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Sunday, Dec. 21, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Zen and the art of gardening


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
INSIDE JAPANESE GARDENS, by Shunmyo Masuno. Osaka: Commemorative Foundation for the International Garden & Greenery Exposition, 350 pp., 4,800 yen (cloth). In the formal Japanese garden -- a source of delight but also puzzlement to some visitors -- every element has a reason for being there, an ordained place and purpose.

Among Japan's leading garden commentators, Shunmyo Masuno is, perhaps, best placed to explain the complexities of these installations to foreign readers. When Masuno, a Zen priest at a Kamakura temple, notes in "Inside Japanese Gardens" that in the application of Zen to gardens "the state of one's mind is not conveyed through letters or words, but attempts are made to condense everything through silence," we are inclined to accept his word. A great deal more than just a garden fancier, Masuno, a landscape designer much in demand both in Japan and overseas, is both theorist and practitioner.

True to its title, this long-overdue English translation of Masuno's text is a journey into the mind and heart of the Japanese garden. Like an encyclopedia or anthology of garden usage, the book may be read in its entirety or referred to as a source. Chapters deal in depth with the structure and elements of gardens, their care and maintenance. Case studies are also provided, illustrating the planning and construction from conception to completion. In the history and styles section, examples are given of dry landscape, stroll, paradise, teahouse and other garden forms. In a final chapter called "Modern Gardens," we glimpse the application of gardens not only as adjuncts to temples, samurai villas and private estates, but as components of hotel complexes, research centers and even bridal halls.

The values embodied in Japanese gardens, the unimpeachable refinement of the more successful designs, are mostly lost on today's visitor. The environments of gardens, barbarized by the deportment of the modern visitor and vulgarized by the commercial ethic, have also suffered in some cases.

In Suizenji Koen in Kumamoto, vending machines and a kiosk dispensing snacks inexplicably occupy one section of the garden; at Kyoto's Taizo-in, ashtrays have been placed under the wisteria arbor for smokers; and at the Koishikawa Korakuen, an Edo Period stroll garden is dominated by the curving roof of Tokyo Dome and the squeals of passengers from the highly visible new roller coaster of a nearby amusement park.

If there are "a limited number of people who can build a genuine Japanese garden based on Japanese traditions and the Japanese mind," as Masuno asserts, it could be because the majority of Japanese no longer possess this "Japanese mind."

A reversal of tastes and sensibilities is currently taking place, with the Japanese now cultivating more so-called "English gardens," while Japanese gardens are being constructed abroad. Masuno admonishes that "one must educate the people in that country to understand the way of thinking that is based on culture unique to Japan, as well as a Japanese sense of beauty and Japanese values."

While it is true that the average Westerner would be hard-pressed to differentiate between a Chinese rock arrangement, a Jodo paradise landscape and a Thai water garden, knowledge does not flow exclusively one way. The work of foreign specialists and designers of Japanese gardens, such as the Kyoto-based master Marc P. Keane, is proof.

Masuno, the high priest of modern Japanese garden design, does have a point, though: There is a need for some explanation, and this admirable book goes some way to dispelling the mysteries of Japanese gardens while keeping their charms intact.

There are, for those with the requisite sense, currents, energy flows and dialogues to be discerned in the Japanese garden. Masuno contends that when arranging rocks, for example, one must "converse" with the stone, waiting "until it seems to speak and say where it wants to be put."

It may be some time before readers advance to that level, but this is an admirable first step along that path.



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