Japanese Garden Book Review
Are Zen Gardens Bogus?
Wybe Kuitert's Themes, Scenes... book dismisses the so-called Zen Garden term.
JOJG published a “book rankings” article in September 1999. The goal of the survey/article was to identify the most highly-recommended Japanese gardening books. Professionals listed more than 100 books. One book near the top of the list was Wybe Kuitert’s Themes, Scenes & Taste in the History of Japanese Garden Art. Published in 1988, the scholarly work is sometimes regarded as a sister book to David Slawson’s better known, Secret Teachings in the Art of Japanese Gardens. Possibly due to its academic density, not to mention its unwieldy title, Kuitert’s book has been out-of-print for nearly a decade. A revised edition, however, is scheduled to be published by the University of Hawaii Press in 2002.
Kuitert’s book stretches 348 pages and covers a wide range of subjects including garden history and aesthetics. Despite its paucity, the book deserves continued study largely due to its ground breaking statements on the subject of “Zen gardens” (sic.). The Zen garden-related commentary is limited to about ten pages, where Kuitert shows that the idea of a garden serving as an expression of Zen philosophy is a 20th century concept created largely by and for Westerners. According to Kuitert, the term “Zen garden” first appeared in print (in any language) in Loraine Kuck’s 1935 English-language book, One Hundred Kyoto Gardens. Kuitert thinks little of Kuck’s theory about the famous dry garden, Ryoan-ji, stating on page 155: Kuck mixes her own (20th century) historically-determined Zen garden interpretation with an old garden of a completely different cultural setting. This makes her interpretation invalid.
Kuitert goes on to reveal that the Japanese term for “Zen garden,” zen-teki teien, didn’t appear in Japanese-language literature until 1958. This startling revelation leads one to wonder if some postwar Japanese scholars may have simply followed the Western lead, endorsing the fashionable “Zen garden” concept because it was already championed by foreigners.
Kuitert proceeds to dismiss the “Zen and the Fine Arts” connection that emerged at the same time in 1958. He writes: (the mediaeval garden) found its place in Zen temples and warrior residences because it enhanced a cultural ambiance. That its appreciation was one of religious emotion, rather than one of ‘form’ is questionable.
Kuitert adds strength to his argument by introducing the thoughts of Zen religious leaders like Dogen, founder of the Sohtoh sect. On page 159 Kuitert states: (in Dogen’s view) the best garden representing the Sermon of Buddha would be nothing. At least it would certainly not be an aesthetically-pleasing garden that would only distract from a real search for Enlightenment.
Modern proponents of the Zen garden concept often try to justify their positions by using quotes from famous garden builders such as Muso Soseki. Kuitert sheds some light on this ploy, praising Muso’s garden-building skills, but questioning both his sincerity and his devotion to Buddhism. Kuitert explains: However important Musoh has been for the establishing of a mediaeval garden theory, one must doubt that he was a devoted (Zen) Buddhist. In his own time he was rather vehemently criticized on this point, for instance by Myoh-choh, the founder of the Daitoku-ji.
Kuitert exposes more criticism of Muso, this time by translating the comments of a Muromachi-era monk at Toh-ji: “People practicing Zen should not construct gardens. In a sutra it says that the Bodhisattva Makatsu, who wanted to meditate, first totally abandoned the this-worldly life of making business and gaining profit, as well as growing vegetables... Is not (Muso’s life of making beautiful and admired gardens) far removed from the meaning of the sutra?
Kuitert adds to this, writing: There can be hardly any doubt that Muso in his Kyoto years was far from a devoted Buddhist. His statements on garden art can not be taken as proof of any religious quality for the mediaeval garden.
Until it is re-issued, Kuitert’s book can be found in the stacks of many good university libraries. Anyone who is interested in the subject of so-called Zen gardens or “Zen-inspired gardens” would be wise to become familiar with it. This recommendation goes double for the many self-appointed professionals who lecture and write dubious books on the subject. In today’s world of hype and exaggeration, Kuitert’s book offers factual information that throws cold water on the entire Zen garden business.