Building my Zen garden.


Kieran Egan




I visited Japan for the first time last summer, and stayed with a friend whose partner had converted the small balcony of their apartment into a miniature Japanese garden. It was a miracle of design and made what might otherwise have been a dull few square meters into a treat for the eye and spirit. The small garden was augmented gradually by stones "liberated" from sites around Nagoya or further afield. This meant that a drive might at any moment be halted as Tanya's eagle eye spotted an appropriately shaped stone by the side of a field or in a back alley or in some more precarious spot. The car would lurch to a halt, and Mike and Tanya would look around with that exaggerated casualness I last saw in 1950s British movies as the only-too-obvious villain prepared to grab the unsuspecting dowager's diamonds. Mike would climb out, examine the sky for a few moments while edging closer to the stone, and then a swift lung and grunt would have it into the back of the car. Later, in the apartment, the stones would be cleaned and carefully set to enhance the accumulating beauty of the balcony-garden. They were also coated with yogurt, which encourages bacterial growth and so the appearance of immemorial years of serene repose on the seventh floor balcony of the modern high-rise.

On returning home, I thought I could try to make our back deck, or the upstairs balcony, a copy of Tanya's transformation. But our wide North American decks don't seem well suited to that particular form of beautification. Looking at the wreck of the rear of our garden a while later, I thought I could try to make a Japanese garden there. It was a wreck because the fence at the back was one of those old green plastic mesh affairs and it backed onto the one neglected corner of our adjoining neighbor's otherwise well-tended garden. Their shrubs had spotted my reluctance for confrontation, and invaded with manic enthusiasm, carrying the mesh fence with them as a kind of shield or cunning disguise of just how much ground they were expanding into. The area is also surrounded by trees, with too little sunlight for a successful lawn. It had become, over the years, a neglected strip behind one of those lumberyard playhouses I had bought and constructed-by-numbers when the children were little.

So I had my spot. I would make a Japanese garden along the back strip between the fence of our neighbors to the north, and the compost containers I had built a few years ago to the south, and the playhouse to the west, and the green mesh fence to the east. This gave me a space of about 40 feet along the back of the garden, by about 15 feet. I suspected my wife would be reluctant to authorize further encroachment into the real garden.

The trouble with taking on any large task is that there seem to be so many things one has to do before one can do what one wants, and then things to do before one can do the things before the things one wants. The other trouble with this project was that what I had initially imagined as a small strip with some stones, perhaps a raised area with plants and a decorative Japanese lantern, gradually grew. The plan soon included a pond, with a small stream and waterfall, and a tea-house/scholar's study with a veranda over the pond.

When I say the plan, I don't mean that I first sat down and carefully drew up a plan. I know that is what one is supposed to do. As the project was underway, guests might ask (politely, indulgently, resignedly, even one or two interestedly, I think) to see the work-in-progress, and many, unenchanted by the mounds of earth and gravel and the untidy hole that was to be the pond, asked if they might see the plan. At first I was a bit discomforted by such requests. I felt guilty that I couldn't unroll sharp lined blueprints, showing various elevations and "artists' impressions" of the completed landscape. My plan was just that I imagined the raised garden at one end--raised to create a run for a pump-driven stream--and the pond in the middle, where the stream might fall, and the tea-house at the other side. That was the plan, and I basically made each element up as I went along. That makes it seem very casual, but I didn't know enough about what might be involved in the construction of each part to be able to make much of a plan. If I had, of course, I would never have begun. I just wanted to make a beautiful place, such as Tanya had, with the added attraction that I would be able to sit peacefully in it.

That is, I set out in a rather indirect and rambling Irish way to make a paradise. It seems the ancient Persian rulers built, as an essential part of their palaces, a walled garden. The pairidaeza was an area within which one might create something, and pairi is also the source of our word 'dairy'. The Greek version of the word was used in the Bible for the Garden of Eden. The connection between gardens and paradise, then, is of long standing in human languages and imaginations. It is our ideal cooperation with nature. We create forms within which nature does its thing to our mutual satisfaction. It would be tacky to call this the garden of Egan.

The first task--instead of beginning on the garden, or building the fence I decided I should put up to protect it from the invading shrubs--was to take down the old playhouse. It was beginning to show its age--about 15 years or so--and likely wouldn't be altogether safe by the time grandchildren would be ready to use it. At this point I thought I should try to record the process in pictures, as no doubt your average Persian emperor would have done, had he had a Minolta. So here's the original site, with bits of the playhouse coming down:


And here it is looking from the other direction:


My aim is to describe the process I went through in building, from a weedy and more or less waste 40' by 15' chunk of garden, an attractive place that has the qualities traditionally sought by Japanese gardeners--beauty, tranquility, and harmony. While I will describe just the one construction in a particular place, I will try in doing so to discuss the principles I have learned and consider also the choices I did not make. That is, I will try to make it a useful general guide to constructing a small garden using, more or less, Japanese principles. There will be compromises with Western notions here and there, in part as matters of choice, in part due to the materials or plants that are available or that I could afford.

But the Japanese garden itself seems to have been a kind of compromise. During the T'ang dynasty (c. 600 - 900 CE) a fashion developed among some Chinese poets and painters to withdraw from the city to a rural retreat. There they would live in isolation, preferably in the mountains, near running water, working on their art. Mind you, "isolation" for these wealthy men might include a retinue of twenty servants and an adequate number of concubines. One may see paintings of their "huts" in the mountains in which they sit contemplating nature, while servants bustle around taking care of everything that might distract the artist. The rural concealment, ironically, often stimulated interest in the artist's work and brought fame and exposure to large audiences.

In the later T'ang period and into the Sung dynasty (c. 900-1300) the first compromise involved those who wanted the sublime environment as an aid to contemplation and a stimulant to painting or poetry, but who did not fancy the idea of heading for a hut in the hills. They began to replicate the wild environments of stones and water, of evergreen trees and grasses in their city estates. This construction of stylized wilderness gardens in town then became a fashion among wealthy civil servants.

The further compromise involved the Japanese importing this fashion in artificial wilderness gardening, to which they added the element of the tea ceremony and the tea-house. The tea-house is a replication of the Chinese artists' "huts" of centuries before, and the tea ceremony is a ritualized recreation of the contemplative condition the mountain fastness was supposed to induce. So my desire to build something closer to a study than a traditional tea-house simply harkens back to an older tradition.

I will try also to describe something of the spiritual ideals that inspire the design and building of Japanese gardens. Along with the style of garden and their semi-religious purpose in creating a sense of "harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility" (wa, kei, sei, and jaku), the Japanese also inherited from the Chinese a penumbra of Zen and Taoist ideas and stories related to the elements of the garden. I will also draw on these where appropriate, among the details of bolting two by eights to four by fours, mixing concrete, hacking roots, and the mechanics of heaving stones around. Perhaps I can begin here with Chuang Tsu one day walking by a pond with a friend:

"How delightfully the fish are enjoying themselves in the water," exclaimed Chaungtse.

"You are not a fish," said his friend. "How can you know they are enjoying themselves!"

"You are not me," replied Chuangtse. "How can you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?"

My planning has been largely a matter of looking through books; mostly from the library, a few bought, one splendidly illustrated Japanese book (in English) a present from the friend whose partner began all this. The books are invaluable for getting ideas and seeing possibilities, of course, but can be a bit intimidating. The American books typically illustrate how to dig out a pond or build a retaining wall using manicured soil off which you would willingly eat breakfast, and with "workers" dressed in flawless white trousers and unscuffed tan shoes. The first Japanese book I read (in translation) began with the master-gardener discussing clothing. His first advice was not to work in old clothes. Rather, one should have a special gardening outfit, or, I suppose, two for when the first is in the wash. I began to feel I was already involved in uncivilized Western compromises. The old jeans and shirts it was going to be.

What stimulated this mega-project--apart from the aesthetic pleasure created by Tanya's example and looking for an activity that will give me physical exercise, keep me off the streets, and provide a break from a job that requires sitting at a desk for much of each day--is the image of being in the tea-house/study looking across at the tranquil garden and down at the pond, with the silky sound of the black bamboo moving in the breeze. And the slightly mad dream that in this environment of water, stones, and green plants I will be able to capture the winged words that elude me in the more utilitarian environments in which I currently write. An ironic conclusion will no doubt see me sitting in this manufactured paradise, unable to write another lousy word--as Dylan Thomas put it--either bemused by the sensuous beauty and calm of the place, or too exhausted and broken-bodied by the building process itself. But, if I can't write my own winged words, I will have created a pleasant place to read other people's.

And what will I write in this perfected repose? If I knew that I wouldn't be out there digging and nailing and fiddling with pumps and heaving stones around. I have been writing academic books for years, and would like a change, writing something in which the imagination can have freer play. But, we'll see. I'll think about it as I heave the stones. Perhaps some lapidary poems.

In the tea house/study I can sit at the end of it all and read Zen sages, and no doubt slowly learn from them how I would better have embodied their wisdom by not beginning this frantic Western plan to shape the world to some seductive image taken from books. Instead I should have cultivated wan wei&emdash;the acceptance of the world as it is. The message of the sages is that I shouldn't have done all this in the first place. But I will have to manage the irony that had I not done it, I would never have learned that I shouldn't have done it.

And what is an Irishman doing building a Zen garden on the west coast of Canada anyway? It began, as I said, as a simple aesthetic response to my friend's partner's balcony garden. I set about it somewhat whimsically, which is an appropriately Irish way of edging half unconsciously into work. And it became, in a peculiar journey of discovery on which I hope you will join me, a slow gathering of understanding about the principles that give form and meaning to distinctively Japanese gardens and to a Zen stance in the world. Why a Zen garden, rather than, say, an English garden? I have no idea, though an uninformed, romantic image of black bamboo gracefully bowing in the rain played a part.

Another impulse leading into this unexpected enterprise was perhaps distant memories of my grandfather gardening in Ireland. I lived in upstate New York for a few years, renting a house with a derelict vegetable garden attached. I remember going out in the spring with a spade, thinking that I would prepare the ground for seeds. I stood with my foot on the spade, and realized I didn't even know how to dig. Did I put the soil I pulled up on top of the earth ahead, or turn it over into the hole? Slowly I worked it out, and after an hour or so found that I had precisely replicated the raised vegetable beds my grandfather used to build. They were ideal for the wet Irish climate, but perhaps not so well suited to upstate New York. I have continued putting in a simple vegetable garden each year, and have since realized that what I most enjoyed was making beautifully raked and symmetrical raised beds. In fact, I get rather bored thereafter with the business of putting seeds in and weeding, though I do enjoy eating the product, if it is not taken over by weeds by the time it's ready for harvesting. So, I don't bring a history of dedicated gardening to this task of building my Zen garden, but do seem to bring an old impulse to move earth around.

It may seem that the stereotype of Irishness is not ideally suited to the pacific harmony characteristic of the Japanese garden. And as the project goes forward, conflicts between Irish impulsiveness and unplanned casualness and Japanese meticulousness, precision, and care erupt in occasional mayhem, psychological chaos, and interesting compromises.

Useful, though, to bear in mind that the patron saint of gardening, St. Fiacre, is Irish. St. Fiacre died in France in 670, (fourteenth in descent from Conn of the Hundred Battles, King of Ireland from 523 to 577, one needs to know!) He grew herbs, and considered water and stone as essential to a good garden. He encouraged his disciples to garden in order to produce food for the poor, and to nourish their souls in contemplation as they dealt with the ultimate realities so apparent when one turns over a spadefull of earth.




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