The Nature of Japanese Garden Art – Seijaku (L.Tierney)

Shiro Nakane,one of the premiere landscape architects in the world.
Shiro Nakane,one of the premiere landscape architects in the world.

The Nature of Japanese Garden Art

NIWA – “pure place” is the word for the Japanese Garden.

It has its echo in Eden which in the western cosmology was a garden of purity before sin entered into the world. Since sin never entered the NIWA, it is still the pure and beautiful place it always has been.

The principles of Zen philosophy help us to bring to a personal experience of the Japanese Garden understandings, leading to a deeper comprehension of its meanings. In other words, the more we can bring to the experience, the greater will be the return to the observer.

Zen Principles which relate to the Niwa

A Japanese Garden is a representation of the universe and its elements: Fire in the form of a stone or iron lantern, Earth in the form of stone, and water, air, plant, and animal life in their true forms.

Gardens essentially divide between the dry landscape and the pond garden types. Even in a dry garden there is always some water, notably in dripping basins or suggested by waterfall chains from the down spouts.


The garden path, or roji, is not merely a functional entry into the garden. It is a philosophical path separating the viewer step-by-step from the work-a-day world which he leaves behind. Its stones are placed with careful irregularity and lead indirectly rather than directly to often hidden or obscure places. Bends in the path, or larger stones, are stopping points for vistas or views, representing meditative pauses in the personal experience of contacting the universe via the garden experience.

Stones generally form the basic supporting framework of a Japanese garden,and they should look as though they had always lived in the spot in which one sees them. Jagged stones are used to suggest mountain areas and water-worn pebbles are used in stream courses and along shorelines. These landscape effects are often more symbolic than realistic. For example, there is generally an island in either a stream or pond which suggests the island of everlasting life, or Nirvana – a place without time or space of ultimate retirement in peace and tranquillity. Its symbols may be a stone representing a turtle, or a tree form representing a crane – symbols of longevity and the good life – and such additional happiness symbols as the shochikubai or three friends of the new year consisting of pine, bamboo and plum. Some of these symbols are entirely abstract in their form.

A Japanese Garden is not planted with the idea of presenting a display of flowers. The Japanese often enjoy their gardens most in the austere conditions of winter when the trees are bare and the foliage is at a minimum. They often trim camellias, azaleas, and other flowering shrubs so as to produce a minimum of flowers. Flowers are never used in beds or borders. In fact, a severe discipline governs the use of flowers which are used at only one point in the house, the tokonoma, a special architectural alcove built for the purpose. Fresh flowers or plant materials are never used decoratively on the dining table or at odd points about the house; never worn as corsages; never used at weddings or funerals. Essentially as a matter of philosophy, flowers and plants are considered to have a very special life of their own as an expression of nature and are never used as decorations.

The principles which govern these aspects of the garden come from the philosophy of Zen and they can mean not only one thing alone, but may have correlative meanings at the same time. No one principle therefore necessarily contains the whole meaning on its own.

The Zen Principles which relate to the Niwa:

Fukinsei asymmetry or dissymmetry

Kanso simplicity

Koko austerity, maturity, bare essentials, venerable

Shizen naturalness, absence of pretense

Yugen subtly profound, suggestion rather than revelation

Datsuzoku unworldliness, transcendence of conventional

Seijaku quiet, calm, silent


Fukinsei The principle controlling the balance of a composition is always asymmetrical. Its division of space, in either the second or third dimensions of spatial organization uses an irregular division.

Perhaps it is helpful to consider a comparison between western spatial organization and its eastern counterpart. In much of western practice we have followed a proverbial Greek concept which says “symmetry in all things”. We have thereby been trained by our culture to like, in most cases, equal balance, even numbers, radial and bilaterally divided spaces. Such usage seems to us to be regular and proper and involves straight lines and symmetrical relationships.

The eastern concept on the other hand divides spaces in always non-symmetrical ways, producing an irregularity quite opposite from the western practice. The eastern division of space often appears to western eyes to be irregular, primitive, disorganized, ugly and often just plain awry, askew or amiss.

We could hardly be more at opposites in this principle which requires an about-face reaction for the person entering into the NIWA.


The second principle, Kanso, relates to basic simplicity and the elimination of the ornate. Things expressing simplicity are by their nature truthful and reserved. Kanso involves a sense of cleanliness, things which are fresh and neat, frank but never over-embellished. Things of Kanso nature are never florid in style. It should be noted that each principle could be contrasted with its western counterpart as in the comparison of Fukinsei but for greater brevity the other principles are defined only in their eastern sense.

Japanese Garden3Koko

The Koko principle involves a feeling of the austere but with a sense of maturity. It carries the qualities of age and venerability coupled with a weathered appearance. Visual elements are reduced to their basic bare bones, without sensuous aspects. Koko involves things which seem stern, ascetic and forbidding in appearance. It involves a sense of the harsh, the severe and the rigidly abstemious.

It is a principle hard for westerners to grasp or to appreciate as it is quite the opposite from the world of entertainment and indulgence. In fact Koko is quite opposite from the Japanese world of Ukiyo-e (the mirror of the passing world) concept of a worldly and pleasure- bent society. Many aspects of the NIWA to be seen in venerable trees, ancient stones and well-worn, weathered surfaces reflect this concept.


Shizen involves a true naturalness as distinct from raw nature. It is involved with a sense of creativity and purpose distinct from the naive or accidental. Nothing involving Shizen should be forced or self-conscious. In fact true naturalness is a negation of the naive and the accidental. Shizen has about it a sense of artlessness and an absence of pretense or artificiality, but it involves full creative intent and should never be forced. The apparent naturalness and the sense of spontaneous nature so evident in the NIWA is a manifestation of Shizen.


Yugen avoids the obvious and relates to the subtleties of nature. It is the suggested rather than the totally revealed aspects of it.

It involves partly hidden views of indistinct areas sometimes relative to shadows, partial reflections and darkly revealed forms. Yugen hints at extra layers of meaning which are not at first obvious to the casual viewer.

It also involves things which are subtlely profound. A NIWA is a collection of subtleties in its pond reflections, stone and sand symbolisms and shadow areas.

japanese-garden6Datsuzoku Surprise is the immediate effect of an expression involving Datsuzoku. It involves a transcendence of conventional ideas and traditional usage. One should be astonished in its presence and realize a freedom from restrictive laws or any kind of bondage in its use. It may be the seed-bed of ultimate creativity.The very creation of the NIWA out of the raw materials of nature and its success in revealing the essence of natural things to us is an ultimate surprise. Many surprises await at almost every turn in a Japanese Garden.


Seijaku The calming influence one feels on entering a Japanese Garden is due to SEIJAKU, the principle that relates to quietness and stillness.Silence and tranquillity prevail and all sense of disturbance is absent. Reflections on water often express this principle. Its opposite is noise and disturbance.An old proverb says stillness is activity, therefore SEIJAKU is thought of as an active state though its effect is one of calm and unruffled solitude.

Its timely and seasonal character has to do with late autumn or early spring, and it is evident at dawn and dusk, in the moonlight and in snow-covered gardens.

About Professor Lennox Tierney

UCLA – Bachelors Degree
Columbia, NY – Masters
Sogetsu Ryu, Tokyo, Japan – Doctorate
Technical Work: Art Center School, Pasadena
Former President of Schaeffer School of Design, San Francisco
Professor Emeritus of the History of Asian Arts, University of Utah
Former Curator of Asian Arts for San Diego Museum of Arts
Current Curator of the Art of Japan for Utah State Museum of Fine Arts
Art Director – Japanese Friendship Garden, San Diego
Consultant / Donor, Mingei Museum, San Diego



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