Japanese gardens often feature stones, called 句碑 Kuhi with short poetic inscriptions carved in them. So there is a long tradition of having short pieces of wisdom inscribed in the Japanese garden.
The 19th century Japanologist Lafcadio Hearn has described these monumental stones as being so common in Japanese rock gardens and elsewhere that,
“It is probable, too, that you will become so habituated at last to the sight of inscriptions cut upon rock surface, especially if you travel much through the country, that you will often find yourself involuntarily looking for texts or other chiselings where there are none, and could not possibly be, as if ideographs belonged by natural law to rock formation.”
As Japanese garden designs are usually constructed as wholistic spaces that take in such considerations as the surrounding environment, in the form of shakkei borrowed landscapes that often spill as far as Japanese home decor inside, or the historic context of a place (I think of the rice paddy incorporated into the garden of shugakuin as a nod to the area’s agricultural past), often Japanese garden quotes and poetry overtly or implicitly references and expands the context of the garden itself.
Here I’ve translated and collected some samples of this kuhi poetry stone quotes and placed them beside translations of quotes from famous Japanese gardeners, poets, and Japanologists.
In looking at this topic there is one figure that looms above all the others. The poet Basho.
Basho Nature and Garden Poems
By far the most common poetry to be inscribed on kuhi poetry stones is the work of Basho, who perhaps could be described as “Japan’s Shakespeare”.
Here is a selection of Basho’s poems that reference gardens and nature, many of which you can see inscribed in stones in and around gardens in Japan.
Aiko Morita garden quote
Aiko Morita was a Haiku poet who lived from 1917-to 1947, most for her 虹 Niji (Rainbow) collection of poetry. She was a proponent of the “sketch of life” 写生分 Shaseibun style of writing.
Characteristics of Japanese Gardens
- Respect: A sense of reverence and respect for the earth and all its creatures and plants is fundamental to the aesthetic of the Japanese garden.
- Renewal: Nature renews itself without our help; we need only step back and allow it to happen. This concept of renewal is fundamental to the aesthetic of the Japanese garden.
- Balance: The goal of the designer was not simply to create ‘a beautiful place’ but rather to create a balance between man and nature.
- The idea that balance is achieved when man respects nature by allowing it to be as it was before the arrival of humans, and not interfering with its natural processes. This concept has been around for a long time in many different forms.
- Beauty in nature: In Japan, gardens are not just gardens they are often sacred and spiritual places.
Quotes from famous Japanese gardeners
Gardening and philosophy have a close coexistence in Japan. The connection between the creation of aesthetic beauty and the beauty of the inner mind is immediately apparent for anyone who visits one of the many breathtaking Buddhist, zen, or otherwise, temple gardens in Japan. The ancient tree, winding path, and Cherry tree nestle closely beside the garden of the mind.
So there is a long tradition of Japanese gardeners and landscape architects expounding on their own personal philosophy, both in direct relation to gardening, and to life more generally. This tradition continues today with modern-day gardeners, many of whom have created their own iconic visionary landscapes, who release tomes of their own musings and incantations.
Here are just a few thoughts from these gardeners reflecting on harmony with nature and life:
Quotes from Japanologists
From the late 19th century onwards, Japanese aesthetics generally, and Japanese gardens in particular, have been hugely influential the world over. Famous examples include the 20th-century composer and philosopher John Cage who famously was so smitten with the Japanese rock garden at the ryoanji temple on the North-Western outskirts of Kyoto, that he composed a piece of music which he named after the temple.
But from the very earliest days of Japan’s opening from its two and a half centuries of self-imposed sakkoku isolation, people non-native to Japan have fallen in love and expounded the virtues of, Japanese gardens.
There have also been groundbreaking Japanese nationals, such as D.T. Suzuki who made it their life’s work to help people from beyond their home country understand more about what they were seeing. These people often became fluent in foreign languages in order to do so.
Here are a few examples from these thinkers:
Lafcadio Hearn was one of the first Western writers to extensively comment on Japanese culture in the period not long after Japan’s opening up to the world after the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century. He had an interesting pan-national history having been born in Greece, raised in Ireland, living in the U.S.A as a young man, traveling through India before settling in Japan. And we think we are global citizens today!
Lafcadio had plenty to say about gardens:
J. Carter Brown
Japanese Sayings That Reference Gardens
Japanese also has many proverbs and sayings that refer to nature and gardens. To take just a few:
Japanese garden Quotes: In Conclusion
Many of these quotes and poems point to the fact that the glory of gardening is found not just in the external world, but in the internal world of both the creator and viewer.
Text is sometimes used in Japanese gardens to help create “signposts” that help prime the mind to view and interact with the landscape in various ways.
The Japanese tradition of Kuhi inscribed stones stretches back hundreds of years, and continues to be a vibrant living tradition.
Hopefully, some of these selections of Japanese garden quotes, poems, and texts have helped to get you thinking. Perhaps this post can serve as its own digital poetry stone, planted in the garden of the internet.
Perhaps I’ll leave the last word not to a Japanologist, but to American singer Tom Waits who sings, “Never let the weeds get higher than the garden. Always keep a sapphire in your mind.”
See more Japanese quotes here.