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Suna no Bi 砂の美. A critical appreciation of sand in Japanese karesansui 枯山水 gardens

Rudi Capra
p. 30-47


The paper offers a critical appreciation of sand in the Japanese tradition of karesansui 枯山水gardens. At first, sand is approached from a phenomenological standpoint, then described in relation to the Daoist ideals of “blandness” (dan 淡) and its original function in Shinto shrines. The following sections draw an East-West comparison between the sand garden at Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺 and the sand sculptures by the Basque artist Andoni Bastarrika, and between the sand garden at Shisen-dō 詩仙堂 and the Renaissance garden at Villa di Castello. The main purpose is to illustrate the philosophical significance of sand in respect to the aesthetic expression of such Buddhist-influenced notions as ku 空 (“emptiness”), yuge 遊戲(“play”), kire-tsuzuki 切れ続き(“cut-continuance” or “dis/continuity”) and the dialectic of conventional and ultimate reality.

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A phenomenological description of sand

  • 1 Merleau-Ponty 1962: vii.
  • 2 Ibidem: 259.

1In Merleau-Ponty’s view, phenomenology is a “philosophy for which the world is always ‘already there’ before reflection begins,” interested in “re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world, and endowing that contact with a philosophical status”.1 Therefore, a phenomenological analysis operates as a contextual mirror that reflects the dialogical encounter between senses and sensed, which always takes the form of a reciprocal exchange of question-and-answer: “a sensible that is about to be sensed poses to my body a sort of confused problem”.2 The “problem” of this description is sand, taken in its most general sense.

  • 3 Klaver 2001.
  • 4 Tilley 2004.
  • 5 Dick 2014.
  • 6 Tilley 1997; Howard, Thompson and Waterton 2012.
  • 7 Ogawa 1998.
  • 8 Tilley 1997.
  • 9 Rezeanu 2019.

2Recent scholarship in phenomenology shows an increasing interest in environmental studies, analysing such phenomena as climate, natural resources, archaeological sites, urban living and natural elements. The list is too long to exhaust, but includes, for instance, rocks,3 stones,4 water in urban planning,5 the concept of landscape,6 wind and atmosphere,7 monuments,8 urban, residential, and domestic places.9

  • 10 Wesley and Puffer 2019.

3Despite the growing attention to environmental studies and concerns, phenomenology has shown very little interest in sand, and sand has never been the subject of a monographic study in phenomenology. This is appalling, because sand is, after water, the second most used natural resource on earth. Although it is rarely mentioned or considered, and not frequently encountered within an urban landscape, sand is simply necessary for producing such indispensable and widely spread materials as glass, asphalt, concrete, not to mention the silicon chips that allow me to write this article on a computer. Being a finite resource, its progressive depletion constitutes a serious environmental concern.10

4Perhaps, sand has been neglected in philosophical and phenomenological studies due to being elusive. The elusiveness of sand is evident both from a material, sensuous point of view and from a conceptual, terminological perspective. In respect to other soft, impalpable or unobtrusive elements and forces, such as water, or wind, sand varies its chemical composition and properties, manifesting through a wide variety of shapes, colours, temperatures and origins. In addition to that, the lack of philosophical interest in sand may derive from its apparent unsuitability for human life and purposes.

5At first glance, a sandscape does not differ consistently from other landforms. A sandscape may remind an unaware observer of a dry plateau, or a hilly terrain covered by grass. In respect to a plateau or a hill, the first difference one may perceive is probably tactile: when a foot steps on a dune it plunges downward. The more one pushes in search of a foothold, the more one realizes the intrinsic precariousness of sand. If our hypothetical observer, or traveller, would dare plunging the hands into the dunes, water would probably inspire the first intuitive elemental association. After all, sand, exactly like water, slips through the fingers and adapt itself to every container.

6If our traveller could then find a shady spot, unroll a carpet and take some rest while preparing some tea, maybe even camping for one or two days, the sandscape would unavoidably, and increasingly, manifest its precarious, changeable nature. A time-lapse shooting in a sandy desert reveals the extraordinary effect of winds and weather on the dunescape. Changeable tides, varying in intensity and direction, shaping all sorts of forms and figures. A geological classification divides the dunes in five types (crescentic, parabolic, dome, star and linear). Local languages and dialects include additional terms to describe the dunes: Kazakh barchan (crescent moon-shaped, wider than long), Arab seif (sword-shape dunes) and others. In summary, a sand field is an intrinsically mobile landscape. In this sense, sand is materially elusive.

7Yet, sand is also conceptually elusive. Water can be saline water, sweet water, polluted water, clear water, blue water, green water, mineral water, sparkling water, but it is invariably composed by a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. By contrary, there are countless types of sand, all originated from the erosion of rocks and minerals. There is calcium sulphate sand, calcium carbonite sand, quartz sand, coral sand, aragonite sand, volcanic sand, garnet sand, olivine sand, magnetite sand, and others. There is no single invariable element that corresponds to the single invariable term “sand.” The term embraces a whole family of fine materials, each with specific thermal and chemical properties, microscopic structure, weight and colour. Hence, a phenomenological analysis of sand determines elusiveness as its first fundamental characteristic.

8Furthermore, a hypothetical traveller in a sea of dunes would easily detect a second aspect that is immediately evident in a subjective encounter with the sand: its neutrality. I take the term “neutrality” in its etymological sense, from Latin ne-uter, “none of the two,” “not-this, not-that.” In this context, neutrality means a state of sensuous blandness and impartiality, because it implies the absence of dominant features or forces. For instance, the typical soundscape of a sandscape includes the howling of the wind, the rustling and crumbling of the dunes, eventually the patient roaring of the sea. Briefly, the seamless neutrality of a sandscape brings out in plain evidence the invisible forces that contributed to shape it. Contrasted with the inert background, all the sounds, colours and smells erupt vividly to the senses.

  • 11 A neologism dated 1964, from Greek ichor, the ethereal blood of Ancient gods, and petros, “stone”.

9This becomes far more noticeable in the olfactory experience of petrichor11, typical of dry landscapes. After long periods of dry weather, plants exude an oil that impregnates fine-grained soils. The first raindrops trigger the cyanobacteria living in the soil to produce geosmin, the compound that diffuses the characteristic musty, muddy, argillaceous odour that is nowadays known as petrichor. It is the neutral olfactory field of sandscapes that allows the emergence of petrichor in its full, pleasantly intoxicating scent. It is precisely the blandness of sand that allows the full blooming of indirect tactile, olfactory, visual and aural conditions, such as temperature, petrichor, mirages and winds.

10In this sense, a sandscape acts like a mirror, reflecting upon an inert background the surrounding weather. This is not a trivial observation, as it does not extend to most natural and urban environments. This is particularly true in the case of mirages, optical phenomena generated by extreme heat and peculiar light conditions. The optical refraction of distant sights is dependent upon the neutrality of the sandscape for its manifestation. Sand itself reflects the weather conditions through the tactile perception: fine and granulose with dry weather, wet and thick with humid weather, muddy and pasty with the rain, lashing and impalpable with the wind. Being a poor thermal conductor, sand can become terribly hot during the day, and terribly cold during the night. This virtue of being neither hot nor cold, neither this nor that, exemplifies, also from an etymological perspective, a fundamental neutrality.

  • 12 Merleau-Ponty 1962: 129.
  • 13 Gibson 1986: 52.

11Therefore, a subjective encounter with sand reveals two basic features: its elusiveness (visual, tactile, linguistic, conceptual) and its neutrality, understood as a lack of distinctive and permanent qualities. Both features express a fundamental alterity, if not hostility, in respect to human life and needs. Merleau-Ponty claims that, in addition to the “positional spatiality,” the body has a “situational spatiality” that implies the orientation toward a set of affordances, actual or possible tasks.12 From this point of view, a sandscape does not offer significant affordances to most living creatures. It is perpetually unstable. It provides few or no resources at all and is associated with extreme temperatures, scarce vegetation, no food, no water, no landmarks, no shelter. It offers little or no reliable information for structuring space, in an analogous (but different) fashion to the way in which Gibson describes a fog so dense that “the light could not reverberate between surfaces but only between the droplets or particles in the medium”.13

12Whereas Gibson conceives of an unstructured light that radiates in all directions and without gradations of intensity, by virtue of which “the environment is not specified and no information about an environment is available,” a sandscape itself is an environment, filled with information available to the wanderer. Nonetheless, the persistent instability of the sandscape prevents the structuring of this information into stable, reliable patterns, reducible to one or more affordances, persisting in a state of alterity. A sandscape is then neutral in the etymological sense, ne-uter: “not-this, not-that”.

Neutrality as potency

  • 14 The most significant passage occurs at the beginning of Chapter 5 of the Daodejing. In the beautifu (...)

13Already in the Daodejing, nature is described as a force that is fundamentally other, neutral, in respect to human feelings and expectations. Not plainly benevolent, not necessarily malevolent: nature is “not humane” (buren 不仁), it rejects all forms of partiality.14 Nonetheless, the non-quality of being neutral appears as the universal indeterminate source of all particular determinations: in Chapter 12 is written,

The five colours

make one’s eyes blind. […]

The five tastes

make one’s palate obtuse.

The five tones

  • 15 All extracts from the Daodejing refer to the translation by Hans-Georg Moeller (2007).

make one’s ear deaf.15

  • 16 Moeller 2007: 29.

14Even though there is certainly an ascetic nuance in this passage, I believe Moeller has a point in identifying the major theme of the chapter not in plain abstention, but rather in the necessity to keep “a taste for the tasteless”.16 The clear prevalence of a single colour, flavour or tone leads to the loss of a balanced taste, exactly as the clear prevalence of a single species can destroy an ecosystem. The balanced neutrality (or “impartiality”) of nature is an inexhaustible source of forms, colours, tones and affordances.

15This aspect partially explains the traditional fondness of Daoist literature for water and water-related imagery. Water is soft, transparent, colourless and flavourless, but precisely this blandness constitutes an inexhaustible source of flexible strength and transformative power. Despite its apparent softness and its tendency to surrender to the environment, water erodes entire valleys and is ultimately able to shape the environment. This peculiar combination of neutrality and resourcefulness is also reflected in the element of sand.

16In fact, sand and water share several features. Both are perpetually elusive and unstable, unsuitable for human settlement. Both serve a wide variety of productive, technological, ritual, religious, practical purposes. Both are subject to weather conditions, shaped by winds, structured in waves. Both are inert masses that can be aroused to the point of causing great destruction. Both tend to slip through fingers and adjust their shape to the container. Both form huge deserts. The Japanese tradition of karesansui gardening is manifestly aware of the physical and metaphorical proximity of sand and water. More fundamentally, sand and water share blandness, a fundamental attribute of the dao 道as illustrated in Chapter 35:

How bland – it is without taste!
Looking at it
does not suffice to see it.
Listening to it
does not suffice to hear it.
Using it
cannot exhaust it.

17Exactly as the dao 道, sand appears flavourless (wuwei 無味), inactive (wuwei 無為) and bland (dan 淡). Yet, listening and hearing are not sufficient to comprehend the powerful forces that have concurred in creating sand and shaping a sandscape. Likewise, the function (yong 用) of sand is virtually inexhaustible (bu zu ji 不足既).

  • 17 Jullien 2004: 25.
  • 18 Ibidem: 24.

18This neutrality, referred to as “blandness” (fadeur) in a monographic essay of François Jullien, has been defined as “the common ground of all currents of Chinese thought”.17 As an aesthetic quality, it is characterized by a distinctive lack of distinctive qualities; as an experience, it is “that phase when different flavours no longer stand in opposition to each other but, rather, abide within plenitude”.18

  • 19 Ibidem: 43.

19In fact, a peculiar taste for the tasteless is already evident in ancient Chinese ink wash landscape paintings, in which the blank, pale background embraces the melting of the most diverse shapes and substances: waves, clouds, plains, fogs, torrents, wetlands, winds, all elements merge and abide in the plenitude of the void. Ancient critics reassume this aspect with a single word – dan 淡, “bland,” that can also mean “indifferent,” “detached”.19 This aesthetics of blandness was ultimately built upon wide areas of blank space. After all, the technique of “leaving-blank” (liubai 留白) was (and still is) a recurrent ordering principle in traditional Chinese landscape painting and gardening art.

  • 20 The compositional strategies employed in Japanese rock and sand gardens show that Zen priests were (...)
  • 21 Parkes 2000: 92.

20Yet, this “blandness” does not merely express an aesthetic principle, but also a worldview deeply affected by the passing of time and, increasingly after the advent of Buddhism, infused with a poignant sense for the beauty of emptiness. In the tradition of Japanese karesansui 枯山水 (dry-landscape) gardens, whose deep connection with Zen Buddhism has been discussed at length, sand becomes a recurrent element due to its innate representational potency.20 Sand works as a polysemic material that, depending on the case, hints at the babbling of water, the flowing of time, the eternity of change, the omnipresence of voidness. Following the natural sensitivity of Chinese thought to analogies between microcosm and macrocosm, the small karesansui gardens replicate majestic landscapes (sansui 山水) in which mountains (san 山) and streams (sui 水), allegories for different aspects of reality, the hard and the soft, the solid and the fluid, the unmoving and the ever-flowing, are replaced by massive rocks and oceans of sand or gravel.21

21The influence of Buddhism favoured the progressive diffusion of karesansui gardens during the Muromachi period (1333-1573). The architectural style known as shinden 寝殿, typical of Chinese aristocratic mansions, evolved to the more austere shoin 書院. Gradually, in the shoin, the garden became less a space to be walked in or assigned to a ceremonial function, and more an object of contemplation. In the “contemplation gardens” (kansho-niwa 観賞庭), sand often marks the “liminal spaces” (kekkai 結界) that separate the mundane from the sacred, or in the case of a temple, daily activities from contemplation. Sometimes, sand is merely a pale background for asymmetrical compositions of rocks and gravel. But in many cases, the creative flair of monks and gardeners is expressed precisely through the polysemic potency of the sand element.

  • 22 Berthier 2000: 46.
  • 23 Mansfield 2009: 17.
  • 24 Nitschke 2003: 14.
  • 25 Berthier 2000: 47; Russell Coulter and Turner 2000: 246.

22However, it is important to note that sand had already acquired a sacred connotation in Japanese religion well before the spread of Buddhism during the Asuka period (538-710). One of the most ancient Japanese terms to indicate a “garden,” niwa 庭, originally referred to a ritual space in Shinto shrines, covered and delimited by sand.22 The conjunction of these liminal spaces (yuniwa 斎庭) served as religious and political spaces for the realization of official ceremonies; small sand mounds known as kiyome no mori 清めの盛りwere employed in ritual purifications.23 Sand, especially the white sand from Shirakawa (Shirakawa no suna 白川の砂), abundant in the Kyoto area, became a symbol of purity and cleanliness. Possibly, sand was also an implicit reference to the cosmogonic myth of Japan, in which two deities draw sandy islands from the sea with a spear.24 After the creation of the islands, the couple gave birth to several kami, among which was Iwasuhime-no-kami, a divine princess who was intimately related to the element of sand.25

23The Shinto habit of composing sandy mounds (such as the kiyome no mori 清めの盛り) and sand patterns in the form of swirls, circles and waves (known as samon 砂紋), was then reabsorbed in the cultural texture of Zen Buddhism, acquiring new perceptual and conceptual configurations. The adjectives usually employed to describe the sand (white, neutral, blank, bland), imbued with Daoist and Buddhist nuances, all point to the original indeterminacy that has no form and allows, by virtue of being formless, the contingent determination of every form.

An East-West perspective: Sand Art between metonymies and mimesis

24The renowned site of Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺 is a place where the aesthetic potency of the sand element is fully actualized. This Kyoto temple, formerly a retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa 足利義政 (1436-1490), includes a sand garden consisting of the kogetsudai 向月台 (“moon-viewing platform”), a conical sand dome with a flat summit, and the ginshadan 銀沙灘 (“silver shore,” also known as “sea of silver sand”), a dry lake of white sand raked in striped patterns (Fig. 1, the kogetsudai on the right).

25Generally associated with Mount Fuji and one of its lakes, these sand sculptures may symbolize, more basically, the foundational elements of all painted and actual “landscapes” (sansui 山水): mountains (san 山), solid materializations of concentrated cosmic energy; and flowing water (sui 水), ever-changing and omni-pervasive, perpetually in motion, evokes an intuitive proximity with the effortless and invisible action of time. As illustrated by Parkes, since ancient times mountains were considered as concrete embodiments of cosmic forces:

  • 26 Parkes 2000: 90-92.

What is significant here is not so much the idea of rock as bone of the earth but of stone as a concentration of earth’s ‘essential energy.’ […] Mountains as the most majestic expressions of natural forces were regarded as especially numinous beings: Five Sacred Peaks stood for the centre of the world and its four cardinal points. Rocks were thought to partake of the powers of the mountain less through their resembling its outward appearance than for their being true microcosms, animated by the same telluric energies that form the heights and peaks. In relation to the basic element of water, which is yin, rock in its hardness again manifests yang energy.26

26Bodies of water were also endowed with a peculiar significance, especially in the Daoist tradition. Water shows a paradoxical combination of strength and softness, it is perpetually in motion and steadily identical to itself, characteristics that were ideally associated with the Daoist sage, who operates with the utmost efficacy and without egoistic involvement, mirroring the action of water:

  • 27 Moeller 2007: 180.

While water is the softest of all materials, it still can tackle and overcome the hardest stone. It cannot be “changed.” It permanently and naturally follows its steady course without any effort.27

27In respect to a rock or a mountain, the kogetsudai appears truncated, soft, sketched, still in the act of formation or already in the act of dissolution. In respect to a body of water, the ginshadan appears crystallized, frozen, candied in silver, petrified, seized in the velvety stillness of the early morning low tide. Both elements are thus neutralized, i.e., made neutral in respect to their most evident perceptual and symbolic quality: the mountain is deprived of its strength, hardness, immutability; the sea is abstracted from its incessant, disorderly movement. In the Ginkaku-ji sand garden, natural forms plunges in the undifferentiated fadeur, the neutral invisible source of all visible differences.

  • 28 Upon being treated with water, glue, or other adhesive substances.

28In considering, instead, the sand sculptures by the artist Andoni Bastarrika, we find a masterful exemplification of the mimetic style of sand art that, still nowadays, prevails in Western sand gardens and sand art exhibitions. These majestic sculptures, carefully crafted and decorated with coloured powders, strike the observer due to their astonishing mimetic virtue: the shark, for instance, is so realistic it could certainly be confused with a real one, and even scare a strolling bather (Fig. 2). Sand is not appreciated for its neutrality, but rather for its ductility; or rather, neutrality is not cherished due to its vague lack of definite qualities, but due to its precise capacity to embody definite forms.28

  • 29 According to the legend, Zeuxis and Parrhasius were the best painters of the 4th Century BCE in Gre (...)

29The sand sculptures by Bastarrika replace the represented object within an artistic logic of mimetic resemblance; the striking degree of similarity is an active quality that shocks and captivates the observer, following the trend of illusionistic realism. Even though so-called “illusionistic realism” defines more a pictorial approach than an actual current, or school, it exemplifies the traditional conception of mimesis as faithful, almost illusionistic representation of reality. It presents an increasingly accurate depiction of the visual, perspectival appearance of things, with the implicit purpose of playing (“illude” from il-lūdĕre) with the perceptual faculties of the observer. Such artistic ambition is perfectly exemplified in the famous, ancient story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius.29

30On the contrary, Japanese sand gardens dilute the vivid figures and colours of reality into the pale, amorphous void of a sandscape. There is not a univocal way to define and distinguish metonymy, but there is a general consensus on the concept that metonymy works by association, connecting things that are different. In this perspective, the sand garden at Ginkaku-ji constitutes, as most sand gardens, a visual metonymy: in the juxtaposition of sand and natural elements we discover a non-mimetic relationship between sandscape and landscape. In other words, the implicit comparison of natural elements and sand forms exhibits a gap that needs to be filled and explored by the imagination. The observer is then invited to actively venture into a reflexive, even interpretive effort. In the encounter with a sand garden, the raw neutrality of sand represents then an occasion for the displacement of sense and meaning.

31This aesthetic mechanism is particularly effective when the artificial sandscape establishes a dissonant, even conflicting relationship, with the surrounding natural scenery. By “borrowing the scenery” (shakkei 借景), the gardeners highlight the sharp contrast between the dead, empty precinct of sand and the outer, lively, luxuriant beauty of a seasonal, changing world. The principle of “borrowed scenery” (C. jiejing, J. shakkei 借景) refers precisely to the idea of incorporating in a garden part of the surrounding landscape. It is an important aesthetic concept in garden-making, both in Chinese and Japanese cultures.

32The flowing of time, imperceptible to a naked eye gazing at the landscape, is evoked even more directly by the unchanging blankness of the sandscape, which hints to the fundamental emptiness lying behind natural phenomena. On the one hand, the seasonal, changing world reminds the universal law of “impermanence” (Pali: aniccā) that, according to the Buddhist view, affects all existing forms. On the other hand, the dry, unchanging precinct of sand reminds that all existing forms are therefore empty at their core, devoid of any permanent feature, aspect, element or soul. Precisely this interplay, more than any painting or treatise, can manifest the central idea expressed in the Heart Sutra, that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

An East-West perspective: gardens of emptiness, gardens of forms

  • 30 Hisamatsu 1971: 88.
  • 31 As explained by Garfield, “suppose that we take a conventional entity, such as a table. We analyze (...)

33The philosopher Shinichi Hisamatsu 真一久松 has suggested that Japanese “rock gardens” (sekitei 石庭), should rather be called “gardens of emptiness” (kutei 空庭), clearly alluding to the pervasive influence that the Buddhist notion of “emptiness” (ku 空) had on the development of Japanese arts and aesthetic taste.30 Originally, Buddhist emptiness refers to the principle that all phenomena in the universe are empty of permanent nature or intrinsic essence. For this reason, the conventional world of forms and things we inhabit is just one truth; the other truth is the realization that all the universe manifests itself as empty of permanent nature or intrinsic essence. Buddhism predicates the coexistence and co-dependence of the two truths.31

  • 32 Garfield 1995: 296.

34From an existential point of view, this doctrinal point is also expressed as the duality of “conventional” and “ultimate” reality. Conventional reality is the habitual realm of ordinary life and natural phenomena; to recognise ultimate reality means to see all things as emptiness. Nāgārjuna stressed the complementarity of the two: “Without a foundation in the conventional truth the significance of the ultimate cannot be taught. Without understanding the significance of the ultimate, liberation is not achieved”.32

  • 33 Even before the advent of Buddhism, the mechanism of kire-tsuzuki ¤Áれ続きas dis/continuity was alread (...)
  • 34 Mansfield 2009: 46.

35Understanding ultimate reality as emptiness demands a momentary leap back from conventional reality, before realizing the fundamental continuity between the two. This movement is mirrored by the aesthetic structure of kire-tsuzuki 切れ続き (“cut-continuance”), a foundational principle of Japanese aesthetics.33 A sand precinct operates in the same fashion, operating a spatial and morphological cut from the surrounding nature while setting at the same time the opportunity for a renewed continuity. In this regard, sand is inert and dry, the opposite of water; nonetheless, a chiselled mass of sand appears homogeneous, opaque and smooth, similar to a pond. Then, the cut establishes a metonymical continuity: what is not-water and without-water is precisely perceived as water, leading to a paradox that is well illustrated by the words of art historian Yoshinobu Yoshinaga in describing karesansui as “an attempt to represent the innermost essence of water, without actually using water, and to represent it even more profoundly than would be possible with real water”.34

  • 35 Ōhashi explores the concept of yuge ¹CÀ¸ in relation to the Ryōan-ji Às¦w¦x. Translated from Italia (...)

36In Shinto shrines, sand originally cut off a limited area from the surrounding nature, designating a sacred precinct assigned to rites and ceremonial offerings; the cut was not meant to sever a connection with the natural world, but on the opposite, to reinforce it. In a similar way, sand operates in Japanese karesansui as the negative term of a dialectic structure, negating the movement and liveliness of the natural world in order to reaffirm it on an indirect scale, metonymically. This is particularly evident in the garden of Shisen-dō 詩仙堂, in which round bushes of azalea face a white, round boulder on a pale, carefully raked sand ground (Fig. 3). In early spring or autumn, when the azaleas are in full blossom, the chromatic contrast appears particularly sharp. From a Buddhist perspective, the interplay of colours, forms, materials and surfaces, of grass and sand, reflects the interplay of ultimate and conventional reality, emptiness and phenomenal world, to the extent that karesansui gardens may also be named, citing another influential notion of traditional Japanese aesthetics, yugetei 遊戲庭 (“gardens of play”).35

  • 36 Parkes 2000: 136.

37In the asymmetrical, austere arrangement of karesansui gardens, the bland, neutral character of sand illuminates the co-dependence of emptiness and natural phenomena. In the Buddhist view, the mutable, impermanent world of natural forms and the unchanging emptiness that lies at their core are one and the same, and by discovering this inherent ambiguity one realizes the true nature of things in its “suchness” (nyo 如). Talking about the Ryōanji, arguably the most famous karesansui garden, Parkes writes: “The rocks and gravel at Ryōanji, in being like mountains and waters but cut off from nature and dried up, conceal the mutable outward form of natural phenomena and thereby reveal their true form: suchness, as being one with emptiness”.36

  • 37 The idea of an intelligible cosmos (from the Greek kosmos, “order”) that is entirely explainable an (...)
  • 38 Laird and Palmer 1992.

38The aesthetics of karesansui shows a striking difference with the Western tradition of formal gardens, a tradition that is the implicit vehicle of a different, contrasting worldview, built around the notion of cosmos as an ordered space that is organized by intelligible laws expressed through mathematical principles.37 The tradition of formal gardens, inspired by Roman villas and medieval monastic gardens, and perfected during the Renaissance and greatly influential in the subsequent development of French gardens, is based upon the principle of imposing order over nature through symmetrical layouts and geometrical patterns.38

39Among the brightest examples of formal gardening stands the garden of Villa di Castello, country residence of Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), Duke of Florence and Grand Duke of Tuscany. The lunette painted by Flemish artist Justus Utens (1599) illustrates in a wide angle view a harmonious grid of luxuriant squares and walking paths, decorated by sculptures, small buildings, stairways and fountains axially disposed (Fig. 4). Even in this case, the paradigmatic aspect of a formal garden creates a sharp contrast with the surrounding landscape, opposing the order of the garden to the untamed wilderness of the scenery.

  • 39 Cosgrove 1989: 122.
  • 40 Among the implications of the concept of landscape, Cosgrove lists “the idea of human intervention (...)
  • 41 Foucault 1977: 228.

40In this perspective, the interplay of garden and landscape does not merely assume a metaphysical connotation, but also a political one: the aesthetic arrangement of a garden, a landscape, a space, can also be read as an ideological map that illustrates the relation of production, exploitation, domination and alienation.39 Starting from the Renaissance, private gardens often became symbols of courtly magnificence or bourgeois ambitions, expressing either monarchic and aristocratic power or the commercial interest of the merchant class through the exhibition of refined symmetries, monuments, statues, fountains and the implementation of horticultural and hydrological technologies.40 After all, it is precisely during the Renaissance that the rational allocation of space becomes increasingly related to the control of people, within a socio-political context in which “discipline can only be effective through the control and structuring of space”.41

41Hence, it is no surprise that the anarchic neutrality of sand has no place in a formal garden. Odourless, formless, lifeless, blown away by the wind, mudded by the rain, sand is resistant to any organizing principle, evades all structural configurations. Perhaps it is not by chance that the writer Kōbō Abe 公房安部 chose a remote dunescape as the ideal setting for his existentialist novel, Woman in The Dunes (Suna no onna 砂の女, 1962). The protagonist, trapped in a sandy cave with a widow for days, months, years, gradually loses contact with social norms, social conventions, even with his social persona. The desolate, unescapable emptiness of the dunescape becomes, in the end, almost a relief from the burden of the social nexus. Once more, sand becomes a milieu of emptiness, ideally opposed to the realm of forms.

42Several Buddhist authors and treatises insist on the necessity to master the dual dimension of reality, canonically distinguished as “ultimate” and “conventional.” The awareness of the transitory, vacuous nature of things inspires a state of serene detachment from the turmoil and anxieties of everyday life. Nonetheless, this detachment must be converted into an ethical commitment: helping all sentient beings to liberate themselves from suffering. This dialectic of meditative detachment and ethical engagement, of cut and continuance in respect to the “conventional” reality of forms, objects, seasons and everyday life, is typically exemplified in Japanese “gardens of emptiness” through the studied juxtaposition of sand and natural forms.

43There is one more instance of sand art that is particularly illuminating in relation to the dialectic of engagement and detachment within a Buddhist framework. In Tibetan Buddhism, the complicated process of achieving a perfect balance between action and emptiness is ritualized through the making of mandalas, sophisticated sand drawings that take days, even weeks to be completed, only to be subsequently dismantled in a few hours. The ritual creation and destruction of a mandala expresses both the opportunity for discovering ineffable beauty in human actions and the necessity to emancipate from the intoxicating beauty of this floating, ephemeral world.

Concluding remarks

44A phenomenological outlook on sand reveals its elusiveness and neutrality in respect to primary anthropic affordances, such as dwelling, settling, constructing, cultivating, sheltering and so forth. Considering its fundamental “alterity” in respect to basic human needs, sand presents intriguing affinities with Daoist blandness (dan 淡) and also detained a sacred role in Shinto architecture and ceremonies.

45These aspects were preserved and exploited by the Japanese tradition of karesansui gardens, where sand forms, sand oceans, sand precinct and sand mounds were frequently employed, thanks to their innate representational potency. In this context, sand works as a polysemic material that hints at such natural phenomena as the flowing of water, the passing of time, while reinstating emptiness as a foundational concept of the Buddhist worldview.

46The contrast between Bastarrika’s sand sculptures and the sandscape of Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺, and between Villa di Castello and Shisen-dō 詩仙堂, offered the opportunity for comparing a mimetic and a metonymic conception of art, a garden of forms and a garden of emptiness, witnessing how the raw neutrality of sand represents an occasion for the playful displacement of sense and meaning. In particular, following the aesthetic structure of kire-tsuzuki 切れ続き (cut-continuance or (dis)continuity), which is characteristic of Japanese arts and culture, sand gardens also express the interplay of conventional and ultimate reality.

47I hope this critical appreciation of sand in Japanese karesansui gardens helps in illustrating the significance of a specific medium that has been long ignored and neglected in philosophical analysis. Precisely due to its vague, unobtrusive character, sand manages to express the Buddhist worldview in a remarkably efficient and salient way.

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1 Merleau-Ponty 1962: vii.

2 Ibidem: 259.

3 Klaver 2001.

4 Tilley 2004.

5 Dick 2014.

6 Tilley 1997; Howard, Thompson and Waterton 2012.

7 Ogawa 1998.

8 Tilley 1997.

9 Rezeanu 2019.

10 Wesley and Puffer 2019.

11 A neologism dated 1964, from Greek ichor, the ethereal blood of Ancient gods, and petros, “stone”.

12 Merleau-Ponty 1962: 129.

13 Gibson 1986: 52.

14 The most significant passage occurs at the beginning of Chapter 5 of the Daodejing. In the beautiful translation of Hans-Georg Moeller: “Heaven and Earth are not humane. /They regard the ten thousand things as straw dogs. /The sage is not humane. /He regards all the people as straw dogs.” Besides the obvious critique to Confucian moralism, the chapter “is one of the most outspoken nonhumanist chapters in the Laozi” and presents the ideal sage as “totally unbiased and impartial – and void of one-sided emotions” (Moeller 2007: 12).

15 All extracts from the Daodejing refer to the translation by Hans-Georg Moeller (2007).

16 Moeller 2007: 29.

17 Jullien 2004: 25.

18 Ibidem: 24.

19 Ibidem: 43.

20 The compositional strategies employed in Japanese rock and sand gardens show that Zen priests were familiar with (and therefore indebted to) the Chinese tradition of landscape gardening and landscape painting, as illustrated by Wybe Kuitert, “Composition of Scenery in Japanese Pre-Modern Gardens and the Three Distances of Guo Xi” in Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 33, 1: 1-15.

21 Parkes 2000: 92.

22 Berthier 2000: 46.

23 Mansfield 2009: 17.

24 Nitschke 2003: 14.

25 Berthier 2000: 47; Russell Coulter and Turner 2000: 246.

26 Parkes 2000: 90-92.

27 Moeller 2007: 180.

28 Upon being treated with water, glue, or other adhesive substances.

29 According to the legend, Zeuxis and Parrhasius were the best painters of the 4th Century BCE in Greece. In a competition between the two, Zeuxis painted grapes so realistic that birds saw the image and attempted to eat them. Then, Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to lift up the curtain and show his painting, but the curtain itself was painted. Having tricked a fellow artist, Parrhasius was declared the winner.

30 Hisamatsu 1971: 88.

31 As explained by Garfield, “suppose that we take a conventional entity, such as a table. We analyze it to demonstrate its emptiness, finding that there is no table apart from its parts, that it cannot be distinguished in a principled way from its antecedent and subsequent histories, and so forth. So we conclude that it is empty. But now let us analyze that emptiness—the emptiness of the table, to see what we find. What do we find? Nothing at all but the table’s lack of inherent existence. The emptiness depends upon the table. No conventional table – no emptiness of the table […] Emptiness is hence not different from conventional reality—it is the fact that conventional reality is conventional” (2002: 38-39).

32 Garfield 1995: 296.

33 Even before the advent of Buddhism, the mechanism of kire-tsuzuki ¤Áれ続きas dis/continuity was already codified in ritual and architectural practices. Ōhashi, translated from Italian: “The first approach to kire, to the ‘dis/continuity’ between nature and technique, already lies at the origins of the culture of shinto” (Ōhashi 2018: 42).

34 Mansfield 2009: 46.

35 Ōhashi explores the concept of yuge ¹CÀ¸ in relation to the Ryōan-ji Às¦w¦x. Translated from Italian: “Which word is able to express that which is at work in this garden? A first clue is the fact that the domains of religion and art are here mutually transparent and permeate each other. In other words: who gained the access to this garden, can freely enter and leave both worlds, without being hindered by the borders. We have already seen this freedom (jizaisei) in the figure of the arhat, who infringes everyday life just to come back to it. […] He possesses the freedom to move between the two planes. This “free play” in Buddhist terminology is defined as yuge ¹CÀ¸, a concept that indicates the highest degree both in religious practice and in figurative arts” (Ōhashi 2018: 99).

36 Parkes 2000: 136.

37 The idea of an intelligible cosmos (from the Greek kosmos, “order”) that is entirely explainable and understandable in the rules and principles of mathematics is obviously indebted to the historical influence of Pythagoreanism, whose influence in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was extensive (see for instance Allen 2014; Hicks 2014). Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) are among the notable thinkers who described the universe in the terms of a Pythagorean cosmology (see for instance Heninger 1974, Kristeller 1979).

38 Laird and Palmer 1992.

39 Cosgrove 1989: 122.

40 Among the implications of the concept of landscape, Cosgrove lists “the idea of human intervention and control of the forces that shape and reshape our world.” Anthropic elements within a landscape, and even more evidently within a garden, suggest “that geography is everywhere, that it is a constant source of beauty and ugliness, of right and wrong and joy and suffering, as much as it is of profit and loss” (Cosgrove 1989: 121-122).

41 Foucault 1977: 228.

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Rudi Capra, «Suna no Bi 砂の美. A critical appreciation of sand in Japanese karesansui 枯山水 gardens »Rivista di estetica, 80 | 2022, 30-47.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Rudi Capra, «Suna no Bi 砂の美. A critical appreciation of sand in Japanese karesansui 枯山水 gardens »Rivista di estetica [Online], 80 | 2022, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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