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Book Review: Gardens of Awakening by Kazuaki Tanahashi


Shambhala Publications published Gardens of Awakening A Guide to the Aesthetics, History, and Spirituality of Kyoto’s Zen Landscapes by Kazuaki Tanahashi in May 2024, featuring photographs by Mitsue Nagase.

This volume appears a little different from the traditional Buddhist books that I often review, but I’m an artist and find my soul at home in the quietude of nature. Plus, I’ve not yet had the pleasure of exploring Japan. So when a book on the Zen gardens of Kyoto was made available to me, I couldn’t help but push it to the top of my reading list.

You may know a lot about gardens. You may know a lot about the history of China and Japan. But let’s assume that we know nothing. We have a beginner’s mind. However, we see these particular well-kept gardens with a reasonable idea of what they are: “Zen gardens.” We know this because there are stones, pebble paths, raked gravel, a well-kept tree or two, maybe a lot of moss, usually some water and a pagoda somewhere, and probably a bridge. But often it’s the raked gravel that’s the giveaway. And maybe we even feel somewhat peaceful when we take the time to be still and breathe in these garden spaces. But what else do we really know? 

Is it still a Zen garden when it’s full of bamboo forests, rhododendrons, and wild, untamed trees? Is it still a Zen garden when it looks like you’re trekking through the scrub highlands of Scotland? Is it still a Zen garden when a Christian creates it? And why were they created in the first place? How do you create a waterfall with no water? And why would you? And who did? Why did Zen gardens continue to be created? To what end and purpose? And why are they all so different yet still obviously Zen?

Like walking through a museum or an art gallery, knowing the background of what we are looking at deepens not only our appreciation for its reason for being but the “everything” that it represents. The journey, the people, the impact, the legacy. And like any good tour guide, the tidbits of helpful local knowledge for the modern-day visitor are always a welcome addition.

Kazuaki Tanahashi. From
Mitsue Nagase. From

The Gardens of Awakening takes the reader on a wonderful journey through the serene Zen gardens of Kyoto. Yet this book isn’t just a collection of photographs; as I alluded, it’s an invitation to understand the deep roots of Zen Buddhism and its timeless principles. We come to know the traits that make Zen art so unique—traits beyond those aforementioned stereotypes: of simplicity, directness, luminosity, non-duality, and a sense of the infinite; the symbolism, history, and anecdotes offer an intimate look at these works of art of which we, as apparent onlookers, become part.

In the first section, “The Landscape Within,” Tanahashi examines the cultural and historical contexts that have shaped Zen gardens as we know them. The second section, “Aesthetics and Stories,” presents a curated selection of photographs that embody key attributes of Zen art.

It’s a beautifully laid out, coffee-table-sized hardback organized into sub-chapters that offer really easy-to-read and digest information without ever feeling over-simplified or infantilized. In fact, it’s fact-dense. We’re also given a useful chronological table at the beginning, some helpful schema at the end, and beautiful poetry in between.

In a first-person yet concise and, at times, almost romantic writing style, Tanahashi leads us from Zen’s journey from China to Japan, to Kyoto’s Zen temples (and their contemporary access for visitors, along with “guidebook” recommendations for the extra curious traveling reader), occasionally including personal thoughts and anecdotes as he accompanies us on this voyage through time and space. He discusses temple architecture, which was typically designed for monastic practice, and the disciplined monastic lifestyle that includes meditation, ceremonies, and labor as expressions of Zen principles, as well as the ongoing practice of transcending dualistic thought and integrating non-duality into daily life. We are offered ancient poems, introduced to wise masters, educated with translations and cultural significance, and the biographies of peoples’ lives told in such a way that one almost forgets that we’re reading history, let alone a book that some might have assumed was only about gardening. 


Browsing a shelf of books, one might be tempted to pass this one over, thinking it only of interest to a slim horticulturally-inclined portion of the public. But you’d be missing out on an immersive guide through Asian Buddhist history, viewed through the creation of living art. Although I do feel that anyone inclined to create a Zen garden of their own—be it on their own private land, professionally for open public spaces, or even as a desktop meditation piece—should do the right thing and do their research. 

Kazuaki Tanahashi deserves to be the first go-to book, thanks in part to the beautifully inspiring photographs taken by Mitsue Nagase. Not only will you learn about the principal elements for garden-making, but you’ll gain an understanding of what the meticulously placed rocks actually represent, why Shintō rope may be used, what the black crosses tied onto stones mean (also useful for garden visitors to know), what particularly shaped shrubs imply, and why the ordinary is a miracle.

Ultimately, however, it feels like this book is a guide to finding tranquillity and meaning in our own daily hustle, as well as providing a fascinating history lesson. It’s a reminder that amid our busy lives, there’s an inner Zen garden waiting to be discovered, an anti-garden offering a moment of growth, a path leading us to stillness, a bridge from which to plumb the depths of our inner world, a moss-laden forest transporting us to infinity, and ancient rocks offering a deep breath of fresh air—a koan of nature that makes perfect sense. These provide the substrate upon which we contemplate our own private landscape.

Abandon the world of suffering
which you regard as being in a dream,
and hide in a mountain that is not a mountain.
— Musō Soseki (1275–1351)

See more

Gardens of Awakening: A Guide to the Aesthetics, History, and Spirituality of Kyoto’s Zen Landscapes (Shambhala Publications)

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