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 The Zen Garden Myth

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Posts : 1617
Join date : 2010-11-13
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PostSubject: The Zen Garden Myth   Fri Jun 14, 2013 11:38 pm

The Zen Garden Myth
The so-called "Japanese Zen Garden" is a myth.  It is a late 20th Century WESTERN creation that has nothing to do with the Japanese Garden Tradition.  While some Westerners may be enamored with the idea of a so-called "Zen Garden" that links Zen Buddhism with the Japanese dry garden aesthetic, it is a patently false idea.  Some Buddhism experts even dismiss the Western concept of Zen Gardens, claiming that Zen principles are about what's within you, not the environment that surrounds you.
Photos of Japanese monks meditating on dry gardens are staged events.  In Japan, monks meditate while facing a wall, not while facing a garden.  The correct Japanese name for what Westerners call "Zen Gardens" is karesansui.  A good English translation of this word is "dry garden."  The Japanese dry garden aesthetic is by no means unique to the gardens found adjacent to Zen temples.  Dry gardens can be found outside homes, restaurants, and inns.  Likewise, the gardens around Zen temples come in many different styles, and dry gardens are just one of them.
A person with critical thinking skills should have no trouble deducing that the Zen Garden is a myth.  It is a misguided moniker for an ordinary style of landscaping in Japan.  It is a "tourist term" used by Westerners who visit temples and think that they are looking at something profound.  In reality, however, the use of the term generally reflects ignorance, rather than knowledge, of the Japanese garden tradition.
It's time to put the Zen Garden term to bed.  For more information on this myth, please consider subscribing to THE JOURNAL OF JAPANESE GARDENING which publishes regular articles similar to the ones posted below:
RESPECTED BOOK DISMISSES ZEN GARDENS   Wybe Kuitert's 1988 book, "Themes, Scenes..." has been called "ground-breaking" due to its exposure of the Zen garden myth.
VIEWPOINTS   We asked some Japanese garden experts the following question: "What do you think about the term, "Zen Garden?"  Here's what they had to say.
KUITERT BOOK REISSUED   This is a book review of the new version of "Themes, Scenes..."  Japanese garden experts are delighted about this formerly out-of-print book because it brings the truth about so-called Zen gardens back to bookstore shelves.
IT'S NOT NEW  This is a book review of Joseph Cali's 2004 book, "The New Zen Garden."  Well packaged, with attractive photos and diagrams, this book is ultimately built upon a framework of myth and ignorance.  It could have been a contender.
THE MEDITATION MYTH   It it inaccurate to say that the Japanese garden - as it exists in Japan - has any traditional relationship with the topic of meditation.  This article talks about this widespread misconception and explains why the dry garden aesthetic is simply a design tool that can be used in many situations. 
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Posts : 1617
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PostSubject: Re: The Zen Garden Myth   Fri Jun 14, 2013 11:39 pm

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.
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PostSubject: Re: The Zen Garden Myth   Sat Jun 15, 2013 12:02 am

The American myth of the Zen garden
Hazel White
Published 4:00 am, Saturday, July 27, 2002


Mark Kane
, the garden editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, was here last month, trying to tell us the truth about Japanese gardening. His lecture at the Mechanics' Institute Library, sponsored by Strybing Arboretum and the American Society of Landscape Architects, was titled "There's No Such Thing as a Zen Garden."

Kane was in Japan last fall, studying at the Research Center for Japanese Garden Art, a branch of Kyoto University of Art and Design. His professors told him Americans were wrong about Ryoan-ji, that most famous "Zen garden" with just 15 rocks set in raked gravel.

It's an ancient Shinto, not Buddhist, site, Kane was told. And the garden wasn't made by a Zen priest, it isn't maintained by Zen monks and it's not a place of Zen meditation.

That image we have in our minds of a Buddhist monk photographed from behind, meditating with Ryoan-ji beyond him, is "a fiction," Kane reported.

It's an image staged by an American photographer, and it makes some people in Kyoto mad. "Buddhist monks don't meditate in the garden; they meditate in the meditation room!", a frustrated professor, coincidentally named Marc Keane, told Kane. The American notion of a Zen garden was a myth, he explained.

The audience at the Mechanics' was good humored about this revelation of ignorance. To be purged of wrong thinking is sometimes pleasant. There's a thrill to it like a successful joke or a sense of a new chance to get at the truth, and the mind feels lighter and livelier.

And besides, Kane was relieving us of an irritating personal challenge -- the meaning of those mysteriously beautiful stones and gravel is only supposed to be available to people disciplined enough to meditate.

But the truths Kane tried to put in place of the myth were harder to accept.

It was when Kane was explaining that he thought the Japanese commitment to garden maintenance is a major reason Japanese gardens are so beautiful, that someone called out that perhaps the slides would be clearer if the window shades were turned down rather than up.

And then we slipped into the images on the screen of craftsmen gardeners so different from us doing things we could never do. Imagine being able to split a bamboo pole into 100 vertical strips by hand and bending and reassembling them into a curved pole for a handrail, or even keeping a pair of working shoes in the garden, so as not to track in insects and diseases from outside.

About that attention to detail, Kane said, wistfully, "We don't think at that level about the world we live in. Their standards far, far surpass ours."

He sounded haunted by that. He has also been moved, as a gardener and thinker about gardening, by the Japanese aesthetic. It's about restraint, Kane explained: "Le Corbusier, not Gertrude Jekyll," and a deep reverence for nature that is articulated in abstraction.

"The mountains and the islands punched with forest that go down into the ocean, those natural features are abstracted from the Japanese landscape and used over and over in the gardens. They are not meant to look natural. They are not miniatures of landscape, not literal. In fact, the most beautiful are the most unnatural," Kane said.

Nature is powerfully present in a garden pine tree seemingly raked by wind and struggling for its life, an effect produced by hand-pulling thousands of needles off it every year.

"Japanese gardens make you feel you are connecting to nature that hasn't been touched. Of course, it's a grand illusion," Kane explained. He quoted Picasso: "Art is the lie that tells the truth."

The myth about Ryoan-ji started when D.T. Suzuki, a Buddhist scholar and author and visiting professor at Columbia University in the 1950s, attributed everything beautiful in Japan to Zen Buddhism. Perhaps the beauty of Ryoan-ji, the most abstract of the "Zen" gardens, might be attributed instead to its being art.

Kane is back in Iowa creating an abstracted prairie landscape in his garden.

We've been talking about how to find more time to garden and how to dare to pursue gardening as art. The truth about that isn't hard to find. Any artist or Buddhist monk could tell us the way is painstaking and the only thing that counts is daily practice.
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PostSubject: Re: The Zen Garden Myth   Sat Jun 15, 2013 3:46 am

I think this comes under sub section 2a "What actually is Zen" It is a little known section which is not often read and no serious notice is made of it. For generations folk have been charging around with most peculiar views of this ranging from the devout religious to the carefree hippy view. Unfortunately the book I had, had the answer page torn out of it,but I can remember the morning cleaning of the temple and the careful raking of the garden, only to find to my annoyance that within minutes the pilgrims had walked all over the raked designs...I had taken a vow of silence and could not say anything.

Last edited by chisanmichaelhughes on Sat Jun 15, 2013 4:02 am; edited 1 time in total (Reason for editing : still can't spell after all these years,my expensive education must be regarded as a waste of money)
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