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Norris Brock Johnson

Mountain, Temple, and the Design of Movement: 13th-Century Japanese Zen Buddhist Landscapes
Norris Brock Johnson

This paper is a comparative study of several medieval period Zen Buddhist temple landscapes in Kyoto and Kamakura, Japan: the Temple of the Abundant Flowing Spring (Zuisen-ji, 1327-1332) and the Temple of the Western Fragrance (Saiho-ji, 1339-1341). In each instance the “temple” is not simply a building but is the designed interrelationship of a building's nature and the movements of those experiencing the religious landscape.

The ascent of and descent from a mountain is the primary intent of the design, construction, and experience of these temple garden landscapes, attributed to Muso Kokushi (1275-1357). Muso’s design of Zuisen-ji and Saiho-ji forces the inclined, and often nearly vertical, movement of people within three-dimensional spaces. The character of the movement through the Temple of the Abundant Flowing Spring and the Temple of the Western Fragrance is determined by the inclusion of nature—mountains—as a vital aspect of each religious landscape.

The landscapes attributed to Muso Kokushi are the three-dimensional interrelationship of ponds, buildings, nature, and the experiential movements of people. As people move amid them, garden landscapes offer a reminder of the world as what Mircea Eliade termed a religious mode of being, and of contemplative movement through gardens of nature simply as a religious mode of being in the world.

Norris Brock Johnson is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. From 1985 to 1986 he was a Fulbright fellow and faculty member at the University of Tokyo and Waseda University, Tokyo. Johnson is engaged in firsthand study of Japanese Zen Buddhist temple architecture and landscape gardening with priests and scholars in Kyoto and Kamakura. His writings on the temple gardens of Japan center on those in Kamakura and Kyoto associated with the venerated thirteenth-century priest Muso Kokushi, with representative publications on the Temple of the Abundantly Flowing Spring [Zuisen-ji], in Kamakura, such as “A Song of Secret Places,” Pilgrimage 25, nos. 3-4 (1999): 4-10; “Temple of the Abundant Flowing Spring,” Kyoto Diary 5, no. 2 (1999):1-6; “Muso Kokushi and the Cave in Zuisen Temple, Kamakura, Japan: Buddhist Ethics, Environment, and Behavior,” National Geographic Journal of India 39:161-78. During 1990-1991 Johnson was a fellow in Studies in Landscape Architecture at Dumbarton Oaks. He is completing a book on the history, landscape symbolism, and architectural semiotics of the thirteenth-century Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple of Tenryu in Kyoto, Japan. With recent funding, his study of the intersection of religion and nature has expanded to include research on the Christian garden of Gethsemane, East Jerusalem.

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