Art 356 Studies Gardens in Kyoto

For five days, the students in Art 356, a course on Chinese and Japanese garden history, travelled around Kyoto and Ise, Japan. Fourteen students took part in the class, which examined the historical, religious, artistic, and literary framework of gardens: 11 undergraduates majoring in a wide array of disciplines, including five in art and archaeology, along with three Department of Art and Archaeology graduate students who studied the topic as a geographic extension of their own study of European art and architecture in the Baroque period. The department’s Professor Jerome Silbergeld, in Chinese art history, and Professor Thomas Hare, a specialist in Japanese Nō literature, co-taught the course.

Enduring occasional blue skies but thoroughly enjoying the days of spring rain—and even a late snowfall at Tenryuji on the last day—the group of 16 staged a number of forced marches, maintaining a fast pace of slow contemplation at Kyoto's great temple gardens, including Nanzenji; the sculpted sand and hillside paths of the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion); the rocks and ponds of Ninnaji; the sand and stone of Ryoanji, Kinkakuji, Daitokuji, and Byodoin; and the moss garden of Saihoji in the first three days. Day four featured a day trip to the grand shrines of Shinto in the sacred forests of the Ise peninsula, a veritable garden of the gods, featuring 100-foot-tall hinoki cypress trees from whose wood the shrines are built and rebuilt.

Students were assigned to focus on one kind of thing that could be studied on-site but could not be studied from photo reproductions while in Princeton. The topics of the papers written to present their studies ranged from the garden sounds of flowing water, and plants, animals, and the city, to studies of the gravel used for walkways and the sand employed to create dry gardens.

The final day was highlighted by a roshi-hosted visit to the Zen temple at Tenryuji, with a garden dating back to the 14th century, with seated meditation and shoulder thwacks for “encouragement,” and a 14-course meal that no one could finish.

Throughout the course, the  professors emphasized the uncertainty that still lingers about such questions as whether there is such a thing as a Zen garden or whether such a thing was even conceived of before the19th century, why anyone would “build” a garden at all if what is culturally desired is a purely natural space, and what was or is meant by “natural.”

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