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  Japanese Garden Journal

The “Zen Garden” Term
In January 2002 we reviewed a book by Wybe Kuitert and introduced JOJG readers to his important research on the so-called “Zen garden” topic. We thought we’d solicit a few more opinions on the subject.  Here's what they had to say when we asked a few experts the following question:

“What do you think about the term, “Zen garden?”

Tim Hansken
Many JOJG readers are older than the term “Zen garden.” As some already know, the first author to use the words “Zen” and “garden” in the same sentence was probably an American woman, Loraine Kuck, in her 1935 book “100 Gardens of Kyoto.” Her neighbor, a writer and teacher of Zen, likely planted the seed in her mind. She then went on to become the Madame Blavatsky of Japanese gardens.
Until the 1950’s no historical work or garden book in Japan ever spoke of “Zen-like” gardens. Now, however, the term is a salable commodity, eagerly taken up by both Western and Japanese writers. Historically, Zen monks of the Sotoh sect completely rejected such luxurious things as gardens. Muso, a Zen monk and creator of gardens for the Ashikaga shogunate, made a name for himself as a garden builder, but at the time he was excoriated by other Zen monks. One monk wrote, criticizing him: “People practicing Zen should not construct gardens.” He went on to say that Muso’s gardens were far removed from the meaning of the sutra.
Tim Hansken is an Asian linguist and garden builder from Occidental, CA.

Tamao Goda
In Japan, gardening is an everyday topic, just like cooking or commuting to one’s job. Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, is a very remote topic. Few Japanese people ever even think about Zen. We do visit gardens located at temples to enjoy scenes of seasonal beauty. We go there mainly because temple gardens are open to the public, unlike the gardens at private homes. If there is a restaurant that has a great garden, we go there, too.
In Japan, most temples have limited financial resources. Some have learned to generate extra income through tourism, promoting the “Zen garden” fad which apparently attracts Westerners and some Japanese tourists as well. I do not blame cash-strapped temples for using their gardens as tourist bait, but it is sad that foreigners so quickly swallow the stories told by temple caretakers (the monks).
I’m afraid that our very casual attitude toward religion has created some confusion. We love gardens, and we visit temples, but that does not mean that we think gardens are related in some way to Buddhism. I’m very sorry that Westerners have this misconception, and it’s probably time to start correcting this problem. In my mind, there is no such thing as a “Zen” garden.
Why do some people feel the need to “spice up” Japanese gardens by linking them to religion or mysticism? The truth is actually more profound. The simple, nature-inspired beauty of a Japanese garden can stand on its own as a feature of ordinary life, and it can be enjoyed by all people of any religion.
Tamao Goda is JOJG’s art director and chief Japanese garden researcher.

Bardwell Smith
When we talk about the Carleton College garden, we do not tell our listeners what it or any garden “means.” We do not even say it is necessarily a Japanese garden, though it is clearly influenced by Japanese garden aesthetics. To tell people what it means is to impose a certain meaning upon it, which then preempts what they may perceive on their own. The mistake of informing visitors in this fashion also occurs frequently in Japan. As one recalls from the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, “Look, it cannot be seen - it is beyond form. Listen, it cannot be heard - it is beyond sound. Grasp, it cannot be held - it is intangible.” In other words, the potential meaning is so vast and so varied that to ascribe specific meanings is to stifle the imagination and to silence one’s capacity for quiet listening. The deepest forms of listening, of course, are to one’s own inner spirit, and as one does this what one hears changes over time. Therefore, assigned labels such as “Zen garden” disturb one’s genius for experiencing nature freshly again and again.
Prof. Bardwell Smith is Professor Emeritus of Asian Studies at Carleton College.

Kendall H. Brown
The term “Zen garden” was coined in the mid-twentieth century and as such tells us more about modern ideas than it does about the Japanese gardens it purports to describe. Its use often indicates an ahistorical and essentializing approach to Japanese culture - the attempt to find one true style and meaning in what is a complex and even contradictory history. The term is used broadly to mean many things: gardens at Zen temples, stone gardens, minimalist gardens, gardens with strong spiritual implications, and so on. In current usage, the term is so broad as to be almost meaningless as analysis or even description. Like a slogan or cliche used to advertize a spurious product, the term sounds appealing but in fact delivers little. It is misleading to use “Zen garden” to refer to style because gardens at Zen temples were designed in different styles. Similarly, many types of gardens have spiritual implications. When we refer to gardens at Zen temples, we are better off calling them “gardens in a Zen context.”
Ken Brown is an author and professor of Asian art history at Cal State Long Beach.

J. Skuba
The label “Zen garden” is a bogus appellation attached to a serious art form. It is a hijacked term. Beatniks of the 50’s and the flower-child hippies of the 60’s used the word in a vague descriptive manner. To them it was “far-out,” “cool,” and “oh-wow.” 40 years later the term is still being mis-applied, only now it is used in mainstream venues and as advertising copy for all kinds of New Age gizmos.
In the true meaning of the word, Zen Buddhism is a serious and rigorous religion. Zen seeks to conceal emotion and transmute it into internal energy through practicing a rigid discipline, which then ultimately accesses a strong and lofty spirit.
Japan’s dry gardens are thought to have crystallized a new art form by using natural materials to create a different world of abstract forms and spatial compositions. Human emotion is deliberately expressed in the art form. It is a mistake, then, to apply the term “Zen” to such gardens. Zen has nothing to do with garden styles or fashion statements, and it’s time we stop using the term inappropriately.
J. Skuba is an artist and garden builder in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Steve Beimel
The so-called “Zen aesthetic” refers to what began with the stoicism of Japan’s Kamakura era. Zen, which was popular amongst the samurai class, encouraged a simple lifestyle. Though minimalist design was born out of Zen simplicity, it does not necessarily follow that minimalist works of art are “Zen art.” For example, it would be illogical to say, “Zen encouraged simplicity. Dry gardens are simple. Therefore, dry gardens are Zen gardens.”
Dry gardens are sometimes considered expressions of Zen philosophy. Zen says that truth cannot be learned from others, but must be discovered internally. Therefore using the term “Zen garden” (or “Lutheran garden,” etc.), actually contradicts Zen philosophy, since it superimposes a philosophical meaning from the outside and artificially prejudices people’s subjective interpretations. This limits the experience of the viewer, rather than letting him see truth with the preferred, unprejudiced eyes of a child. Ironically, dropping the word “Zen” as a defining label brings it closer to the freedom of Zen than using it.
Steve Beimel is the head of Esprit Travel and editor of The Kyoto Diary.

Asher Browne
My first reaction on reading this question was, “What a silly thing to ask.” Then I remembered how things are in the Japanese garden world outside of Japan, where many of the English-language books on the subject try to promote the so-called “Zen garden” topic to some extent or another.
This may be hard for people to believe, but the truth is that for three years I have been working full-time for Japanese garden companies here in Kyoto, and in that entire time I have never heard the term “Zen garden” used by any of my co-workers.
Of course there are many beautiful gardens at temples. Professional gardeners work on them, scholars write about them, and tourists visit them. Indeed, temple gardens offer a great opportunity for all of us to enjoy beautiful gardens.
Here in Japan though, instead of viewing Buddhism and the gardens at temples as somehow philosophically linked, most Japanese people simply see those gardens as just that - gardens.
Asher Browne is an intern at a gardening company in Kyoto, Japan.


ZEN GARDEN   Check out this link for some surprising information about this often (mis)used term.