Nature, culture, creation and the Japanase garden

sanzenin_templeDavid and Michiki Young in The Art of Japanese Architecture say that the Japanese love of gardens derives from a love of works of art, rather than from a love of nature in its unadulterated form. Japanese gardens are based on the principles of nature and use the materials of nature, but are primarily aesthetic compositions. They say:  ‘Even when temples and shrines are placed in natural settings, such as at Ise Jingu or Sanzenin, vegetation is not usually allowed to reproduce freely but is controlled to produce a natural but tranquil feeling that we have termed “spontaneity of effect.”

Nature is ‘soto’ rather than ‘ichi’. It is a domain which contrasts strongly with the cultural. For the Japanese nature is a place to visit briefly with friends. It is not a place where a person would want to spend much time alone. According to the Youngs, nature is revered by the older generation as the domain of nature spirits or kami. These spirits are not always benevolent. They say although nature is admired because it represents spontaneity, it is also the source of unease, because it is untamed and unpredictable. For the Japanese nature becomes less threatening when it is domesticated. [Image courtesy Marser]

5 thoughts on “Nature, culture, creation and the Japanase garden

  1. Tom Turner

    The Nature (with a capital ‘N’) which inspired Japanese garden design before the Meiji Era, was understood through Shinto, Taoism and Buddhism. It was not the same as the nature (with a lower case ‘n’) which is interpreted by modern science. Similarly, the Art to which David and Michiki Young refer is Religious Art. It is not Modern Art in any of its ‘-isms’. One needs to beware of the tendency of Japanese garden historians to ‘boast’ that their gardens respected nature while western gardens sought to dominate nature. The reason for the requirement to be wary is that ‘nature’ has so very many different meanings.

    The name Sanzenin is interesting. See “Studying Zen is zazen” (sanzen wa zazen nari): The term sanzen refers to training in the Zen form of Buddhism. The common term zazen (“seated dhyåna” or “seated meditation”), though sometimes particularly associated with the Zen tradition, is widely used in East Asian Buddhist texts for the practice of meditation; it has no exact equivalent in the Sanskrit.“A quiet place” (jøsho ): In traditional meditation literature, the term is defined as a mountain fastness, an isolated forest retreat or a pure monastery.

  2. christine

    The Buddhist concept that human beings are part of their environment is known as Fuudosei. This is a speech given by the Dalai Lama in 1992 on ‘The Buddhist Concept of Nature’. []

    It is said that up to and within the Meiji Era, the Japanese considered Western art as inferior. This assessment was because based on Western art’s reliance on single viewpoint perspective: it placed the observer outside the landscape.

    “There are landscapes on earth,
    Landscapes on paintings,
    Landscapes in dreams
    And there are landscapes in the mind.
    The beauty of landscapes on earth
    Lies in the depth and irregularity of contour.
    The beauty of painted landscapes
    Lies in the freedom and richness of the brush and the ink.
    The beauty of dreamed landscapes
    Lies in their strangely changing views.
    And the beauty of landscapes in the mind
    Lies in that everything is in its place.”
    Chang Ch’ao

    There seems to be a post post modern re-evaluation of this cosmic ontological relationship occurring (partly) because of the demands of sustainability.

  3. Tom Turner

    Thank you for a great quotation from Chang Ch’ao. I tried to find out more about him and found more quotations in: Lin Yutang – The Importance of Living By Lin Yutang.

  4. christine

    Many important trends in modern art including

    1. the elevation of contemporary subjects
    2. the rejection of illusionism
    3. the emphasis on the act of painting

    are said to have emerged with the landscape paintings of the 1800-1900s.

    It is interesting how with the introduction of plein air landscape painting in the Western tradition, rather than studio painting, the artists’ focus changed from one where “art was no longer the bearer of ideas” but instead sought to represent ‘truth’. []

    Until the French painters introduced plein air painting in the 1830’s landscape painting languished near the bottom of the heirarchy of genres.

    The French Impressionists it is said, “abandoned traditional techniques of perspective, chiaroscuro, and modeling in order to record their experiences as directly as possible. Even their most heavily worked paintings retain the appearance of spontaneity.”

  5. Tom Turner

    Chinese painters and Chinese garden designers were concerned with the ‘essence’ of a scene and were no more inclined to outdoor painting, except as aides memoires, than pre-Romantic European painters. A Chinese landscape painter asked ‘Until I knew the shape of the Hua mountain [Huashan], how could I paint a picture of it? But even after I had visited it and drawn it from nature the “idea” was still immature’. Like Japanese garden designers, the Chinese were concerned with the Nature of nature – not with nature itself. Try a Flickr search on Huashan: ]


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