The over-application of the term Zen to describe everything from interior design to restaurant menus pored over by celebrities and fashionistas to the expression a “Zen moment” can be tiresome.

Zen Gardens and Temples of Kyoto, by John Dougill, Photography by John Einarsen.
144 pages

The practice, along with certain Japanese garden forms associated with it, has not been — despite the efforts of early disseminators, writers and analysts such as Shunryu Suzuki, Ruth Fuller Sasaki and Alan Watts — widely understood outside of Japan. There are notable exceptions, including the likes of poet Gary Snyder and the early garden writer Loraine E. Kuck, who, devoting time to creative and scholarly ends, were well qualified to comment on the subject.

True Zen, however, is no easy thing. It is often conducted in halls that are draughty in the winter and poorly ventilated in the torpid Japanese summers. As your body is being assailed by pain and discomfort, you are inveighed to disengage from the bone chills and muscular knots and ascend to a higher state.

Comprehending Zen, even achieving a small purchase on its steep rock face, can feel overwhelming, like trying to name every plant, flower and tree on the planet — a work of improbable scale, beyond the scope of a single life. Perhaps that is why Buddhism offers the hope of an infinite number of existences.

Despite a devout and growing overseas following, Zen has not been without its detractors. In his 1960 book, “A Curse of Blossom,” Quentin Crewe, vexed by the explanations of the temple clerics he met in Japan, their tendency to “answer every question with an inconsequential parable,” concluded that Zen embodied the “Japanese preference for the indefinite.”

When tackling the thorny abstractions of the subject in book form, we are, in the persons of John Dougill and John Einarsen, in better hands. Soaked in the finer legacies of Kyoto, the authors are keenly aware of the religious principals and aesthetics underpinning spiritual practices and garden design in the city. Accordingly, their book derives from deep understanding and reflection, rather than rote research.

This is a work that should be sampled slowly, in portions, like consuming a number of small dishes for their nutritional value. The book assumes nothing, beginning each sub-topic with the plain blank, the zero of nonexistent knowledge on the part of the reader. Each sentence seems like a fresh beginning. Einarsen’s lens moves through the muted interiors of temples and across the symbolically charged surfaces of gardens, less like a fly on the wall, than an unimpeded spirit, a presence more than an intrusion. The images match Dougill’s graceful, well-considered text as seamlessly as a good film score complements a script. Beside the photography, there are reproductions of historical artworks, among them accomplished, original portraits of leading Zen figures.

To characterize this as a guide book would be to belittle its intellectual and artistic merits, though it can be profitably consulted for ideas that might form a specialized city itinerary. Neither is it, despite exquisite visuals and inspired design, to be confused with a coffee-table book. The authors provide us with a selection and analysis of some of the most prestigious Zen temples, monasteries and abbots’ quarters in the city, as well as the gardens that accompany them.

Arguably, Kyoto has the largest concentration of formal gardens in the world. Purists insist that nothing since has surpassed the garden designs of the Muromachi Period (1392-1573), but there are ample examples in this book of landscapes conceived at later dates, which are exquisite in both conception and assembly. Many of the designs featured are stone gardens.

Unlike Japanese circuit gardens, with their novelty objects and pleasure-enhancing themes, dry landscape gardens have little or no ornamentation. In this most distilled of garden forms, space is defined through inference and the reduction of mass, essence suggested rather than revealed. Symbolism is used to add depth and erudition but also, through its unfolding of associations, to expand the spatial aspects of the mind. Their iconographic and metaphysical qualities, their embodiment in some instances as incarnations of the Buddhist world view, have assured their place as works of art or, in the most accomplished cases, landscapes that have transcended nature as representations of nature transmuted into art.

Replicating these enduring landscapes, the book represents a calendar of years, rather than months or seasons. Whether describing the transmission of Zen to the West, the sounds emanating from the bamboo shakuhachi flute, a vegetarian temple meal, the unsullied moment that can result in a splendid haiku, or providing short biographies of eminent Zen figures and demonstrating how a chore — such as raking the gravel surface of a garden, whisking powdered green tea or preparing gruel for a simple repast — becomes a sacred activity or act of meditation, one senses direct experience and engagement on the part of the authors.

As a result, instead of moving rudderless through a series of abstractions, or perilous metaphysical currents, we are steered with a firm hand, not perhaps toward a dazzling moment of enlightenment, but to small pools of illumination.

As the authors seem to infer, in Zen, a practice that prizes a state of nothingness, we have a portal to the direct transmission of everything.

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