The Zen ‘dry’ garden at Ryoan-ji temple, with cherry trees in blossom
The Zen ‘dry’ garden at Ryoan-ji temple, with cherry trees in blossom © Alex Ramsay

On a late May afternoon, more than 40 years ago, I sat and looked at one of the world’s most famous gardens and failed to empty my mind of any thought except, “Is this a con trick?”. The garden was the “dry landscape” of the Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan. On beautifully raked white gravel, 15 stones are arranged in five groups, set on moss, with nothing whatever between them. Even in 1972, the boundary fence of clay mixed with rapeseed oil and brine was flaking opposite my sightline and splintering from old age. I found it hard to think that this wear and tear was part of the garden’s original “meaning”.

Over the wall, a weeping cherry tree came into fine pink flower, as it will do again this month. The meaning of the garden is said to be connected with Zen philosophy, but in 1972 Zen seemed more accessible in California where it was said to help with motorcycles. I left, vowing not to come back, but as the years pass, I am increasingly wanting another look.

One reason for returning is an excellent new book by Yoko Kawaguchi called Japanese Zen Gardens. She is described as a “passionate gardener” who has lived in Britain since 1989, but her education has spanned the US, Canada and Japan. Her book is beautifully illustrated, to a level which my memories of the gardens are not. She helps outsiders to understand what may be going on and she is admirably clear about the many subsequent alterations in gardens which the crowds go off to see.

Kyoto is not the one place in the world where 16th-century gardens have somehow survived in pristine condition. Much of what we see has been “restored” in the past 100 years. Transience is an essential aspect of gardens and I do not object at all. I just like to know who has reinvented what and when. The reinventors of Japanese gardens are remarkable designers in their own right. The most remarkable two are Shigemori Mirei, active from 1932 to 1971, and Nakane Kinsaku, active since the mid-1950s. Shigemori belongs in every serious history of garden design, where he is often omitted in favour of people like Marion Cran. He catalogued almost 500 historic gardens until he died aged 75. He restored many of them, carefully studying features which visitors still consider “historic”. Nakane had genius too. It is he who dared to change the topping of the boundary wall at Ryoan-ji from clay tiles to roof shingles.

Zen began in China, but influenced Japanese temple gardens mostly from the 1160s onwards. Warlords became benefactors to Buddhist temples whose gardens then became related to Zen theory. It bore no relation to the warriors’ own way of making a living. This disjunction is what I call “Brompton Oratory syndrome” after the gap, in this London church, between the ardent Christian charity of many of the keen congregation and the techniques they have to use to succeed in their competitive financial lives. The Sermon on the Mount was not exactly in favour of pensions, let alone “structured products”.

In Kyoto, abbots and Buddhist monks laid out temple gardens which had the most esoteric and refined references. Do we actually understand them? I cannot read the language, so I cannot claim to understand Zen fully. Two of the ideas seem to be that the world perceived by the senses is entirely illusory and that we must strive for a state of emptiness, or “mu”, untroubled by desire. I only understand this much because it sounds like aspects of Plato. Thanks to Kawaguchi, I now understand that there is not a “Zen style”. Zen gardens can be very different from one another. Zen comes in at the level of the viewer. We must look on in a Zen state of mind and then we are engaged with “Zen gardening”. This point changes the entire subject.

Kawaguchi writes poetically about the effect of a visit to Ryoan-ji’s dry landscape. She introduces dragonflies and the shadow of a bird, encouraging the visitor “to lay aside value judgments” and to realise “there is neither good nor bad”. I remember it rather differently. Loudspeakers on the roof-beams interrupted the contemplation of those of us who had managed to sit cross-legged on the floor of the wooden veranda. An Italianate level of blaring noise introduced posses of schoolchildren, dressed in black and white and dutifully following a pennant. After an attempt at “mu”, we were hustled out.

I now realise the fascinating uncertainty of the garden’s history and “original” design. Why were there only nine stones, not 15, in the first surviving reference to a dry landscape on the site in 1681? By then it was almost 200 years old. There was a cherry tree there by 1588, but it did not overhang the wall. There was a huge fire in 1797 which burnt down the original abbot’s hall, what I have learned to call the “hojo”. Like many icons, it has had facelifts, though the bone structure remains intact.

Moss-covered east garden designed by Shigemori Mirei at Funda-in, a sub-temple of Tofukuji in Kyoto © Alex Ramsay

I like the interpretation which links the five groups of rocks to the floating islands of the Immortals. This idea is Daoist, not Zen. When it reached Japan from China, the Japanese began to realise, brilliantly, that these five islands must be their very own archipelago. They were living in the land of the immortal gods. So, gardens sometimes represented this idea in miniature. It is not the only contender for the dry landscape’s meaning but it makes sense to me. It would have made even more sense if I had had Kawaguchi’s book in 1972. She explains that the intended viewing point is at the east end of the veranda in a sitting position. There, the perspective seems deeper and the furthest groups of rocks seem smaller and further away. The site also tilts slightly, affecting the angles of the enclosing walls. It is all very clever.

Some think the rocks symbolise mountains above clouds. Some think they symbolise emotional obstacles to empty “mu”; desire, anger and ignorance being the big three. I still opt for the heavenly islands. Kawaguchi gives a useful guide to good manners when visiting these temple gardens. Pray to the Buddhist shrine in the “hojo” and never turn your back on it. Do not wear shoes on the veranda.

Her book is packed with fascinating insights, from tea gardens to the history of the beloved azaleas. It is an illuminating blend of the ever-changing past and the present. For a Zen master, only the “now” moment would exist. If you are going to visit Kyoto’s gardens, read her account first.

The rocks rest among that Japanese favourite, moss, which even features in the Japanese national anthem. Last week I discussed how to kill the prolific moss on our lawns. I was not making a point against Japanese gardens and their very different tradition. Equally, they do not have lawns. If Britain ever becomes a republic, I would support substituting the word “lawn” for the word “Queen” in our national anthem, too. “God save our gracious lawns . . . ” It may not be Zen, but it captures much of the nation’s mood.

‘Japanese Zen Gardens’, by Yoko Kawaguchi, published by Frances Lincoln, £30. The Ryoan-ji garden is open 8am to 5pm from March to November, and 8.30am to 4.30pm from December to February;

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