September Water Lily, Japanese-Style Pond Garden, New York City  

Art & Spirituality of Japanese Gardens

The following reflections on the art and spirituality of Japanese gardens by Audrey Yoshiko Seo are excerpted from a special chapter in How to Look at Japanese Art by Stephen Addiss (Abrams, 1996).

"Experiencing Japanese gardens can be a challenge and delight, bringing together many aspects of looking at Japanese art as well as adding new perspectives. Like paintings and prints, Japanese gardens can be viewed from single standpoints as total compositions, expressing the specifics of the particular season, time of day, and weather condition. Yet like sculpture and ceramics, they can also be seen from different positions and angles, and they rely heavily on a juxtaposition of textures. And gardens not only reveal a respect for natural materials, as other Japanese arts do, but are composed of nature itself, lovingly reworked to seem somehow, even more natural. As organic art works which, in most cases, are actually walked through, gardens can surround and envelop the viewer in a total experience.

"Unlike other Japanese arts, however, gardens need constant work to maintain their form. Because of their susceptibility to change, they can move the viewer through both time and space. As a result, viewers can continually look forward, sideways, and backward as they walk, because the perspective keeps changing. 'Change,' in fact, becomes the key word when discussing Japanese gardens. Besides being affected by variations in weather and seasons, most gardens consist chiefly of living, growing, and therefore constantly changing elements. Even gardens that at first may seem static, such as dry rock gardens, do change. Both naturally over time and daily with human assistance."


"Garden design has been dear to the Japanese since at least the eighth century. The word, 'niwa,' used today to mean "garden," first indicated a purified place for the worship of native Shinto spirits (kami). Although we cannot know what these very early gardens were like, we can surmise what must have been their underlying spirit: the presence of the kami. According to Shinto beliefs, spirits or gods manifest themselves in all aspects of nature, including mountains, trees, rocks and waterfalls. As a result, nature directly reflects the beauty and purity of the gods. Shrines and areas deemed sacred by Shinto provide places for humans to encounter the gods in this world. Similarly, temple gardens provide a place for humans to come closer to Buddhist truth.

"Besides providing spiritual settings, Japanese gardens are often specifically designed to evoke psychological and emotional responses in their viewers. The selection of rocks, trees, and shrubs is not merely a matter of constructing an aesthetically pleasing scene, but also reflects the desire to evoke certain emotions associated with certain seasons and their foliage. In this way, both the garden and the viewer share actively in the experience of nature."

Related Links:
Women Masters in the Tao Te Ching
Natural Sounds in Early Japanese Women's Poetry
Emily Dickinson's Nature Mysticism
Emily Dickinson's Herbarium, a nonprofit, educational website