• Welcome to Japanese Gardening Forums 日本の園芸フォーラム. Please login or sign up.
July 08, 2020, 03:26:27 am


WHERE ARE YOU?  You can use the "Custom Title" of your profile settings to list your gardening location.  This helps when discussing climate sensitive topics.

Shots in the Dark

Started by Alain Bertrand, October 18, 2010, 11:53:58 am

Previous topic - Next topic

Alain Bertrand

Hi all,

We all know the importance of Zen in the Japanese aesthetics, particularly in the field of dry garden.  Do we really know or do we instead believe we know ?

I have just finished reading "Shots in the Dark" by  Yamada Shôji. Very interesting read, though not always an easy one ( english is just an learned language to me, this may be an explanation).

The book :

Is there anybody  here who have read this book ? If so,I would be interested in knowing your opinions.

Best regards,

OT2, free software for your bonsai collection. The version 1.1 is out.


I haven't read it. Thanks for the tip. I think, mostly we believe we know. How little historically often survives--much of what supports the dominant ethos of a period; a little of what is the antithesis. Ryoan-ji-- someone (it's probably traceable) said that "no one (few? trw) can look on Ryoan-ji with fresh eyes". It is the most common image of a Japanese garden/ dry garden. It is perhaps hard to imagine that Ryoan-ji was "a weedy, neglected plot in modern times". However, given what happened to Japan--its industrial revolution, its drive for colonies (raw materials), depression, famine/rising prices, its war machine and US atomic & fire bombs I'm certain that other Japanese gardens were weedy, neglected and overgrown.
Nice to meet you! reggie (Tom).


Hi Alain,

I had waited for this translation for a while, and think that it ought to be required reading for anyone who uses the word 'Zen' to describe anything.

The book details many of the complexities around the marketing of Zen in the 20th century, and if it is read carefully also opens up a window on the diverse opinions (and disagreements) among Japanese artists and 'men of culture' (bunkajin).

The list of Japanese authors translated into English is very short, and in addition very few translated books present this type of historically specific information, and so for that reason it is also important to read-  although the translation of the conversational prose is unusual in English (the use of qualifying phrases such as 'in my opinion') and can make it difficult to follow at times.

I think that you have captured the question excellently in your opening sentence.



I agree, Alain. I read it - on Mark's insistence! - and found it very interesting, but quite hard work. A slightly dull, repetitive read. The point that Westerners have misappropriated the term zen, through ignorance or for their own means, is very interesting, but as a read, personally I feel Yamada spends a fair bit of time making the same point. Perhaps 'Shots in the Dark, the haiku version' is a possibility?

well worth reading though, especially for anyone with a ZEN GARDEN.



One of the most fascinating things about the book for me- that was somewhat obscured by the translation (I have seen other translations, but not read the original)- was Yamada's examination of the way that the Japanese themselves have deliberately packaged and marketed Zen. Perhaps, Don, we could add a biblio section on books that address a more complex view of Zen (Zen at War by Brian Victoria comes to mind)- even though it is not directly related to understanding stones, the subject of Zen seems to drift about all conversations like a fog, sometimes obscuring, sometimes throwing into clear contrast things which we may not have otherwise recognized.



I will admit that, i assume in desperation for funds, i did see some temples blatantly milking the zen tourism (did i just create a term?) - even some of the most famous.  This bothers me a great deal, yet survival of such treasures is also a desperate pursuit.  I don't have a problem setting up a new board here.  What do you want it titled?


October 24, 2011, 10:56:11 am #6 Last Edit: October 24, 2011, 11:03:24 am by kikujunjo
I just finished reading Shots in the Dark and found it an excellent piece. I thought that Yamada's analogy of the various mirrors one can look in, and how people might tend to prefer the mirror that shows them in the most favorable way to be a helpful perspective. I've been to Ry?anji and spent a good 30 minutes with the place to myself 'contemplating' the garden, and, with that memory in mind, I was struck by the quote in Yamada's book from a prominent Japanese writer, Mur? Saisei (1889~1962):

"In this, the king of rock gardens, the silent scene of the rocks deepens with each successive viewing. There is nothing but 15 stones sunk into a space of about sixty tsubo [180 square meters]. However, I felt oppressed as though the garden was forcing me to think about something, and the entire time I was in the garden this feeling bothered me to the point of distraction. As I thought about it by the light of my lamp back at my lodgings, it seemed as though the rock garden had mellowed and come into my mind. The feeling of rigid, stiff, formality gone to seed faded, my mind quieted, and i felt like I wanted to affectionately stroke the surface of each of the fifteen rocks."

That is similar to how I felt. Like I was supposed to see something profound there. I didn't. Frankly, I much prefer Japanese moss gardens like the one at Saih?ji.

The testimony of Okuda Masatomo, a local gardener, that the ground under the garden is full of tree stumps and that it seems that there was once a weeping cherry in the garden is quite eye opening. If there were trees, or at least one larger tree planted, there, it dos change the flavor of the garden quite a bit. Also, that the garden was originally entitled "Tiger Cubs Crossing the River", after a Chinese parable - that was news to me.

I thought that Yamada's point that in the immediate post war years Japan was looking for a new mold into which to cast itself, and were looking very much to the west for that. More than looking - were being pushed in that direction by the occupying authorities. See Dower's book "Embracing Defeat" for more on that. In the west, one of the 'approved' and 'celebrated' characterizations to view the Japanese was that of a culture steeped in 'Zen Buddhism', and this mirror was pleasing to the Japanese themselves and readily adopted. Hence the post-war intensification of a trend to associate 'Zen' to things which formerly had not been thought of as being tied to Zen.

The imposition of the foreign eye and its effects upon the Japanese has been discussed by several writers before. The ripple of effects from Bruno Taut's trip to Japan and the sorts of architecture he felt were more purely Japanese (like Ise Jingu and Katsura Rikyuden) and the types he felt were 'corrupted' (like Nikko) had a huge effect upon how Japanese (architects in particular) viewed their cultural heritage. I suggest, for those interested in that line of thinking, a read of Arata Isozaki's Japan-ness In Architecture for a through critique of the topic.

And the rest of Yamada's work, dealing with Eugen Herrigal and his work Zen in the Art of Archery was illuminating and confirmed my long standing contention that 95% of what masquerades as 'martial art' is simply bullshit. Herrigel exaggerated his depth of study considerably, and learned archery under a decidedly atypical master, Awa (at least atypical in terms of the rest of the Ky?d? world). Herrigel spoke very little Japanese, and Awa spoke only Japanese. The man who translated between them later admitted he often misrepresented things as Awa would frequently contradict himself or spoke in such arcane terms that translation was impossible. The critical episode in Herrigel's book, the shooting of the target in the dark by Awa, and then hitting the nock of the first arrow with a second, happened when there was no translator present, yet Herrigel describes the conversation between Awa and himself at the time. How could he know what Awa said? And later Awa mentioned to someone else that the shot had been a fluke! That's not how Herrigel portrays it.

Herrigel saw what he wanted to see, and knew somehow how to milk that. Interestingly, Herrigel never studied Zen while in Japan - in the formal sense, at a monastery. Another interesting note about Herrigel: he was a member of the Nazi party and held a high teaching post at a university during the second world war. Such facts are inconvenient for some, and references to Herrigel's past are carefully avoided in both his book and in references to him by admirers.

A useful contrast to Herrigel is the work of William R.B. Acker (1907~1974), who did go to Japan in the 1930's and formally studied Zen Buddhism. He happened to also get into ky?d? and wrote a book afterwards called The Fundamentals of Japanese Archery (1937), which pre-date's Herrigel's work by 11 years. Acker trained about 3 times as much in ky?d? as did Herrigel during his stay. Despite Ackers' background in Zen, he makes no mention of Zen in his work on Ky?d?. Herrigel's work outsold Acker's by a huge margin. That's interesting in itself. Yamada notes,

"In spite of the fact that Acker's book was published eleven years earlier than Herrigel's book, it was not popular among the general public. Why was this? The reason is simple: it was too specialized. All Acker did was explain the shooting method of ky?d? in plain and simple language, faithfully adhering to the teachings of a traditional school.There is practically no trace whatsoever of the mysticism and Zen found in Herrigel's book. This is not because Acker did not understand Japanese culture; it is because this is the kind of book that will naturally result if the author has a normal understanding of ky?d?."

As the Japanese choose the mirror that portrays them most favorably, westerners also seem to choose the mirror which shows Japanese culture in an exoticised fashion. This continues to this day.


Chris, your post offers much so that i must reread and comment later.  I just didn't want to let it go unappreciated.


Hello Chris,

You wrote: "And the rest of Yamada's work, dealing with Eugen Herrigal and his work Zen in the Art of Archery was illuminating and confirmed my long standing contention that 95% of what masquerades as 'martial art' is simply bullshit."

After nearly 45 years of training in the traditional Japanese martial arts and ways, mainly under Japanese sensei, I find myself wondering exactly what you mean by this comment?   


October 25, 2011, 12:18:04 pm #9 Last Edit: October 25, 2011, 12:37:49 pm by kikujunjo

well, thanks for the question and it is a fair one. I no longer train in the martial arts, however I have in the past trained under many teachers, in Canada, the US, Thailand, and Japan. I've trained with Korean teachers, Brazilian teachers, Japanese teachers. I've visited many d?j? and experienced the technique of teachers both low and high ranked. I spent ten years of my life devoted to that, all in my twenties.

In North America, most schools of martial arts are for-profit enterprises in a competitive marketplace. That leads to a fair amount of marketing hyperbole, on the one hand, and mis-advertising on the other. Martial arts are supposed to involve a fair amount of self-effacement, yet a perusal of the yellow pages shows a great many schools proudly advertising the dan-ranking of the head instructor, along with the usual stuff like 'member of the Korean Army tactical weapons squad, etc.,. The cases of Korean instructors (not to pick on any group in particular, just an example) getting on the plane in Korea with a second dan and stepping off the plane at LAX with a 5th dan I suspect has happened more than once. So so much for the qualities of modesty and honesty.

In Japan, many martial art schools are for hobby-practitioners - especially, I would say, the more arcane and unusual styles. Training is twice a week at most and isn't particularly strenuous or serious. I came to discover that people were promoted to high ranks in many cases not because of proficiency in their arts, but because they were older and it was appropriate, in regards to Japanese social practices (what someone's job is, and how old they are determines social rank), that they be ranked higher than younger practitioners. Herrigel is a good example of that. He arrived in Japan in his 40's, and was a university lecturer, socially a high status position. He trained once a week for three years and at the end of that Awa awarded him a 5th dan in ky?d?. 5th dan therefore means nothing. He states in his book that he trained for 6 years, which is a lie. What can the morality of the rest of what he offers in his book be like if he lies at the outset about something for which there was no need to lie? This is one aspect of what I mean about bullshit.

I trained in Dait? Ry? Aikij?jutsu in Hokkaid? for 4 years. This is an art with many splinter and derivative styles, including Aikid?. I trained almost all of that time in the central style under a very good teacher in Obihiro City. I also visited and trained in many, many other schools in that style and its derivatives all over the island. I've practiced techniques with sensei who are supposed to be 'Grandmasters' in their particular sects and felt their techniques personally, and came away unimpressed in many cases, despite walking in hopeful that I would find a 'true master' to train with. Even when I went down to T?ky? to take my dan exam with the head of Dait? Ry? Aikij?jutsu for all Japan (my teacher's superior), I thought his techniques were not altogether impressive. He tried to show me a 'correction' to a choking technique. I felt his technique would not have actually choked me out. I felt he was using too much strength and did not have the bio-mechanics correct.  I know what being choked out is and know what an effective choke or strangle is supposed to do. He didn't have that game. I received my dan rank but I came away a bit deflated. It's just a piece of paper after all. Really good teachers are very few and far between in my experience - I'd say I've had three during my time in the martial arts, out of maybe 40 places I trained in.

Japan is by and large a very peaceful society. Fights and assaults are quite uncommon. Many martial art teachers haven't ever been in an actual combative situation, and neither have their teachers, or their teachers before them. After a while, things start to, uh, drift away from reality. Case in point is the following video:


I've seen more than a few schools run by guys like that. Their students seem gullible enough, and I'm curious to know what those students did after the match- did they stay with their teacher? Maybe combative reality is unimportant to some people doing martial arts, but it there is not some core of reality to the practice and the techniques, it isn't really a 'martial' art, its a form of dance, or something else.

Some further background: what started me on the path of seeing the light, as it were, in regards to most martial art schools, was my experience in the late 1980's going down to L.A. to train with Brazilian J?jutsu master Rickson Gracie. I had been training in a Korean art derived from j?jutsu for 8 years prior to that and was, if I might say (and not to be self-aggrandizing), reasonably skilled. After 5 minutes on the mat with Rickson, however, it became rapidly apparent that I had nothing whatsoever, technique-wise, that would put a dent in Rickson's game. He wasn't stronger than me, or faster, or anything like that. His techniques, none of which were hard to learn or execute, were simply unstoppable, and he showed me that many of the techniques I had been practicing (and thought I was proficient at) didn't really work when the other fellow wasn't co-operating with you. It was incredibly eye-opening. He could tell me what technique he was going to do to me, and within 30 seconds, generally, he would execute that technique no matter what I might do to try and stop him. It was incredibly humbling. One of the best experiences I ever had. He never tried to wow me with flashy or exotic moves - he just did the basics, the same ones he showed me, perfectly. I finally came to understand, for the first time, what j?jutsu really was - it's like wrestling with quicksand. And, it's like putting on a jacket. That might read humorously to some, but it makes sense to me!

Many people stay within their one school and style their entire time and that school often ends up much like a weird bubble. Not to say that some good things don't go on in that bubble, but sometimes one's sense of reality becomes quite skewed.

When I was traveling and training at various j?jutsu schools in Japan, I would find that many of the techniques shown (especially those involving ground grappling) either were too reliant upon strength, or just didn't really work, not if I tried to resist them. Another experience in Japan: I go and visit a new d?j? and be paired up with a black belt for the practice session. After working with someone for 3 hours you tend to get a decent sense of their skill level. I concluded he was probably a newly minted black-belt. I looked later on the school's name tag board and saw to my shock that he was a 5th dan. I didn't return to that school. Ranks don't generally mean much, in other words. Just because a person has trained a long time doesn't always mean much either in terms of skill or combative effectiveness I'm afraid.

I think once a school starts revolving it's curriculum around a series of colored belts, and starts staging highly artificial forms of sparring, and establishes hierarchies of teachers and ranks and affiliations, things are often going downhill from the original teachings. If you're paying to train, in many cases, you are buying your belts. Particularly in Japan there is a tendency for followers of an especially skilled martial artist to codify and institutionalize a curriculum of techniques after that master has passed on. The dynamism and openness becomes hardened over with a concretion of ritual and rankings and a lot of that masters original teachings really get lost thereby. Bruce Lee alluded to this when he made his comments about the 'classical mess' of martial arts.

And let's face it, 98% of the martial arts being practiced today, while they like to link themselves back to the hoary days of old, centuries of history, etc., are really 20th century creations for them most part. All the major Japanese styles/forms in practice today are modern creations- J?d?, Karate, Aikid?, Kend?. Same for Korean styles like Tang-soo-d?, Hapkid?, Tae-kwon-d?.

I think, as Yamada mentions in Shots in the Dark, people tend to like mirrors which show them to their best effect. I would say that many martial art schools in North America, the mirror being held up is that you will become tough, you will become disciplined, you will associate to a lineage of proud warriors, you will become confident, you will fear no man, blah, blah. In a highly militarized culture such as the US, such reflections are bound to be attractive to many. And some people, once they realize what sorts of things will be attractive sales propositions, have no compunctions in regards to flogging that message at the cost of everything else. It's a business and you have to survive. It's good to focus on kids classes. etc. Dangle lots of little carrots to keep them coming back, offer discount packages for multi-month memberships, two-for-one deals, etc..

Not to say that one can't derive lots of positive things from getting together socially with others and practicing something, especially if it involves some exercise. That's all good. And there are many decent people teaching selflessly as well. People may also be quite satisfied training in a school that teaches unrealistic moves, or declares itself to be about 'ki-training' and that sort of thing, and that's fine too, so long as they aren't under any illusions about it.

Finally, think back to the movie The Karate Kid. I think one message was pretty well delivered: Who was teaching the real martial arts in that movie - Mr. Miyagi, who had his student wash cars all day, etc., or the guy with the 'Cobra-Kai' school and the kids in the black outfits and the militarized drills and fierce expressions? That Cobra-Kai scene is a good representation of the bullshit I was referring to.


That youtube video is quite funny... I am trying to grasp the relationship between the first section (filmed with no one in the dojo) and the second clip, filmed with an audience.

In particular, near the end of the first clip it sounds like there is laughter in the background, while the narrator is saying:

'Ah, here comes winding the thread. Winding the thread attack.'
(Itomaki kogeki)

at this point, the announcer breaks into the refrain of a children's song, 'ito maki maki, ito maki maki' (wind, and wind the thread), and the other commentator says: 'wow, he can do it in reverse also'

Not to detract from your valid points, but just to wonder about the seriousness of the video. For all I can tell, it may be completely serious, or it could be a total farce.

On a more serious note, I wanted to pitch in about the naming of the garden at Ryoanji as 'Tiger Cubs Crossing the Stream': the garden in the main hall at Nanzenji also refers to this episode, and makes an interesting comparison with Ryoanji.
Considered in the context of naming garden styles and features, it is useful to put Ryoanji in context: other common names for islands (tsurushima, kameshima, horasihima, shumisen) either draw their names from animals which have poetic/mythological/legendary associations (in the case of turtle and crane, and also the stone in the waterfall at Kinkakuji, representing a carp which will become a dragon upon mounting the waterfall), or they draw their names directly from mythology or legend (in the case of horaishima and shumisen, representing the Isle of the Immortals and Mt. Meru respectively).

To look at the garden at Nanzenji, there are many similarities: the motion and balance of the stone, with the left side, where the karamon is located, being the direction of travel; the architectural setting- the south courtyard of the main hall- is also the same.

In this vein, it is also possible to then add the south garden at Entokuin, which has a stone group that is fundamentally similar in its energy, balance, and relationship to the architecture- but which differs in that there are many more plants. To be clear, I have not heard of the story of the tiger in connection with Entokuin)

When the comparison between these three gardens is drawn, it is possible to imagine that Ryoanji may have indeed been planted at some point.

I often wonder if Ryoanji has become such a fertile ground for speculation is precisely because the history of the garden is unknown. As you point out with Kyudo, Acker's book is the kind of work that results from just writing down what is known. There is documentation for most gardens, to one degree or another, and so the kind of wild speculation that Yamada chronicles with regard to Ryoanji is simply much more difficult, because it is possible to say, 'How does this analysis relate to the known history'.

Mirrors indeed.


That was some interesting commentary Mark and I'd like to see pictures of the other gardens you refer to so I can see what you mean (hopefully!). As Yamada makes clear in Shots, there is much contention about the murky origins and history of Ry?anji among Japanese researchers and scholars, and we know how nature abhors a vacuum. His main contention that the association of Ry?anji to Zen as largely a post-war phenomena seems to be well demonstrated.

I agree the video is fairly comical, at least up until the point where 'sensei' gets roughed up by the MMA guy. I've visited d?j? which are not far off that one.



And so it is with some of the signs at Daitoku-ji with dates and data that did not match what the monks and writings stated.


Sorry for the delay, had to work out some issues with uploading images.

My Kind of Kyoto has several good images of the garden at Ryoanji:


And, here are photos of Nanzenji and Entokuin for comparison:


Indeed, a vacuum, could have quite a bit of fun with that idea (is it the garden, or is it something else that is empty?)

Don, do you have records of which Daitokuji sub-temples had dating errors? It wouldn't be too surprising, just curious to know.

SMF spam blocked by CleanTalk