Muso Soseki's garden of Zen

A Zen Life in Nature: Muso Soseki in His Gardens by Keir Davidson. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2007, 298 pp. with 28 illustrations, $28.00 (paper)

Muso Soseki (1275-1351), one of the most prominent Zen masters of the Muromachi Period, was also twice abbot of Nanzenji. He is also remembered as a landscape architect, in 1339 having created the garden at Kyoto’s Saihoji, also known as Kokedera, or the “Moss Temple.”

It is upon this garden that Keir Davidson, himself author of several books on “Zen” gardening, chooses to hang his narrative of Soseki’s life and career. Saihoji appears in the final chapters of this account and is seen as a culmination, not only the summation of a distinguished career but as the final expression of the influences that so shaped Soseki’s life.

Following the scholarly work on the Zen master already published by Tamamura Takeji, Kawase Kazuma, and Yanagida Seizan, Davidson here synthesizes a life of Soseki that speculates upon the various influences on the man and his work. Among these are the tales of the older Zen masters (such as Ryo Zassu), the mountain landscapes among which Soseki grew up, and the mystic ideal of some perfect spiritual destination. To this end Davidson posits a life that contains this argument.

And, hence, a conclusion. “He had finally been able to construct the framework within which he could bring together the different aspects of his life, drawing on the image sources he had nurtured for so long, and when it came, the crucial element in making it happen turned out to be — a garden.”

The italics indicate the singularity that Davidson discovers in the fact. Even on his early trip to Kamakura (where he was later for a time to live) he, in Davidson’s dramatization, “reflected on the reasons for this journey and the effect they would have on his life in the future.”

There were a number of crucial elements in this life, as in any other, but it is in Soseki’s creation of gardens that the author can best recognize his subject, being himself a landscape architect. Thus a discussion of gardening is kept to the last (fore-grounded by the distinguished religious career) and the culmination of Saihoji is revealed only at the end.

Along the way Davidson offers many interesting pages on Japanese aesthetics, leading us from Zen theory to Zen garden practice. Of particular value are the passages on the nature of ma, that spatial concept for which English has no equivalent term.

Here we are offered varied indications. Sobin Yamada gives us the “space between things”; Tanizaki Jun’ichiro insists that “most important of all are the pauses.” Such qualities are not conceived as empty or as silent. Each has its own weight. Ma is, as one authority has stated, a building block in all Japanese spatial experience.

This absence (a positive rather than a negative quality) when subjected to Zen-influenced theory gives rise to aesthetic considerations that define other similar kinds of spaces and pauses, these of an emotional nature.

Thus the qualities of sabi, of yugen, of aware, of that particular Zen favorite, wabi, make up the emotional climate, “focusing attention not so much on the description of the objects perceived, or the subjective reaction of the viewer, but acknowledging the active process by which one ensures that one encounters these things.”

“Hence, the quality of wabi reflects the life of an enlightened person that is [as D.T. Suzuki has written] ‘associated with poverty, insufficiency, and imperfection.’ ” Hence, as well, a similar sense of refocusing is felt in the quality of aware, “that fleeting sensation of loss and compassion one feels when witnessing the results of change, while nevertheless accepting the processes of change as inevitable.”

It is not often that such qualities are described as well as they are here by Davidson. Nor are they usually shown in action, as they are here — Zen attributes leading to qualities that are shown in their application to landscape gardening.

The story of Soseki’s life is the thrust of this book but, as in Soseki’s life itself, the most rewarding views are those along the way.

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