In the annals of the Japanese garden tradition a few individuals stand out in particular; one thinks of such characters as Ogawa Jihei, Shigemori Mirei, and Kobori Enshu. If a pantheon exists then Musō Soseki, or Musō Kokushi (‘Kōkushi’, is a title he was given meaning ‘National Teacher’) is widely elevated to the ranks of truly great garden makers in Japan. He is most frequently cited as the creator of two important historical gardens widely visited today. The gardens at Tenryū-ji and the moss garden at Saihō-ji are ranked among the very finest gardens in Japan.
Born in Ise in 1275, at the age of nine he entered Heien-ji temple to study as a novice Buddhist monk. At the age of 17 he was in Nara at Tōdai-ji, the centre of esoteric Buddhist study in Japan. By the age of 19, Soseki moved on to Kenin-ji temple in Kyoto to study Zen under the Chinese abbot Mu-in Enban. Musō knew his path and destiny was to follow the Buddhist path to self-enlightenment; he was destined to become one of the most significant religious figures of his day, he rose to be able to mix company with feudal lords, aristocrats, philosophers, scholars, artists, poets, the most accomplished religious teachers of his day, as well as a large following of students flocking to him for his insight and wisdom.
Musō’s life oscillated between meeting religious and societal expectations and a desire to retreat into remote landscapes for meditation and reflection. The demands on him were great, and only increased as he got older and his reputation grew. He travelled quite extensively, seeking out experience of landscapes across Japan, and in doing so he founded a number of temples and also created gardens at several locations. He never travelled outside of Japan, but had an extensive knowledge of China and Chinese literary forms through his study of Chinese classical texts and through having extensive contact with Chinese Zen teachers who had settled in Japan.
Musō sought to infuse his gardens with his love and experience of Japanese landscapes, more than simply responding in a formulaic manner to the landscapes of China that he would have known very well from paintings and literature. Perhaps for the first time in the development of the garden tradition in Japan Musō’s gardens reflect an open connection with the native landscapes of Japan, rather than the ‘fantasy’ landscapes of China. Though his gardens may still borrow elements from China, the overriding concern was now to develop an aesthetic response to landscape that was rooted in the sensibilities of the land of his birth. In particular Musō was looking for places in the landscape where he could meditate, as Davidson puts it, “where his place of meditation could act as a bridging point for him to cross between his physical location and the illusory, spiritual world beyond, places where he could ‘gaze into nature’.” In the landscapes that he sought out and meditated before Musō was looking to internalise those landscapes. To fuse his aesthetic/spiritual selfhood with the selflessness of the landscape itself. In one of his poems Musō writes of this fusion of seen and imagined landscapes:
‘The vast expanse of sky
Becomes the roof of my hut.
I make the mountains my thatch
And the sea my garden.’
There are characteristics to locations favoured by Musō; often elevated so to give visual access to the middle distance and with views out framed to focus on distant scenery. This usually consisted of a ridge of mountains running across the skyline, sometimes with individual peaks standing out from the overall line, and above the mountains the sky in all its immensity. The views were often enclosed on three sides and open to the fourth. Thus there was a sense of enclosure or ‘protection’ of the viewer by the landscape itself (of being ‘held’ by the landscape), and by the careful framing of the view allowing the imagination of the viewer to travel deep into the landscape itself.
It is a grand claim granted, but perhaps we see in the work of Musō Soseki the development of an emphasis within the Japanese garden tradition of the relationship between the viewer and the garden. In later gardens, of the Edo period or the modern era, we can see the connection has been absorbed into the fabric of the garden. Yet at some point there must have been a tipping point of which involved a conscious looking at the question of relationship. In so doing, it takes the garden beyond simple representation, beyond attribution to external cultural motifs and symbols, to focus on the interior journey into and around natural landscape as synthesised as a garden landscape. In this task Musō was able to draw upon, consciously or not, his training as a Zen monk. In a well-known poem of his he expresses his thoughts on the relationship of a garden to natural scenery and the role of the viewer.
Poem on an Artificial Mountain
‘Without a speck of dust
A high peak rises
Without a drop of water
A loud waterfall plunges.
On one or two evenings
The wind and the full moon
Enable the right person
To create and play within the scene.’
The artificial mountain of the title refers to a ‘mountain’ in a garden setting. In the Chinese garden this could literally be a piling up of stones to make a tall mountain-like feature. The Japanese preferred to make a similar statement of intent, but by using single pieces of stone standing upright, or individual stones grouped into arrangements by the numbers 3, 5, or 7. By opening the poem with the line, “Without a speck of dust”, Musō indicates the scenery we are looking at has been created by an enlightened mind, and hence the scenery is able to take on a transcendental aspect and become an extension of sacred space. There is an expression in tea circles that before one enters a tearoom, the participant ‘shakes off the dust of the world’, that is, leaves behind the cares and concerns of the secular world. Dust is associated with the mundane world of everyday life, in Buddhist terms with the world of duality and judgements. The word artificial was also a way at the time of describing a karesansui or ‘dry landscape’ garden, where the presence of water is intimated, but not always used. This style of garden became deeply associated with Zen temples, and now even broadly with Japanese gardens in general, particularly in Japanese style gardens being created outside of Japan.
|Dry waterfall, Tenry|
When the mind sees without discrimination, sees beyond the limitations of duality, then it is possible to see a mountain in a stone. To see a ‘high peak’ rising out of a garden stone, and likewise to see, hear and feel a waterfall without even the presence of water flowing. An arrangement of stones that suggests a waterfall would be sufficient to allow the viewer to see and hear as a ‘loud waterfall plunges’. It requires effort and to a certain extent training to look at landscape in non-conceptual ways to fully grasp what Musō is saying. More than to just grasp intellectually the concept, but to see a stone and experience a mountain; to see a dry waterfall (such as the one at Tenryū-ji) and experience the full knowing of water flowing. To the Zen mind, to see things as they are, in their ‘original state’, is to grasp something beyond duality, beyond relational forms. It is to intuitively see and grasp the essential nature of the object in question. To see something in an undifferentiated state, is not to apply judgements nor discrimination, as these attributes are something we bring with us, they are not part of the original state.
In the final two lines of the poem Musō indicates a way to approach a garden landscape. The broad undifferentiated gaze ‘enables the right person, to create and play within the scene.’ The ‘right person’ referred to here is someone who has grasped the nettle of non-duality, someone who sees without discrimination. Furthermore because this person sees in this way then they become enabled to ‘create and play within the scene. That is they are able to conjure mountains out of stones, to create in their own imagination, landscapes that can be traversed, explored, discovered and enjoyed, every bit as much as if one were travelling through nature itself. In the liberation from duality comes a sense of play with the very nature of perceived reality, an educated person such as Musō, can bring to the play a deep knowledge of Chinese poetry and literature, as well as a deep appreciation of his own native landscape settings. Just as a child can take beach sand and pebbles and construct a world of its own making, one that is as real as any landscape untainted by a speck of dust.
|The Kōjō-kan gate divides the Upper garden from the Lower, Saiho-ji|
‘As I think of the world of dreams
I am even more inclined to abandon the world
And hide myself in the mountain
That is not the mountains.’
The play of Zen monks is a tool they use to penetrate beneath the skin of dust that settles over the world we live in. As Joseph Parker writes: “Playfulness like illusion is potentially a powerful heuristic tool for Buddhist purposes, since through its imaginative, wandering, and transformative aspects play disrupts the settled attachments of deluded perception.” The play of Zen monks is a tool they use to penetrate beneath the skin of dust that settles over the world we live in. The play aspect in a garden of Musō’s is to engage with and enable the viewer to use the garden to create his or her own landscape. The physical presence of the garden before the viewer is just the start point of a process, not an end or destination.
|Upper garden, Saiho-ji|
To observe the garden at Tenryū-ji is to witness history in the making, the point where a Japanese consciousness begins to flood into the creation of gardens. Respecting, yet standing above the network of roots to that tradition, the garden is a turning point. One can argue just how involved Musō was in the creation of the garden, and how much of the work was done or directed by others. Of course we will never have the answers to such questions. Likewise we can only hazard a guess at what Musō’s intentions were for the garden at Saihoji. Both gardens were laid out around 1339, nearly seven hundred years have passed. What we see there now, glorious and illuminating in its own right, would be different perhaps to what Musō planned and had created in his own day. Yet the spirit that he infused both works with seems to remain untrammelled by time. The same vision of landscape pervades each garden, communicating itself to the viewer. Ultimately from that we can learn, learn to see the mountain in the stone, to begin see the garden without a speck of dust.
 A Zen Life in Nature, Musō Soseki in His Gardens. Keir Davidson. Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2007.
 translated by Sharon Nakazoto.
 Joseph D. Parker. ‘Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan’. State University of New York Press. 1999.