Friday, 9 May 2014



Zuihō–in is a sub-temple of the Zen Buddhist complex Daitoku-ji, located in the northern part of Kyōtō. The temple was founded in 1546 by the daimyo or feudal lord, Sōrin Ōtomo who was from Kyūshū as a memorial temple for himself and his wife, both of whom are buried at the temple. Sōrin Ōtomo was baptised as a Christian at the age of 46 which was highly unusual in Japan, particularly at a time when Christianity was under fierce pressure from suspicious authorities. There are two important gardens to the south and north sides of the hōjō or main hall; both gardens were created by Shigemori Mirei in 1961. The name Zuiho translates as ‘Blissful Mountain’ and is itself a reference to Mt Hōrai, the mythic mountain at the centre of the Buddhist universe.

The south garden, known as Dokuza-tei (独坐庭 ) or the ‘Garden of Solitary Meditation’ is one of Mirei’s most dynamic creations. Arriving before the garden after walking along a dim corridor the power and energy of the stone arrangement is quite breathtaking. The garden space is wide and relatively narrow, giving the garden a scroll like configuration. The principal focus is on the tall, rearing, arrangement to the right side of the garden; which is centred about a tall, sharply triangular dark stone. The stone set on a raised moss covered mound which gives it additional elevation, and is close set with two additional pieces of stone which emphasize the asymmetric triangular outline of the grouping as a whole. The triad is developed by the placement of a further stone to the lower left of the main group. This stone forms a diagonal link to a smaller, also upright arrangement of stones set in the raked gravel. This ‘shadowing’ of the main group seems to ground the verticality of the principal stone, and also enhances its upward movement. As the eye continues to move (or be drawn) towards the left of the arrangement the emphasis shifts towards the horizontal plane. This section of the arrangement is often referred to as a peninsula. An alternative reading of this section would be to see the horizontal stones representing the body of a crane, and the two flanking upright stones as representing wings. The crane bird according to myth, was the means by which the enlightened ones arrived at Mt. Hōrai or paradise. The entire arrangement is anchored by a detached, solitary upright stone to the extreme left of the overall group. The whole arrangement is also referred to as a depiction of landscape scenery, with a majestic sweep of landscape from mountain to sea. The raking of the gravel is unusually dramatic, and can be read as an evocation of rough seas breaking onto a rocky coastline. The rear boundary of the garden is partially defined by a double hedge, which is also a reference to waves. The garden is a powerful statement that cuts to the heart of Zen practice, that is meditation or zazen, which can be seen as a state of detached stillness amidst constant movement and change. 

To the north side of the hōjō is the garden is formally known as  Kanmin no niwa (閑眠の庭) the ‘Quietly Sleeping Garden’ or more often referred to as the ‘Garden of the Cross’. Here Mirei skillfully evokes the fusion of the traditional karesansuii (dry landscape style) with Christian symbolism. In fact the north and south gardens taken together skilfully evoke both traditional elements (Zen Buddhism) and the imported ideas (Christianity) that mirror the religious leanings of Sōrin Ōtomo himself.

Standing at the eastern coner of the space and looking toward the north west the viewer is looking along the vertical axis of the cross. A line of three stones is set at right angles to the vertical axis, and these form the  horizontal axis. Compared to the visual drama of the south garden the stone arrangement is almost subdued in tone. Also by standing at this point to observe the cross the viewer has behind him or her a small garden area (detached from the garden space by a wooden walkway) which contains a water basin and a stone lantern. Buried below ground level (and therefore out of sight) on the stem of the lantern is carved a figure representing the Virgin Mary. This recalls the travails of Christian converts in Japan during the early 17th century, when any outward display of association with Christianity rendered practioners liable to be put to death. Hence a variety of secret or hidden symbols developed which allowed followers to practice their religion in secret, away from the prying eyes of the authorities. 

At Zuihō –in Mirei brilliantly extends the limits of the Japanese garden tradition. He pushes the symbolism of the garden beyond its traditional boundaries by utilising fully the capacity of the garden to communicate and engage with the viewer. Mirei crosses cultural boundaries, whilst never entirely discarding what can be seen as wholly traditional values. The two gardens taken together are a masterpiece of cultural and artistic interpretation. 

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