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Seiwa En: The Buddhist Garden

Text and Photographs by Gendo (Kent Bunting).

Web Design by Joseph C. Welling.

© 2001 All rights reserved.

  1. Introduction
  2. Buddhist Gardening Styles in Seiwa En
    1. Mandala Style Gardens
    2. Zen Style Dry Gardens
    3. Tea Gardens
  3. Buddhist Symbolism
    1. Four-Buddha Basin
    2. Lanterns
    3. Buddha and the Two Bodhisatvas
    4. Lotus
  4. Zen Aesthetic Principles
    1. Wabi
    2. Meigakure

I. Introduction

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Where would one find the largest Buddhist-inspired work of art in the United States? Probably right here in St. Louis, Missouri. It is Seiwa En, the fourteen acre Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden. While one can learn something about Zen from books or lectures, one can also learn about Zen through the various Zen arts: calligraphy, tea ceremony, painting, and gardening.

This essay will introduce the reader to the Buddhist elements of this Japanese Garden, using both text and photographs. Remember, however, that the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. This limited discussion can not substitute for the experience of walking through Seiwa En on your own, feeling the breeze blowing over the lake and hearing the birds singing in the trees. (For more information about the hours of operation and admission fees, see the Missouri Botanical Garden website.

Koichi Kawana, the designer of Seiwa En, said that the garden reflected the Zen aesthetic. The Zen influence on the design of the garden can be seen in three major areas: through the incorporation of Buddhist gardening styles, through the use of Buddhist imagery and symbolism, and through the use of Zen aesthetic principles. Each of these general areas will be discussed below.

II. Buddhist Gardening Styles in Seiwa En

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Seiwa En is a garden in the chisen kaiyu-shiki style—a strolling garden designed around a lake. Such gardens were built on the country estates of the daimyo, or lords, of the 18th and 19th century in Japan. Built as pleasure grounds, these stroll gardens presented one with a series of scenes as one walked through them. To add variety, the designers borrowed from earlier gardening styles and incorporated several styles within a single garden. Thus, while the stroll gardens were a rather late development in the history of Japanese gardening, in them one can see influence of all of the styles that came before.

    A. Mandala Style Gardens

photo 1

The earliest formal gardening style in Japan was imported from China along with the tradition of esoteric (Tibetan) Buddhism. In this tradition, gardens were built as symbolic representations of the universe called mandalas. One could circumambulate the mandala garden as an act of meditation or devotion. Such gardens had at their center a symbolic representation of a sacred mountain that stood at the center of the universe. Called Mt. Sumeru or Mt. Horai, this mountain symbolized the axis between heaven and earth. It often took the form of a large, upright stone or an island in a lake. As one circled the garden, one would always keep this sacred mountain on one’s right.

Seiwa En has “Paradise Island” as such a mountain at its architectural and spiritual center. As shown in photograph one, Paradise Island is made up of three sandy-colored stones that stand together in the center of the lake. To the left of Paradise Island is Crane Island and to the right is Teahouse Island. In the background, one can see the stems of the Lotus plants sticking up out of the ice and snow.

    B. Zen Style Dry Gardens

photo 2

In the thirteenth century, Zen Buddhism was introduced into Japan and with it came a new aesthetic sensibility and a new style of gardening. Zen art attempts to reach the essential by eliminating anything that is not absolutely necessary. In the gardens that were connected to Zen temples or monasteries, the garden itself was reduced to its most simple elements. Often, the garden would consist mostly of stones and raked gravel with only a few trees or shrubs. In one famous Zen garden, at Ryoan-ji, the only plant life is the moss that surrounds the fifteen stones set into a bed of raked gravel. Such gardens came to be called Zen dry gardens.

At Seiwa En, Koichi Kawana incorporated four separate dry gardens, each with its own style and function. Photograph two shows the most “Zen-like” of the dry gardens, located on the east side of the lake just north of the carp bridge. The groupings of plants and stones are traditionally called “islands” in the “ocean” of white gravel. The gravel is raked to create a pattern around these islands, like the pattern of waves in the water. The grouping of three stones at the right center of the photo is an arrangement called “Buddha and the Bodhisatvas” (discussed below) because it resembles the statues on the altar of a Buddhist temple, where Buddha is flanked on either side by two slightly smaller statues representing bodhisattvas.

    C. Tea Gardens

photo 3

Tea drinking was also introduced to the Japanese by Zen monks in the thirteenth century. The monks incorporated tea drinking into their monastic routine as a way of encouraging wakefulness. Eventually, their habit of taking tea developed into an elaborate set of rituals that became an art form in its own right. As the tea ceremony became popular among the laity, people began dedicating a room in their home to it or if they had the resources they would build a separate building for tea drinking. These teahouses were designed to be small and unobtrusive, like a hermit’s hut in the mountains. Eventually, a specific style of garden developed around these teahouses. The tea garden was designed to prepare the visitor, mentally and spiritually, for the sacred tea ceremony.

Seiwa En includes a beautiful soan (farmhouse) style teahouse, a gift to the State of Missouri from Nagano Prefecture in Japan. This teahouse is shown in photograph 3. The small sliding door at the bottom center of the photograph is the entrance to the teahouse. All of the guests for the ceremony had to bow to enter, thus humbling themselves. The tea ceremony was an art of peace, and samurai were required to remove their swords before entering.

photo 4

Photograph 4 shows the teagarden as seen from inside the teahouse. The open entrance is visible in the lower left corner of the picture. In the teagarden, one must pass a series of thresholds before reaching the teahouse. Each threshold represents passing to a deeper state of consciousness. In the photograph, one can see the open gate in the distance, the first threshold. The second threshold is the small gate on the simple bamboo and string fence. Note that there are no loud colors or fancy stones in the teagarden. Everything here is designed to calm the mind and the senses. Therefore, the colors tend to be shades of green.

In keeping with the sacred nature of the tea ceremony, the teahouse and teagarden are not open to the public.

III. Buddhist Symbolism

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Japanese gardens are full of literary, religious and cultural allusions in a way that Western gardens seldom are. Stones may stand for mountains and gravel for water. Because of the great influence of Zen and other forms of Buddhism on Japanese culture, much of this symbolism is Buddhist in nature. The following section discusses some examples of Buddhist symbolism in Seiwa En.

    A. Four-Buddha basin

photo 5

Just before one reaches the Plum Viewing Arbor, one finds a low stone basin. This basin, shihobutsu chozubachi, has images of the Buddha on all four sides. These are the only explicit images of the Buddha to be found in Seiwa En. Such basins are also called “purification stones.” Originally, they were placed before Shinto shrines where travelers would clean or purify themselves before going in to worship. Such basins were incorporated into secular gardens by the tea masters, and they were used by tea ceremony guests to clean or purify themselves before entering the teahouse.

The stone directly in front of the basin is a kneeling stone, on which one may place one’s knee while washing. The stone just to the right of that stone is the lantern stone, on which one may place one’s lantern while washing. The base of the Plum Viewing Arbor can be seen in the background.

    B. Lanterns

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Lanterns are perhaps the most easily recognizable features of Japanese gardens. Most people do not realize, however, that such lanterns were never intended to give light. These lanterns were originally used in shrines or temples for votive candles lit to honor kami (spirits), Buddhas or ancestors. Like the purification stones, these religious objects were incorporated into gardens by the tea masters, who used them to indicate a human presence in the garden.

photo 7

There are many lanterns in Seiwa En. Photograph 6 shows the stone-pagoda style stupa lanterns. A stupa is a type of Buddhist monument that was originally built in India to hold relics of the Buddha or other sacred objects. In China, stupas were built in the style of Chinese architecture, like this lantern, and they were sites of pilgrimage and worship. In China, the number five is very important, representing among other things the five elements. That is why this lantern has five stories.

Photograph 7 shows an Oribe style lantern near the entrance to the teagarden on Teahouse Island. Oribe was a famous teamaster who created this style of lantern for his teagarden. Near its base, on the side facing the teagarden entrance, there is an image of a monk standing with his hands in gassho, welcoming and blessing the visitor.

    C. Buddha and the Two Bodhisatvas

In a Japanese garden, the stones are as important as the plants, sometimes more important. In part that is because the Japanese Shinto tradition does not make as sharp of distinction between the animate and inanimate worlds as do Western religious traditions. The ancient books on Japanese gardening spend much more time detailing stone arrangements than plant arrangements. There are many conventional styles of stone arrangement.

One of the most important and frequently used of these is called sanzon, or the three saints. This name refers, as mentioned above, to the resemblance of this arrangement to the statuary on the altar of a Buddhist temple. In Japanese temples, a statue of the Buddha is usually flanked by statues of two bodhisattvas. Although a variety of bodhisattvas may be represented, the two most commonly appearing in this arrangement are Manjushri (Bodhisattva of Wisdom) and Samantabhadra (Bodhisattva of Deeds). The combination of the two reminds one that wisdom must be accompanied by action, just as action must be accompanied by wisdom.

This arrangement appears in three places in Seiwa En. It can be seen in the arrangement of the stones of Paradise Island (photograph 1) and in the Zen Dry Garden (photograph 2). It can also be seen in the stones around the Fusen stone basin at the southwest side of the lake.

    D. Lotus

photo 8

The lotus is a plant that grows in shallow, muddy water or marshes, and yet produces a beautiful flower. It has served as a powerful symbol in Asian, and particularly Buddhist, literature for centuries. In the Dhammapada, one of the oldest Buddhist sutras, one finds the following use of the lotus symbol, which sums up its significance.

Even as on a heap of rubbish thrown away by the side of the road a lotus flower may grow and blossom with its pure perfume giving joy to the soul, in the same way among the blind multitudes shines pure the light of wisdom of the student who follows the Buddha, the one who is truly awake.

The Dhammapada, trans. Juan Mascaro (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 43.

IV. Zen Aesthetic Principles

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photo 9 photo 10

Zen has so influenced Japanese art and culture that a whole vocabulary of Zen aesthetic principles has arisen that applies to many different art forms. These principles include a preference for simplicity and asymmetry, which can be seen throughout the garden. The very name for this garden comes from the principles of Zen aesthetics. “Sei” means purity or clarity not just cleanliness but naturalness as well. “Wa” means harmony and peace. In addition to being an aesthetic principle, Wa is also a political principle. Koichi Kawana said that this Japanese Garden was created as a result of Wa between the people of St. Louis and the people of Japan.

Other principles include Wabi and Meigakure (mee-ay-gah-koor-ay).

    A. Wabi

Wabi is difficult to translate, but it refers to a sense of refined melancholy or loneliness. In Seiwa En, this principle requires that the stems of the lotus are left in place long after the flowers have died and the leaves have fallen. When one sees the stems sticking up through the snow and ice (as in (photograph 9), one is lead to reflect on the transitory nature of beauty. Such reflections create a mood of Wabi in the refined Japanese Garden visitor.

    B. Meigakure

Perhaps the most important principle in the design of Seiwa En is Meigakure, which means hiding part of the whole to create a sense of mystery. The whole can never be seen at one time, and so the work of art is only completed in the mind of the viewer. (Photograph 10 shows one minor example of this principle. One cannot see what lies at the end of this inviting path. Only a part of the scene is revealed. Only when one steps forward does one find the bridge at the end of the stepping stone path.

Kent Gendo Bunting received his Ph.D. in American Studies from St. Louis University in May 2002. For more information on the history and meaning of Seiwa En, see his dissertation “The Koan of Seiwa En: History and Meaning in the Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden.” He can be reached at