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Eestikeelsed artiklid




Nato Lumi

Vilen Künnapu

Vilen Künnapu

Tomomi Hayashi

Mehis Heinsaar



Traditionally Zen gardens were designed and constructed by Zen priests. A living master, Zen priest, Shunmyo Masuno answers in an interview:

Zen that originally came from China was a philosophy of living – it was a formless and spiritual idea. In Japan, people started to create methods to measure their progress in zen – there was ink and wash painting, Chinese writing, or making gardens as three dimensional art. So, in other words, making gardens is a method of zen training. There was the birth of a unique Karesansui (dry landscape) garden, whose cosmology or landscape of a mountain and a river is represented with stones and sand, not with water.1

Karensansui garden in Ryoan-ji Temple



Rising interest of Zen among the Japanese and foreign visitors brings many people to see the 500 year old Ryoan-ji temple with its famous Karesansui style stone garden. The garden itself measures 30 x 10 meters. There are no trees, just 15 rocks arranged randomly on a bed of white gravel, which is raked every day. Why does this garden from the late 15th century still attract visitors?

This garden envelops an essential aspect of a Zen garden. Typically people ask the guides: How many stones are there? How many times are we deceived by what we see? Because these 15 rocks are arranged so that from any view point only 14 of them are visible. One can't see everything at once, it is possible only through meditation. It is necessary to deepen our perception, clear our mind, and leave everyday thoughts behind.

This Karesansui garden is extremely abstract; it represents a landscape or a "mind-scape", where we try to understand the designer's intention. Furthermore, we are not encouraged only to comprehend the intention, but to picture the Zen priests' state of mind in the act of raking gravel, which recalls the waves or rippling water. Zen priests practice raking to help their concentration. Achieving perfection of lines is not that easy. Rakes follow the pattern of ridges and rocks situated within. Nonetheless the patterns are not static. Developing variations in patterns is a creative and inspiring challenge. Usually objects, mostly rocks, are used symbolically to represent mountains, islands, boats, or even people. Karesansui gardens are often meant to be viewed from a single vantage point in a seated position.


Zen Buddhism places emphasis on what cannot be expressed with words. The vacant spaces in zen gardens stimulate one's imagination. In a sense, these spaces are left open for observers to create their own scenery.

With this tiny garden in Ryogen-in, inside of the Daitoku-ji Temple, called To Teki Ko, literally meaning Eastern-Water Drop-Pot, Kyoto explains the Law of Cause and Effect and the value of a clear heart. "Even drops of water can make an ocean; dust particles a mountain." Our insignificant actions become causes for great effects. The garden is completely enclosed by raised verandas and eaves, but the garden itself has no roof. This allows the rain to drop into the "pot". There may be a reference here to the Buddha's words: "Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good."

In comparison of the Japanese garden with the Chinese and English gardens, Katsura Nishi discusses, "the Chinese garden presents the world of gods based on the same Taoism cosmology as the Japanese one, but the scenery can be called the 'garden of mystical landscape' since it often employs special, unique, or mysterious rocks. The English garden can be the 'garden of realistic landscape', which is created upon a picturesque scenery in nature. The Japanese garden, on the contrary, does not realize nature, but symbolizes its character. It miniaturizes natural scenery, the world of gods and the paradise of Pure Land, and represents it in an abstracted manner. In this sense the Japanese garden can be named the 'garden of symbolic and miniaturized landscapes'."2


The work of a modern master Mirei Shigemori (1896–1975), who designed over 200 gardens, opened a new direction in the field. As a historian trained in painting and ikebana, he learned about making gardens by measuring and researching over 500 gardens all over Japan. His artistic name "Mirei" was taken from a French painter Jean-François Millet. His gardens, designed with a painter's eyes, display freedom of geometry and color together with a deep appreciation of the tradition and understanding of place. His dynamic body of work was similar to the artistic struggle of his contemporary architect Kenzo Tange. Both felt they needed to progress Japanese design within the overwhelming Western culture. He criticized that since the 18th century, the artistic value of gardens has fallen into cliché.

In his late essay "Shin Saku Tei Ki" (New manual of making gardens) Mirei Shigemori leaves an important note for us living in present time, "one can make gardens according to the ancient forms, but in actuality, the person who is designing the garden and building it is from nowhere other than the present day. The fact that we are people who live in the present means that we are unable to make gardens that carry the meaning of old times or have the forms of those times. If we try, we can only make a garden that is an imitation, and this is meaningless."3

Please enjoy first the beauty of Japanese Zen gardens, their simplicity and emptiness, which leaves room for your own interpretation. Then we shall start making gardens for our own time!


To Teki Ko garden in Daitoku-ji Temple, Ryogen-in

Mirei Shigemori.
Garden in Komyozen-ji Temple, Dazaifu

Mirei Shigemori.
Garden in Komyozen-ji Temple, Dazaifu

Mirei Shigemori.
Hojyo garden in Tofuku-ji Temple

Mirei Shigemori.
Ryogin-an garden in Tofuku-ji Temple

1 Interview published on website http://doraku.asahi.com/hito/runner/070816_02.html
text translated from Japanese by the author

2 Taken from an introduction of a book "Nihon no Teien Bunka, (Culture of Japanese Garden)" by Katsura Nishi, Gakugei Shuppansha, Kyoto. 2005. Obtained from website. http://www.gakugei-pub.jp/mokuroku/book/2174niwa/hajimeni.htm text translated from Japanese by the author

3 Quoted in an introduction by Christian Tschumi for his book, Mirei Shigemori: modernizing the Japanese garden. Stone Bridge Press, Inc., Berkeley, California USA. 2005

Tomomi Hayashi
is a Japanese architect practicing in Estonia since 2001.  Lives and works in Tallinn, Estonia.