A Beautiful Illusion of Gardens
The study of the Japanese Stone Garden is the study of Japanese religion. The two are as inseparable as the symbolic architecture of Catholic Cathedrals and the Bible. There are no rocks in a Japanese stone garden, but only icons of Mt. Horai, home of the immortals, or great turtles swimming in the cosmic ocean, bearing the Earth on their backs. As author Stephen Mansfield states, Japanese gardens are works of religious art.
Which is why “Japanese Stone Gardens: Origins, Meanings, Forms” is much more than a guide to the garden. Mansfield does his best to give you a crash-course on Buddhism and Shinto, on why stones in particular are of importance to Japanese religion, and how those views have been shaped by contact with China and India. He takes you on a tour through the symbology of stone, showing what to look for and how to recognize certain arrangements and what their meanings are.
The book is split into two sections. The first, “Introduction to the Japanese Stone Garden,” takes up the bulk of the book and lays out all of the religious motifs and meanings, as well as the nature of Japanese stone gardens. He is quick to point out that the term “Zen Garden” is entirely American and has no meaning in Japan; these are gardens linked with Buddhism, but rarely with the Zen sect. He also talks about some of the standard design elements of the garden, the use of borrowed scenery and framing. I particularly enjoyed the talk on modern stone gardens, and how modern materials and techniques have shaped new gardens.
The second section, “Japan’s Exquisite Stone Gardens” is a picture-tour through some of Japan’s most famous and beautiful stone gardens. The focus is really on imagery, although some text is provided for each photograph along with a brief history of each garden. I have been to several of these gardens, and I think the photographer did a masterful job of capturing their elusive beauty.
Of course, having been to several of these gardens in real life, I also know what an illusion the photographs are. While they look like visions of serene peace, and in some distant time they must have been, now they are loud, rambunctious places packed with tourists and all the support industries of food hawkers and souvenir stands. I would love to see the Ryoan-ji pictured here, austere and unembellished. In real life, your attempts to contemplate the stones are interrupted by jostling crowds and blaring loudspeakers that give a pre-recorded history of the temple and the garden nonstop.
And that is really the only complaint I have against this book (and books of this kind). While the author does mention the reality of crowds and noise in the text, I would have loved to have seen a picture of these gardens packed with tourists and sellers as they are in real life. Because anyone going to Japan seeking the serenity they find in this book will be sorely disappointed.