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Ryoanji and Huntington: Representations of Zen Gardens


Japanese garden at the Huntington Library. Zen garden at Ryoanji temple, Japan. These two pictures are dedicated to Professor Winters since Professor Winters would find this page extremely boring and plain without the benefit pretty color pictures. (I can say this because I am no longer a student, I have mastered HTML and now am a master.)


The Zen garden is a seemingly simple achievement in

landscape design. Yet this simple design has roots in very complex and abstract

concepts. With the use of composition, materials, texture, color, and symbolism, the

Zen garden expresses it’s conceptual principles. The dry garden at Ryoanji is considered

the ultimate example of Zen Buddhism in landscape and is often used as a model

when replicas are created. The Zen garden at Huntington is such an example of an

attempted reproduction by a western designer, Robert Watson. Although considered

a Zen garden by many, the dry garden at Huntington was constructed with some

fundamental conceptual errors. It should not be considered a true Zen garden.


The essential Zen Buddist principle expressed at the

dry garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto is the koan. Given the emphasis on meditation in Zen,

it is understandable why many people naturally believe that the main purpose of the dry

garden at Ryoanji is to stimulate meditation. Yet that is not the purpose of the garden.

The koan is meant to create a situation that helps the mind to move beyond all rational

thought. Therefore the dry garden at Ryoanji serves only that purpose. One aspect of

Zen philosophy is the teachings of one Zen master. The Zen master Dogen minimized the

value of the koan and stressed instead the importance of "sitting in meditation" zazen.

While not all Zen practitioners follow this teaching, one can see the correlation between

the Zen garden and the koan. With the down playing of the koan, how can the dry garden

promote such a concept? It is because the dry garden is essentially constructed to isolate

the importance of meditation. Meditation does not take place at the dry garden but in

specially designated meditation halls. The dry garden is merely a physical vehicle that

visually delivers the koan to the visitor. The affect of this physical koan is to create an

active, dynamic self-introspection within the viewer. There are several important concepts

when evaluating the gardens at Ryoanji and Huntington. Composition, materials, texture,

color, and symbolism. More importantly, one key concept is that the garden at Ryoanji is

part of a Zen temple, while the garden at Huntington is part of a botanical garden.


The composition of the dry garden at Huntington leaves the viewer

with a visual overload of materials. As the visitor enters the dry garden, one notices that

the area is divided into three portions. There is a middle walkway that divides an area that

can be assumed as the main dry garden and the rear grassy area. The main dry garden

begins with a large rectangular bed of pebbles with randomly placed rocks. This

resembles the dry garden at Ryuanji minus the moss that surrounds these rocks.


Immediately behind this large bed of pebbles are a variety of trees, plants, and

protruding rocks. The composition of these additional materials is chaotic and causes the

viewer to scan back and forth between the pebble bed and the distraction immediately

behind it. One extremely perplexing aspect of this vegetation located behind the dry

garden is the large square bush located directly in the middle of all the plants. Large and

obtrusive, this plant assaults the viewers. Without a doubt this a serious flaw in the

composition of plants that should not be placed there in the first place. The viewer is left

questioning the purpose of this large square bush that is seemingly placed arbitrarily

among vegetation that smooth, circular, and flowing. It is a grave mistake to assume that

this puzzling use of a bush is a visual koan. The only experience that the viewer is

subjected is an unpleasantly irritating one. The mind does not fall into a contemplative

state, questioning the purpose of the plant. Instead the mind is left with anger and

confusion, questioning the credibility of the design and purpose of the garden.


Surprisingly there is additional use of rocks outside the dry

garden. To the far left, in front of several plants are placed two large jagged rocks.

These rocks are consistent with the design of other Japanese garden when trying to

recreate mountain landscapes. However, keeping the composition of the Huntington

dry garden in mind, they should not have been used. With the presence of rocks in the dry

garden, the additional rocks placed at the rear seem to complete with the latter. The

viewer is forced to engage in a visual tug-of-war with competing stones.


The middle walkway is bordered with two sets of seats that are

placed between dry garden and the small rear garden. The seats immediately in front of

the main dry garden persuade the visitor to sit in a direction that is immediately facing the

pebble bed. The seats that are placed on the side of the rear grassy area are puzzling. Are

they meant for the visitor to sit and face the dry garden area (looking at the backs of those

seated in front) or are they meant for the visitor to face to small grassy area?


The small grassy area east of the dry garden consists of a green lawn and some

assorted bushes. There isn’t any particular style or design that stands out to the visitor.

One distracting aspect is that some of the plants and bushes seem to be home to squirrels.

This present of scurrying animals may be an attempt to reconstruct a natural setting, but is

contrary to the ideal of a Zen garden. The only possible reasoning for the existence of this

distraction is that there was additional space that was needed to be filled. There is no

substantial purpose for this rear garden to have been constructed. This the misguided

attempt by the designer to express nature his landscape design. In the designer's original

sign it states: "The abstract forms symbolize features in nature". It is not the purpose of t

the Zen garden to promote nature, but to convey the visual koan to the viewer. The

composition is cluttered with too many plants, rocks, and flowers.


In contrast the composition of the dry garden at Ryoanji is

simple, clear and concise. The simple design of the pebble bed, rocks and walls easily

focuses the mind to concentrate on the singular concept that the dry garden wants to

express. When observing the composition of Ryoanji, it can appear that the garden is

not a man-made object, but an natural phenomenon. The rocks jutting out from various

spots, pebbles are not unlike those found on the beach, and lush vegetation loom over the

roofed walls. The composition of the rocks themselves is natural, being jagged without

any visible human craftsmanship. These rocks are not chiseled and polished, but remain

in their most natural state. Unlike the dry garden at the Huntington library, there is no

bordering landscaping to distract the viewer, there is no walkway in between the pebble

bed. One must view the dry garden from the verandah perched about three feet above

it's northern side.


The dry garden at Huntington uses too much materials in

its attempt to create a Zen garden replica. The stone and rocks in the dry garden pebble

bed are consistent with the Ryoanji style materials. Yet the use of additional rocks, plants,

and wood causes the dry garden to diverge from the main concept of a Zen garden.

In a limited space, the dry garden attempts to use quantity of material instead of quality

of material.


The materials seem to be randomly selected for the

garden. The choice of placing the large square bush does not share the same theme

as the rest of the materials. The trees in the background were an unnecessary addition

to the garden. The mixture of different kinds of trees causes conflicting motifs. To the

far left of the garden, fallen flowers littered the pebble bed. This overuse of materials

leads to a disorderly image. It is impossible to convey a clear theme or concept to the

viewer because of the disorganization of the materials. Using mismatched materials

that clash visually can only cause the viewer to become confused. The western

misunderstanding of the entire purpose of Japanese Zen and landscape design lead

to the overly enthusiastic use of far too many materials. The designer assumed that

the representation of nature is the most important aspect of the Zen garden. There is

no evidence that the concept of the koan came into consideration while designing

the garden. In the attempt to re-create the Zen atmosphere, the designer has act in a

manner that is exactly contrary to the very principles of the ideology he has tried to



By contrast, the materials used in dry garden at Ryoanji

compliment the surrounding natural environment. The minimalist use of rocks and

pebbles innately seem to represent nature. When compared with the surroundings, the

materials do not appear out of place. The rocks and pebbles are not an alien creation, but

an actual extension of the landscape. The materials used at Ryoanji are the closest

essential materials that can be found in a natural setting. The next step is the actual

incorporation of nature itself. The looming trees in the background is Ryoanji’s transition

from man’s ability to recreate nature to the actual step of becoming nature itself. This the

harmony that Ryoanji strives for. The materials are the closest representation of this

coexistence with the natural environment.


The texture of the garden at Huntington is inconsistent when

its message is supposed to convey a clear and concise concept. The pebble bed does

resemble Ryoanji, with the smoothness of the small rocks, briefly interrupted by rocks.

Yet the very texture of the rake patterns is crude and is done in a rather arbitrary

alternating pattern. The diagonal rake patterns separated by straight rake patterns is

reminiscent of monster truck tire treads.

The two dimensional chaos of the pebble bed is thrown into upheaval

with the placement of protruding trees, bushes and rocks that are directly behind it. In the

far left corner, a large area is completely covered by brush, leaving the viewer wondering

what could possibly be hidden in that mysterious space. As mentioned above, the texture

the square bush located directly in the middle of the plants, contrasts and clashes with the

round and flowing aesthetics of the entire dry garden.


The texture of Ryoanji is very smooth, resembling the

flow of water. This texture does not conflict with the suggested theme of nature. The

moss creates a softness contrasting the hard rock . The texture of the rake pattern

suggests the smooth waves of the ocean. The circular pattern around the rocks can be

seen are the gentle pattern of ripples that a stone causes when dropped into a pond.

The entire texture of Ryoanji suggests a natural environment. Just as the rocks in the

gravel bed can be seen as islands, the temple itself is an natural island in the wilderness.

Surrounded by thick forest Ryoanji appears as an oasis, resembling the dry garden itself.


To the western perspective color may play a important role in

landscaping. Robert Watson, the designer of the garden implies the importance in his

statement about the Zen Garden, "This garden can also be viewed as an impressionistic

painting,""the wall of canvas framed by black stones," and "The slate walk represents a

bank on the edge of the stream." It is clear from his statements that when constructing the

garden at Huntington, color was a heavily emphasized factor. The use of color in the

garden is closely linked with the use of the materials. With the excess of vegetation, there

is an excess of color. The overuse of plants creates a heavy burden of the color green.

Other colors present cause a distraction to the viewer. Several plants in the background of

the pebble bed are changing colors, and to the far left of the background there are two

large bushes with flowers of two different colors.


It may appear that color does not play an important role at

the dry garden at Ryoanji. But the importance of this factor is not the colors present

but the effect of the lack of colors. To the casual viewer, the dry garden almost has a

monochrome color scheme. The light brown color of the rocks has no particular

outstanding effect on the viewer. However this lack of vivid coloring can leave the mind

open to interpretation. In certain respects, the pebble bed becomes a dynamic and

changing environment, and depending of the time of day and the angle of perception the

viewer can experience an actual change in color. In a certain light, the color of the pebble

bed at Ryoanji seems to resemble glimmering water. Unlike the dry garden at Huntington,

the colors of Ryoanji are not a planned element of the design. The colors are merely the

natural extension of the natural surroundings. The colors are merely a vehicle to help

with the viewers experience.


The symbolism of the dry garden at Huntington can mislead the

viewer. There is simply too much materials that pull the viewer in too many directions.

The actual dry garden area can conjure up the image of a Ryoanji inspired ocean with

miniature islands of rocks. Or it can also symbolize mountains peaking out through the

top of clouds. By itself, it can convey the Zen concept of a koan. Unfortunately, the it is

cluttered with additional materials that confuse this message. The plants, trees, and rocks

that are located directly behind the dry garden can been seen as an attempt to recreate

large landscapes in the tradition of other Zen gardens. The large jagged rocks in the

background. The crowded placement of the materials can in some aspects form the image

of a city rather than nature.


My first impression of the garden was greatly influenced

by the presence of a monk sitting on one of the bench. Superficially this image of a

monk would promote the idea of Zen. Nonetheless after careful observation, the fašade

of the Zen garden is gradually realized. The western ideas of nature and the eastern ideas

of nature conflict, thus having the symbolism of the plants is clearly from a western

perspective, due to the designer’s non-Japanese point of view. The excess of symbolism

is a result of a western interpretation of the concept of Zen or "Japanese-ness". The

overuse of plants rocks, and flowers goes against the eastern minimalist approach to Zen

gardens. In the designer’s text of original sign, he refers to the symbolism of the Zen

garden as a impressionist painting. Instead of trying to capture Zen themes, he created a

garden to appease the western viewer’s preconceived notions of the "Orient".


Ryoanji can be seen as a minimalist approach that supports key

concepts of Zen. The raked pattern in the pebbles brings out the image of water. This

symbolism creates a interesting contrast in elements. The clever use of dry and hard

material to stimulate the mind to visualize a fluid surface. The rocks that sporadically

appear in the pebble bed symbolize miniature islands. The moss around these rocks

can be seen as vegetation surrounding the islands. With the abstract symbolism, Ryoanji

actually allows the mind to conjure many aspects of nature.


After the close analysis of the dry garden in Kyoto and the

Zen garden at Huntington, the conceptual differences are clear. The dry garden in Ryoanji

is the ultimate example of Zen Buddhism in landscape design. The simplicity of design is

at the same time extremely complicated. Ryoanji manages to simulate critical thought by

using an abstract placement of materials found in nature. Its use of colors and symbolism

blends with nature, creating a harmony with the natural surroundings. Without a doubt

it is the physical form the Zen Buddhist concept of the koan.


In comparison, the dry garden at Huntington is a bizarre

bazaar of plants, rock and wood. The attempt was made to create a dry garden with a

clearly western perspective. This is evident in misunderstood meaning of Zen in the

designer's sign and the extreme overuse of materials. Not only was the overuse of

materials present but the presentation of these materials helped to create a crude and

awkward display. In effect, the dry garden at Huntington is the combination of several

improperly composed gardens. This overload of visual stimulus does not convey the

concept of the koan, instead the message of the dry garden is confusion. At first glance

the "orientalism" of the surroundings can deceive the viewer. But after careful scrutiny,

the flaws in conceptual design are overwhelming. To the critical eye, this garden is a

second class replica of misguided attempt to create a Zen garden.