My first encounter with a Karesansui garden was at the Huntington Library/Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. I’ve had some question marks over my head ever since.
Karesansui gardens are those made up of light colored gravel or sand, with some larger rocks in situ. You’ll probably see linear effects made by a wooden rake. The fine gravel is immaculately clean.
When these staged scenes are encountered they offer a sense of calm and contemplation. So I thought it would be a tranquil afternoon learning about this type of garden. Peace was not to be had—conflict was.
There is much complex information about this type of garden, much theorized and debated symbolism, philosophical attitudes, and age-old historical reference to explore.
To boot, there is controversy about the term we wantonly use today—‘Zen Garden.’ How we often use the term may not be culturally consistent with the origins. And take note that we must not bandy about the terms ‘contemplation’ and ‘meditation’ when we speak of the Karesansui.
Bowdoin College scholar Clifton C. Olds, Professor of Art History Emeritus, has a thorough website.
He offers that “Japanese gardens are certainly meant to reward contemplation, but the practice and the goals of Zen meditation do not depend on the passive observation of external stimuli.” He goes on to say “The creation and maintenance of a garden can be seen as a Zen activity, since labor is one of the principal paths to enlightenment, but the final product–if any garden can actually be considered “final”–is not an object of Zen meditation.”
As far as symbolic interpretation goes, it is generally thought that the dauntingly perfect rake impressions can be read as ripples of water making their way around stone mountains. Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), a noted writer on Japan at the time, said this about Japanese rock gardens: “Until you can feel, and keenly feel, that stones have character, that stones have tones and values, the whole artistic meaning of a Japanese garden cannot be revealed to you.”
Easier answers can be tracked down at the Portland Japanese Garden. In the United States, several sources point to this 5.5 acre garden as one of the more authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan. This links to a good explanation about one of the five Japanese gardens at this destination.
And they answer the question everyone’s been waiting for: “Our gardener plans the pattern in advance to leave no footprints. After weeding by hand, they use an aluminum landscape rake to smooth the surface flat. A second, custom-made rake is used to create wave patterns. Consisting of a heavy wooden block with triangular notches made about 3 inches apart, this specialized rake is not commonly available.”
Other good sources:
Japanese Garden Journal http://www.rothteien.com/
And their Japanese Garden supplies resource http://www.rothteien.com/resources/directory.htm.
There are many other Japanese gardens to explore. I hesitate elaborating too much more for fear I might lead someone down the wrong path.
Photo source: ‘663highland’, GNU, Wikimedia CC
Nancy R. Peck