Written Assignments

Zen and the Japanese Landscape


Web Resources for This Assignment

Zen Buddhism
A short essay on the nature of Zen Buddhism
Buddhism
What is Architecture?

Representation   By this point in the class, you've come far enough in knowledge and reading primary texts to taking a stab at actually looking at the world through the eyes of someone from another culture. The question we'll be focussing on in this assignment is "representation." This is a complex term that refers to just about every communicative act that humans engage in; it can be understood as the combination of two things:
  • Seeing the physical world—representation is always, to some extent, about some perception of the real world, whether it's outside or inside the self;
  • World view—representation is always about imposing one's world view on what one is perceiving.
   While representation is always about perception, as a communicative act it is primarily about world view, that is, it is about communicating one's understanding of what one is perceiving. That world view is always inherited from the culture; while we have romantic notions about the creative powers of artists, essentially all artists get their ideas from the culture around them.

   This has some very interesting consequences. If all representation, and this includes painting, sculpture, photography, literature, etc., is about imposing a world view on what one perceives, then all representation can be used, to some extent, to figure out the world view of the culture that gave rise to it.


Landscape Architecture   This assignment is about how another culture imagines and perceives the landscape around them, how human culture forms and interprets the natural world around a particular world view. Everytime you look at the world, you see human culture at work molding and interpreting the natural world (unless you're out in the middle of a wilderness). That molding and shaping of the natural world leads us to conceive of the natural world in culture-specific ways—whenever you look at a landscape, you see something different than another culture.

   On this assignment, I want you to closely examine a Japanese shaping of the environment. You've probably seen Japanese gardens, but you've only understood them in terms of your own, Western culture. I want you instead to look at the Japanese remolding of the natural world through a different lens: that of Buddhism and the particular form of Buddhism that is Zen.


Japanese Garden Goes Here


Japanese Garden Goes Here


The Assignment   Nothing says Zen quite like a gravel garden. The meaning of the garden below can only be found in Buddhism and in Zen ideas. I want you to analyze what you see using either Buddhism or Zen Buddhism to interpret either the visual properties or the relationship of the individual to the garden. You must focus on specific visual elements of the scene and relate them to one overarching idea that you're deriving from Buddhism or Zen Buddhism.

   Your essay, then, will have two parts. In the first part, you will explain the idea that you're using from Zen or from Buddhism. In the second part, you will use the details of that first discussion to explain specific visual elements of the landscape architecture. If you need some theoretical foundation to discuss architecture, use the learning module, What is Architecture? for some ideas.


Grading   You'll be graded on both your discussion of Buddhism and your application of that discussion to what you see in the picture. The particular focus of the grading will be on your use of details, both in your explanation of Buddhism and your concentration on the image. The details in both sections must correspond with rigorous exactness.


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Updated 9-15-97