The Landscape Guide

Yoko Kawaguchi Japanese Zen Gardens (photographs by Alex Ramsay)

Frances Lincoln Publishers Ltd 2014 ISBN 13: 9780711234475 Review by Tom Turner

What is a Zen garden? Outside Japan a Zen garden is a 'dry landscape garden' using raked gravel to represent water. This style is known as kare-sansui in Japanese. Inside Japan, and inside Kawaguchi's book, and very sensibly,  a 'Zen garden' is simply the garden of a Zen Buddhist temple.  But what are the characteristics of the gardens of Zen Buddhist temples? With equal good sense, Kawaguchi treats this question historically and emphasises the fact that gardens like Ryoan-ji are merely 'a state in the evolution of the Japanese temple garden' (p.8). She also stresses that 'Nor is the kare-sansui (dry-landscape) style, of which the Ryoanji garden is an example, exclusively associated in Japanese culture with Zen Buddhism. Indeed, nor are there distinctive styles of garden so specific to Zen Buddhist temples that they can still be called 'Zen gardens' when they are not actually located at one of these temples. If a garden could be described as at all as a 'Zen garden', it is not so much on stylistic grounds but in the spirit in which the visitor approaches it'. Therefore


  • the western association of Zen with raked gravel is mistaken
  • Zen gardens have charcteristics which distinguish them from other Japanese temple gardens
  • Zen is an attitude of mind

I am in full agreement with these points and therefore see this as the best book on Zen gardens - while regretting that it does not have more introductory explanation of Buddhist principles and Zen principles. How did alternative conceptions of Nirvana influence garden design - and how do alternative interpretations of the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path influence Buddhist garden design? Muso Soseki's views on many of these issues [nirvana, Buddhood (bussho in Japanese, buddhatva in Sanskrit) and transience (anicca in Sanskrit) and interconnectedness (anatta in Sanskrit)] are described (on p.33) as though they related to Muso and to Tenryu-ji - instead of being pillars of Buddhist philosophy.

Part 1 of the book is a set of accounts of famous gardens with good explanations of their layouts. The quality of the photographs, by Alex Ramsay, is high and the garden plans are very welcome (though they lack contours and anything one could view as wabi sabi). Where appropriate, opportunities are taken to explain some of the principles I would like to have found in the introduction.

Kawaguchi's account of Ryoan-ji is good. She explains both the lack of historical information and the many theories which have been advanced as interpretations of its character. As she says 'It is almost as though visitors to the temple have needed to to be reassured that the garden is indeed a work of genius rather than a case of humbug' (p.61).

Where the author refers to other authorities I would like to have seen them cited, even if the books are in Japanese. The source is sometimes unclear eg 'The purpose of a Japanese tea garden is to give guests the time and opportunity to put the distractions of their daily lives to one side' (p.75). I would like to know if this is a contemporary interpretation and/or whether there is historical support for the view. 

Part 2 of the book is an explanation of Symbols and Motifs in Japanese Zen Gardens. As with the garden descriptions, the opportunity is taken to explain their connection with relevant principles. I hope it will be read carefully and profitably by non-Japanese gardeners who love the gardens of Japan and tend to be more interested in the symbols than in what they symbolise. Many symbols are Buddhist but, as Kawaguchi is careful to explain, others relate to Daoist and Shinto beliefs. For example (p.143) 'The numbers seven, five and three are considered to be auspicious in Japan... on 15 November, when boys of the age of three and five, and girls aged three and seven are taken to their local Shinto shrine... As the idea of shichi-go-san began to be incorporated into various social rituals, it started to make an appearance in the garden' The hojo (abbot's hall) at Shinju-an has 'three stone groupings... made up of seven, five and three stones'.

A recent Amazon search on Japanese garden turned up 11,734 returns. Kawaguchi's book merits a high place on the list.


Medium japanese zen gardens kawaguchi original

Shinju-an has three groupings of stones made up of zenen, five and three stones (photo Alex Ramsay)