Stone cold serenity

JAPANESE STONE GARDENS, by Stephen Mansfield. Tuttle, 2009, 160 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Anna Kunnecke This book carries the qualities of a stone garden within its very pages. It is disciplined, serene, deep . . . and dry. I will admit to briefly fantasizing about a mad monk hopping across the pages, screaming, “I can’t take the serenity any more!” and whacking the stones with his sand rake.

This did not happen.

You will forgive the levity, for it was the only thing missing from this admirable tome — a little lightness. Lightness, of course, is not the point of stone gardens or of this book. Their purpose is to inspire, to calm, and to train the mind toward enlightenment. At this, Mansfield is eminently successful. The history is well-presented, the writing is clear and strong, and the photographs are evocative and lovely.

Mansfield traces the evolution of the stone garden from a single boulder in a rough clearing in pre-Shinto Japan to the exquisite and orderly calm of Zen gardens. His handling of the spiritual aspects of the garden, in the section titled “Gardens of the Higher Self,” is erudite and elegant, particularly as he muses on the spatial void that leads to enlightenment in Buddhism, the “nourishing emptiness that forms the heart of the contemplation garden.”

He does not shy from grappling with contentious material: In fact, he calls into question the validity of the term “Zen garden” itself, pointing out that it is likely to be a phrase and an interpretation imposed by Western critics as recently as the 1950s. He is diplomatic about the controversial designer Mirei Shigemori, describing how Shigemori’s gardens were radical departures from purist forms but also served to spark a renaissance in the creation of dry landscape gardens.

Perhaps his most impressive feat is that he masterfully evokes the mysticism of these gardens without descending into hyperbole or sycophantic gushing. He does this partly by exposing the craft behind the seemingly natural and spontaneous result, carefully explaining the design elements that convert a flat space into three dimensions, the visual devices that create tension and harmony, and the literary and philosophical allusions that the shapes would have held for their creators. He balances this with a matter-of-fact acknowledgment that stones have a long history of being considered connectors to the metaphysical, whether as portals to the gods, holders of ki (spirit, energy), or allegories that lead to enlightenment.

This reader longed for some juicy anecdotes along the curved stone pathway. There are hints of conflict lurking behind the creation of these serene spaces. Some of the most revered gardens in Japan were created by men belonging to a class of laborers so despised that they were called kawaramono (riverbed people), the mono (object) implying that they were less than human. One revered temple garden, Ryoan-ji, apparently has the names of its two kawaramono designers, Seijiro and Kotaro, carved into the hidden part of a rock. This is thrilling material: The audacity of those men! The outrageous hypocrisy of the garden owners! But this road is left unexplored.

Mansfield clearly articulates the challenge facing anyone who attempts to write about the ineffable. “The gardens may appear to reduce, to diminish the temporal, to stop the heart of time, but they are living spaces that depend, ultimately, more on beauty, sensory efforts and intuition than on explanation. Straining to conceptualize gardens can be a peculiarly counterproductive endeavor, one that can diminish their intended effect and the sheer pleasure to be had from viewing them.” It is to his credit that he succeeded anyway.

Stephen Mansfield will speak at Good Day Books in Ebisu, Tokyo, Sunday Jan. 31. (03) 5421-0957 or www.gooddaybooks.com