The ‘Book of Garden Making’, compiled by Tachibana no Toshitsuna (1028-1094) is perhaps the world’s oldest garden manual. The author, a nobleman of high standing, was the reputed builder of the ‘Phoenix Hall’ at Byodo-in, near Nara, which still survives in part today. Sakuteki is essentially a compilation of the prevailing knowledge and concerns of garden building of that date, and presents a fascinating glimpse into a garden tradition that was already beginning to mature, and also gives a picture of how the gardens would have of looked and the reasons to own a garden. The work was not widely printed or published until nearly 700 years later, as it was considered to be part of the ‘secret knowledge’ passed on from one generation of gardeners to the next. Even today contemporary gardeners in their search to understand the tradition study the book.
“ Select several places within the property according to the shape of the land and the ponds, and create a subtle atmosphere, reflecting again and again on one’s memories of wild nature.”
At the very beginning of the text, Toshitsuna sets out the underlying principles: to study the forms of nature as role models, to study the work of past masters, and to evoke the atmosphere of noted places of scenic beauty. He then refers to a variety of instructions concerning the layout of ponds and islands, as well as the placement of stones within the landscape. Various styles of garden are discussed, as well as a variety of island types. He discusses the manner of waterfalls in detail, as well as expounding on various taboo actions that were considered of equal importance.
“When creating a garden, let the exceptional work of past master gardeners be your guide. Heed the desires of the master of the house, yet heed as well one’s own taste.”
By the late Heian period the garden was redolent in meaning, soaked in poetry and the poetical spirit. At least in so far that it was a pleasure confined principally to the aristocracy, whom were the owners and commissioners of gardens. The garden, nature re-created by the hand of man, was a stage on which the lives of people played out. Mono no aware, 物の哀れ, literally, "compassion toward all things," is an aesthetic concept that captures the essence of Heian period emotional sensitivity. It recognizes the potential for all things, both animate and inanimate, to contain the essential life-spirit. The expression also carries with it a feeling of sadness or pathos connected with the understanding of the fleeting nature and impermanence of all things. Thus in the profound appeal of the beauty of the cherry blossom is the knowledge that the blossom will be at its peak of perfection but for a day or two. There is no direct equivalent in English. Generally the word is used to express the pathos inherent in beauty found in Nature. Pathos arising from the knowledge that nothing is destined to last forever, all is transient and fleeting. Ivan Morris in 'The World of the Shining Prince', suggests that the stress in aware was placed on the direct emotional experience, rather than on any religious connotation. The function of beauty in art was to heighten the awareness of a gentle melancholy in the viewer. While this is closely allied to the Buddhist perception of the ephemeral quality of all things, aware seems to have arisen separately from religious conditioning.
“One should not take outward beauty for reality. He who does not understand this mystery will not obtain the truth.”
|Jing Gao, Sung dynasty painter 10th C|
The use of water and stone placement, are the two dominant threads that preoccupy the writer permeates the Sakuteiki, it shows us that these two elements were of prime importance. Of planting there is only a short section on the use of trees, particularly in respect of geomantic (feng shui) considerations. “One should plant trees in the four cardinal directions from the residence and there by evoke the presence of the Four Guardian Gods.” Rock and water and their manner of placement and arrangement had significance. Hence in the Sakuteiki, the reader is given guidance on good and bad practice. Stern warnings are issued if the guidelines are broken. Intention and focus in the mind of the garden creator is important if the correct spirit is to arise from the garden to greet the viewer. The material that compose the ‘skeleton’ of the garden are understood to contain an energy, a spirit, a quality that has a distinct transformative power. Used incorrectly or with ignorance harm may follow. The only way to be in this world is to observe, understand, and submit to the patterns of the natural world. This way one is tracing the steps of the gods themselves.
“Water will take the shape of any vessel that it is put into and, according to that shape, become good or bad. For that reason, the shape of the pond must be given proper consideration.”
|Heian stream reconstructed. Kyuseki-en, Nara|
The Sakuteki is insistent on the garden creator working with a conscious mind set. Being aware that it is not primary, wilderness that is being sought, but an essence, a taste of the experience of being in wilderness. Creating a space that will evoke the idea of being encapsulated by an idealized nature. This is the garden-nature that lies within the imagination of the viewer. The garden that is created by the fusion of those elements; garden scenery, imagination and viewer. The garden is a stage on which the passing of seasons can play out the whole spectrum of emotional experiences. In observing the fragility and changeability of the garden, the viewer observes the same in him or herself, we are able to know ourselves more wholly, for however a brief period of time.
The Sakuteiki is as much a technical manual on garden creation, as it is on more esoteric matters of Buddhist influence, such as the setting of stones to represent deities themselves, and thus the use of symbolism in a garden. The handwritten text that has come down to the 21st century, has no illustrations it is just the text illustrating a window, through which we can see how others saw gardens. The work is as relevant today as it was when it was compiled because it reveals basic notions of the relationship of viewer to the viewed. Through focused intention the garden creator can evoke spirit, he or she needs to recognise those conditions within themselves, their own connection with the landscape.
“To make a garden by studying nature exclusively, without any knowledge of various taboos is reckless.”
Tachibana no Toshitsuna
 ‘Sakuteiki, Visions of Nature’. Takei and Keane. Tuttle. 2001
 ‘Sakuteiki’, Takei and Keane.
 ‘Sakuteiki’, Takei and Keane.
 ‘Sakuteiki’, Takei and Keane.