Sand and Stone Garden

Stephanie Moss

(Karesansui)

Gardens of raked sand (or gravel) and stone are referred to as karesansui (literally, “dry landscape”) gardens. This style was developed in Japan in the later Kamakura period (1185–1333). Many Chinese landscape paintings of the Southern Sung dynasty were imported to Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries by Zen Buddhist priests, and they were emulated by Japanese artists like Sesshu (1420-1506). An important Japanese aesthetic principle underlying both landscape paintings and dry landscape gardens isyohaku-no-bi, literally “the beauty of blank space.”

While dry landscape gardens are sometimes referred to as Zen gardens, it is more accurate to refer to them as karesansui. In Japan, often this style of garden is part of a Zen Monastery, such as the famous Ryoan-ji in Kyoto (although it does occur elsewhere). Often attached to the abbot’s quarters, this style of garden was not meant for meditation (zazen), but more for contemplation. Care of the garden is part of the monk’s practice, as is every other action in their lives. For those who interpret these gardens as vehicles for contemplation, they may offer a cosmic view of the universe represented in sand and stone.

This karesansui was designed by Professor Takuma Tono in the 1960s, when Zen Buddhism was little known or understood in this country. Professor Tono was inspired by a tale that’s said to be over 2,000 years old. A tale of a previous incarnation of Buddha, the Jataka Sutra originated in India. It is recorded on a painted panel in the Horyu-ji temple at Nara, and it depicts the Buddha facing the dilemma of saving a starving tigress and her cubs trapped in a bamboo ravine. The Buddha’s self-sacrifice to save starving creatures is a lesson in compassion on the path to attaining enlightenment.

Sesshu, Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers (detail)