Early Rock (Zenki Sekitei) early Muromachi Period, c. 14th century

just as the popularization of Jodo Buddhism led to the development of the paradise garden, the acceptance of Zen a century or so later gave rise to the rock garden. This imported faith was embraced by the samurai class which came to dominate Japanese society politically and culturally by the end of the 12th century. The samurai were drawn to Zen’s philosophy of self-reliance, sacrifice and discipline as the means to salvation, a point of view often reflected in early rock gardens.

The first Zen-inspired gardens were dry cascades —dynamic arrangements of rocks meant to suggest waterfalls without the actual flow of water. Often such gardens were in imitation, not of nature directly, but of landscape ink paintings in the Southern Sung style, named after the Chinese dynasty which existed during the 12th and 13th centuries. This style of painting, spare, devoid of color, suggestive of a cogent inner truth, was introduced to Japan largely through the efforts of Zen practitioners. The same kinds of angular forms seen in the Chinese landscapes of such paintings can also be seen in the early Japanese rock gardens.

AT THE MORIKAMI, a dry cascade is situated in close proximity to the paradise garden, inviting comparison between different ways in which Buddhism served to influence Japanese garden design. The designer was inspired by a famous temple in Kyoto where a similar juxtaposition exists. On a deeply forested hillside numerous and powerful stones were placed to suggest a roaring cataract on the scale one would expect to find in nature. Austere and uncompromising, this expression of Zen’s profound asceticism contrasts with the Pure Land-inspired lower garden of the same temple which presents a more comforting, optimistic, and conventional sensory experience.