Zen garden at Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, California. My picture from May 2014.
¨In recent, more popular books one often sees the Japanese garden explained as an expression of Zen philosophy. The idea that gardens express Zen is relatively recent; it is not found in the old Japanese garden texts, neither in the early twentieth-century literature on the garden art of Japan. The following pages address some of the more significant contributions pivotal in the establishing the "Zen interpretation" as well as my rejection of it.
A visit of the Garden Club of America to Japan in May 1935 generated great excitement on the Japanese side. It was a period in history when Japan was extremely sensitive to its relations with foreign countries, especially the United States. To receive the club an official General Reception Committee was formed with important politicians and government officials as patrons, perhaps because all club members were "ladies representing the best of America's cultured society".
From the Japanese side, a book on Japanese gardens was prepared for the occasion. It is Tamura’s Art of the Landscape Garden in Japan. It was edited in a luxurious edition with silk cover featuring an ink painting by Yokoyama Taikan to be presented to the club members. In the same year Loraine Kuck's One Hundred Kyoto Gardens came out. It is here that Zen comes to take a major position in the interpretations of Japanese garden art. Kuck focuses in particular on the stone garden of Ryoan-ji, and describes its Zen qualities, with the harmony of the balanced composition as a clue, as follows:
“In this harmony is found the real key to the meaning of the garden, the philosophical concept which the creator was striving to express. Minds unable to grasp this inner meaning have invented a number of explanations ... But students of real understanding realize that the aim of the designer was something far more subtle and esoteric than any of these. The garden is the creation of an artistic and religious soul who was striving with sand and stones as his medium to express the harmony of the universe ... (follows a discussion on the difference between the Oriental and the Occidental concept of existence. The Oriental supposedly sees
himself not as an individual at war with his environment but rather as fundamentally a part of all that is about him.) ... The (Oriental, wk.) artist, whatever his medium, is striving to grasp the essentials of his subject, the thing about it which is universal and timeless, and common to both himself and it (=the subject, wk.). ... The creator of this garden was a follower of Zen and an artist who strove to express it whatever his medium. The flowing simplicity, the utter harmony,rhythm and balance of the garden express this sense of universal relationship”
Seeing the small medieval garden as an expression of Zen philosophy became generally accepted in the following decades and is found in other publications of Kuck as well. The concepts "Zen garden" or "garden expressing (the spirit of) Zen" are common in today’s popular literature on Japanese garden art.¨
Ryoanji stone garden. Wikipedia.org
Zen garden. From inspirehomemagazine.com
Zen rock garden. From zengarden.org
From: an abbreviated version of "The Zen Garden" as it was published in Themes, Scenes, and Taste in the
History of Japanese Garden Art, Gieben, Amsterdam, 1988. By Wybe Kuitert