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Japanese Gardens and Aesthetics

Guiding Thoughts
Heian Gardens
Zen Temple Gardens
Strolling Gardens
Tea Gardens
Tsubo Gardens
Garden Timeline
Suggested Reading

Portraying a Japanese Buddhist Monk in the SCA

Japanese Films

Essential Dharma


The Clan of Matsuyama

SCA Resources
(The Chatelaine's Box)



Japanese Aesthetics and the Garden

Kansho (contemplative style) - The Zen Gardens


· Designed by Zen priests originally called “ishi-tate-so” (priests who move rocks).

· Developed first in the Kamakura period (“sand and stone” designs developed in Muromachi period)

· Few flowering plants, many evergreens.

· Calm mood.

· “The garden as a painting” - Areas set aside for sitting and viewing- meditation

· Abstraction, brevity of design, “short-hand”

· Usually attached to temples, monasteries, shrines, etc.

Zen Buddhism was imported to Japan in the eleventh century. It went through various periods of popularity and ignominy, but constituted one of the most important influences on Japanese culture. All Buddhist temples include gardens. The first temple gardens evolved from well-groomed landscaping around Shinto shrines, such as at Ise. Later, the gates and grounds surrounding Buddhist temples became gardens that beautified the temple, similar to the Heian mansion gardens. Jodo Buddhism (“Pure Land”) used temple gardens as a way to symbolize the “Paradise in the West.”; a “pure land” created by Amida Buddha to aid suffering souls in pursuit of enlightenment.

Zen temple gardens began with similar ideas, but philosophically were centered on this world, not the next. Zen gardens are meant to encompass all of nature; nature is the universe. The garden represents (and is) the Buddha’s realm. Gardens are tools; vehicles for meditation and reflection. As such, they tend to be far more metaphorical than other gardens. You can stroll through a Zen garden, but more often, you are encouraged to simply look at it.

The Zen priest and garden designer, Muso Soseki, who designed the garden at Tenryuji, Kyoto, in the mid-1300’s composed the following poem:

The sounds of the streams splash out the Buddha’s sermon,
Don’t say that the deepest meaning comes only from one’s mouth,
Day and night, 80,000 poems arise one after the other,
And in fact, not a single word has ever been spoken.

Abstract “sand and stone” Zen gardens:

Abstract representations of natural elements have long been an aspect of Japanese design. But in the late Kamakura to early Muromachi period (late 15th cent.), Zen gardens went further. Designers began to create “the garden as a painting” under the influence of Chinese Zen ink painting. A sort of “short-hand” style developed called kare-san-sui (dry-mountain-water). A good example is the famous rock garden at Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto; three outcroppings of stones set on a gravel “sea”. The rocks represent islands, the gravel is raked into geometric patterns resembling waves. But the mind can also ascribe other symbolism to the scene, or none at all. Zen garden designers will often say that there is nothing in a garden except what you bring to it yourself.