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Don Pylant, April, 2021

How does a garden get a "soul"?

Started by taralynna, August 10, 2009, 08:57:07 AM

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I was in San Diego last weekend and decided to visit the Japanese Friendship Garden.  The garden was dissapointing. I dont have the skill or knowledge most of you have, but I do have an appreciation for a well done garden.  This one had the "stuff": lanters, rain chains, pond, bamboo, trees etc.  I know those things don't make a garden, but they are elements that are often in good gardens.  There were some issues with sidewalks instead of garden paths.  The pond felt placed and the waterfall did not make me feel peaceful.  There were no areas that made me want to sit and enjoy the garden.  Most of all the garden just seemed to not have any soul.  The garden did not evoke any emotion, may be a better way to state it.

I am trying to design my own garden so I spent some time trying to understand what it is that keeps the garden from being good, and try to avoid it in my own garden. I am sure that placement, plants and lanterns do not make a garden. There is something that makes a JGarden and I would bet that there are gardens that have that soul and maybe dont even have the other elements of a JGarden. 

So what is it?  Is it a soul (of sorts)? How does one garden have it and another lack it?  Is there a word for it ?  Can a garden be designed by "feel"?


A number of ways Taralynna...
the first to ponder through would be to mention 'memory'. (in all its forms that reduce to memory)        edzard


There should be as many answers to that question as there are gardeners- and it may be, that in finding the answer to that question, you find your own path as a gardener.

To share my personal experience, I became interested in Japanese gardens visually, by seeing them, and eventually (after a number of years) concluded that what I had seen had less to do with the meaning and symbolism- I realized that what first appealed to me was a certain poetry of form and space.
The meaning and symbolism are very important, and a gardener can rarely (probably never) succeed in creating a Japanese garden without understanding these- but the form is also important, and a gardener is no more likely to succeed without understanding the form also.

I have not visited the San Diego garden, so I cannot comment on that- but perhaps you might try to formulate that question in terms of how the gardens that you like differ from that garden. Examine the placement of objects, the distances, where there are open spaces and closed spaces, how large the plants are, what type of plants, how many varieties, what type of varieties, leaf color, and so on and so forth...



QuoteI realized that what first appealed to me was a certain poetry of form and space.
"poetry of form and space" is pattern recognition, which is memory...

Is not -form-,
'understanding form',
in a garden through individual taste is also memory ?
-- driven through the acquired 3 generation value system (established through studies of garden idea-making for persons without families and lack of cohesion employed)

i would have to disagree about there being as many answers as gardeners, I would understand this as making something simple, unnecessarily complex.
as ... planting patterns, open spaces, space, size, type, variety, refraction of light... these are all resulting from memory..
or through the second criteria, the universal human response triggers
which in the end effect are moderated by cultural memory.
(adulterated subconscious response, fight or flight triggers that use form, light, spatial organization as mechanisms to induce triggers of safety or flight)

No? what am I missing Mark...? you see the question differently? Perhaps I misunderstand the original question?             edzard


Taralynna, I also have not visited the gardens but googled many photos of the garden and immediately understood what you meant.  The hand of man is very prevalent in this garden.  The softness of nature is missing in many areas.  Layering of plant material as a backdrop for me seemed to be missing. The eye had no where to rest but was continually drawn from one place to another.  I can understand why you did not feel calm in this garden.  But the photos of the raked gravel area I saw seemed to be done well.  There was balance with the stone placement there. Since I have not visited the gardens did you feel some sense of rightness with that area of the gardens?



I will have to say that "form" and "space" are both parts of any art form. How could they not be? Having done shodou, kokuji, and tenkoku for years, these elements are at the the top of the list of a well done piece. However there are good pieces and then their are great pieces. There is more to any work of art, there is the feeling that is created and generated in the observers. Good haiku suggest, they never describe. They are a way of sharing moments in time with subtle hints and pointers. Regarding memories Edzard, what are you remembering while designing gardens? To reinforce what Mark has said I would add "As a thing is viewed so it appears, but things are seldom as they appear".


If I was working in your garden the following is what I would be thinking of:
QuoteI have these items and they do bring back many memories of teaching my students since 1985 at this dojo, so I'm trying to find a way to use these forms in this space?

Now the 'idea' of the memory of this garden is to _you_... what?
                   what memory do you feel that should be in your garden?

this communicated idea, "what was the meaning point or purpose of your dojo?"
   that idea or a similar one illustrated by the client is the 'soul' of a garden.

(materials are only the paint the artist uses to express, communicate the idea, similarly form, organization, pattern evocation,.. these provide soul... [in my opinion]  )
            does this clarify my perspective somewhat?   thanks          edzard



I suppose the main objective of our dojo was to "forge spirits", with discipline being the cornerstone of our way.

One of my sensei while training in Japan once saw a sign at a Japanese sword-smith's shop that said "SPIRITS FORGED HERE".
Another sign I once saw in a dojo said "Sign up, shut up, and line up".

I have never forgotten these sayings and they were very indicative of our practice.



thank you, you make this incredibly easy, too easy, though that illustrates a simple garden and is the best solution.
for the moment I will go with door number 3..       "Sign up, shut up, and line up"

For various reasons we will read the garden from left to right... and use your very first photo with the trees as backdrop.
material selected: stone and log since they are on peoples minds to use most often.

1) "signing up" is a lantern showing light of knowledge with obvious saiga tanden, beneath left is a basin of purifying the movement 'person inducted' from outside to inside.

2) Next to this on the right is a person "signing up", that needs be expressed in a youthful manner - an energetic stone bowing to relate 'signing up' or a shrub thinned to represent youthful growth. (or a young tree showing errant ways of youth and vigor) this forms a triad.

3) to the right of this is "shut up" which is silence and therefore would be empty space.

4) and in the background would be a 'line-up' of on-end logs (or stone) in a pattern that represents discipline of the dojo first line-up. (same as an embankment to hold soil)

Having chosen this layout to imply the message and materials, the soul of the garden is established in the relationships between 1 and 2
then the relationship between the size/position of 1+2 and 3, how much space, how long is the learning period?
- before reaching 4... that is a relationship to the figurative journey travelled

and then with the backdrop of mature trees would be the individuals that have moved past the dojo to establish and grow in their acquired learning. (both past teachers observing and transcended students that returned knowledge to the dojo <- yet here I evolve the setting to establish a maintenance regime and get off topic).

Mark's observation is vital for understanding the relationships between these pieces, that convey a 'soul' = door #1 "forging spirits" to this garden composition.
I try reverting at all times of placement uncertainty to the original "Sign up, shut up, and line up" (blueprint) that provides a suggested relationship aspect between the parts to become a cohesive whole. 
IOW's Mark intuits the placements due perhaps to his training, discerning insights and refined aesthetics, not needing to think about placement problems as a novice seeking to 'place' the objects.

Both methods end up at the same outcome, yet in my opinion, without memory, there can be no blueprint, which made me feel that Mark has leapt ahead to writing the tensions/harmonics (hard-wired emotive responses) that give us a sense of 'soul'/spirit of a place + objects = setting, and that is unlimited.
I feel that without consistent acknowledgement, the limitation of the gardens objective "memory" of signing, shutting, and lining up, it is difficult for a novice to ascribe spatial orientation to that setting to enable its maximum potential.

And, the skill of a gardeners taste, is in the expression of the materials used and ways employed, tensions created and conductive relationships referenced...
iow's unlimited materials can be used to create the same 'memory', and the more subtle the better, so that symbol and meaning become unnecessary so that the garden can become 'simply beautiful space', which is when the garden has the most depth of soul... when the meaning has been lightened enough to no longer be 'the point' of the garden ->> now 'without memory'.. just soul or as Mark put it, "certain poetry of form and space".
         hoping this is somewhat clear, and I'll let Mark speak for himself with his methods..


Thanks for your insights Edzard, I like them a lot! You have given me many things to ponder. I believe very much the same as you do, that a garden, or for that matter anything, has to have an insightful essence. On occasion I go to nurseries and see people buying many different types of plants. Every now and then I have to ask them "Why are you buying these particular plants"? Of course the usual answer is that they like the way they look. Mark did in fact briefly mention this in a different post.

Back to your post. These principles that we have spoken of or also very similar to the concept of "Shu ha ri" that you have mentioned in the past. I'm assuming at this point that most great Japanese do have a well thought out theme, or essence to them, a reason for being created? Is this the norm or do other factors come into play just as often? If so, what other factors also come into play? I would like to hear from other members regarding this topic. What are your thoughts Yama, Mark, Don, and June?

Thank you very much for your time,


 :), I think I echo Mark in many comments...

for the soul, once again:
number 3 -- all gardens have a reason for being created...

one I know of is for a collection of sake 'things' and then the placements expressing the 'spirit of sake'.

even an English garden as 'beauty of flowers in masses' which was done in the Nara era or the specimen garden as the idea of 'collection' as was done in China (even) prior to 2206 B.C.E. and started again in the UK during the collection eras. A reason is needed.

Nature is also a reason (expression), compared to 'random garden = botanic garden' that simply grew from random planting a plant, which is its reason.. and when the reason becomes unclear, becoming 'profusion', then this is conveyed in the space and people begin to 'organize' it. In the organization, memory is applied: often as practicality, often as pattern and the outcome is its soul or lack there of.

here, I would reverse the question and ask, how can a space not have a soul..?
what was/is missing in San Diego?
What is needed to fix it to gain a soul?
what would you (read anyone) do to give it a spirit, essence if one wishes, or soul...
     besides calling Diana or the Temptations, Motown or playing recordings made in Philly ...   
p.s.   - what if San Diego gardens reason is "to not have a soul".. ? to not show soul, but to show what the garden is expressing, no soul... now what?

is it possible (under what circumstances) to have 'no soul' as a reason for a garden?
What would one be saying? communicating?


This conversation has been continued in the main forum under History & Perspective/Spirit.