (枯山水 [kare sansui], which means dry landscape, literally dry mountain and water) in Zen temples. But do these belong to Zen ()? The austerity of stone gardens may lead you the the impression of emptiness or you feel inclined to make a stop on your busy way through a zillion of Zen temples and meditate on emptiness.
Planning, contructing, and maintaining such a garden will probably not bring you nearer to satori than planning, constructing, and maintaining a swimming pool. Or maintaining a motorcycle. Not to let you fall too deep in shattering a myth, I admit I've read Pirsig's book, when it came out, and I enjoyed it very much [1]; but the book is far from relating to Zen as is dwells in dichotomies.

I also enjoy Japanese gardens and especially stone gardens [2], which might be considered as very alien. Small pebbles are raked into wave patterns. Sometimes islands of rocks and moss are in between the waves of the ocean. Or you find plateaus or straight lines. Raking the gardens must be very bothersome during fall, as leaves keep falling, leaving the raker fallen into exhaustion.

I'll show you pictures of Ryoanji (龍安寺), perhaps the most famous of all stone gardens, at least in the West. Last visits to Kyoto (京都) didn't bring me back to Ryoanji, so the pictures are jaded. Maybe the rectangle had been used for beach volleyball before being converted into this garden in the late 15th or early 16th century. The work is attributed to Soami (相阿弥) (1472-1525), an renowned landscape gardener (kare sansui [枯山水]); the Britannica says: "Soami's work was strongly influenced by the philosophy of Zen, the meditative sect of Buddhism that taught that secular art forms can serve as a means of attaining spiritual enlightenment." [3] I've spent some time watching the ocean of pebbles, the rock island, and the green moss. Maybe I've started then having a special interest in moss (I'll scorch you with pictures and ideas on moss somewhen in the next decade). Not to mention the wall behind. Maybe it is an ocean and maybe not. Soami didn't leave anything to tell us. Maybe the wall behind is more important than we think. It is the perfect wall to sit in front for zazen (座禅), only the world gets in between you and the wall or your aspirations to enlightenment. The white pebbles go back to Shintoism and symbolize purity. For some newer pictures please refer to: [4].

But you can still see the old tiles on the roof

Keep staring at the wall!

Different currents - straight and curved

Kogetsudai (向月台)

An island, a boat, a ponton, a crocodile?
Better than tiles anyway.

Perfect for tea ceremonies

Don't feel too disenchanted, the beauty of these gardens remains. And don't sit and fret, better sit and do zazen (座禅). 

PS. Please excuse the title: Zen in the Art of Japanese Rock Gardens! Since Eugen Herrigel's "Zen in the Art or Archery" and Gusti Herrigel's "Zen in the Art of Flower Arrangement [Ikebana]" anything concerning Japan has to read: Zen in the Art of ... .

Links and References:
[1] Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM). (1974)
[3] Encyclopædia Britannica (2001): Soami - maybe this point of view needs reevaluation / The Japanese section of Wikipedia doesn’t help much:



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