Trayscapes, or bonkei (盆景) in Japanese, are an excellent way to practise the fundamental elements of design, and in particular rock arrangement – without straining muscles or budgets. Bonkei are essentially very small garden landscapes that can be created from the comfort of a chair if you so wish! Bonkei use plants and small rocks in the depiction of landscapes. An allied art form, bonseki 盆石 is very similar, but uses fine white sand on black lacquered trays to depict landscape scenery. The sand is manipulated with tools such as feathers in the creation of artworks that are not dissimilar to paintings. Sometimes this may involve also using small rocks to represent mountains or islands. Bonkei are more akin to three-dimensional sculptural pieces, and may include among the planted areas scaled down buildings, also animal and human figures set in the landscape settings. Bonkei and bonseki have a long history in Japan, and they have been created since at least the 13th century, and have been very popular with many classes of society. The idea of bonkei or creating reductive versions of landscapes probably originated in China, where they are called peng jing, though they are found through history all across south-east Asia (there is a long tradition of creating trayscapes in Vietnam). In essence these miniaturized depictions of landscapes were an extension of the use of the garden to depict images or models of a paradisial state, and in doing so, to bring the qualities of the existence of such a state into the daily lives of those who made and tended such ‘landscapes’.
Trayscapes were seen to be a way of concentrating the life-giving forces contained within the landscape. To Taoist adepts dew was considered to be a drink of the immortals. Stones were placed (also mirrors too) in trays to catch dew, which was believed to originate from the moon. By this means the stones themselves were considered to have sacred qualities, and these qualities would pass on to collectors who displayed trayscapes in their homes. If stones can be endowed with sacred qualities then it is the same for plants that grow on them. One often used plants associated with trayscapes are bonsai pine trees. The pine in itself has many associations with longevity. Very old pines have a bark texture that is ‘stone like’ in appearance, and they can be to be found growing in narrow cracks in rock faces, where the tree and rock become inseparable one from the other.
As a garden apprentice in Japan one of the ways our sensei would explain the principles of stone arrangement was by demonstrating with using small pieces of stones and ordinary building sand. Work time was not considered a suitable occasion for lengthy explanations of what he was doing by way arranging stones, an apprentice was expected to obey orders swiftly, not to puzzle over what one’s teacher was doing. But come a rainy day when site work was not possible then getting a small group of apprentices together, and working with a handful of small stones our teacher could set out his ideas in an immediate and graphic way.
In the Zen temples of the early medieval period in Japan there was much interest in way of depicting of landscape in both paintings and bonkei. It was a means for some Zen monks to highlight and explore important ontological and aesthetic issues concerning the nature of reality and its depiction. In Buddhism there is a perception of the manifestation and perception of the world as being illusory, when seen from a viewpoint of ultimate truth. So the creating of gardens or trayscapes both of which depicted ‘landscapes’ was to the Zen monks an excellent way of challenging fixed notions of what reality was. It also allowed them to view landscape gardens, trayscapes and landscape paintings as being more than simply symbolic representations of landscape. But to also provide them with a means to break through conventional perceptions and notions to grasp something of the essence of landscape, and to be able to engage with the concept of the essence of landscape itself. As Joseph Parker writes; “Both illusion and playfulness entail an intrinsic sense of movement and transformation that erodes or breaks by means of disjunction and juxtaposition the rigid, clinging grasp of attachment and the rigid bifurcations of deluded, discriminatory thinking.” In Zen thinking it is considered essential if one is pursing the idea of enlightenment that it is vital to break through attachment to conceived notions.
It is simple to use the term ‘minature landscape’ in association with bonkei, but I am not sure this is quite appropriate, and not actually misleading a term. Miniature implies something that is essentially reductive in size; whereas what is being attempted in a bonkei is to create a work that bears all the hallmarks of landscape. The method of delivery may be reductive, but the ambition is not, the essence of what is being presented to the viewer is not reductive at all. The bonkei presents one with sufficient material to engage the mind of the viewer, to stimulate his or her imagination in creating around those elements presented a much greater picture that will incorporate corporeal memory and experience of landscape itself. The bonkei scenery evokes landscape and stimulates the viewer to re-experience landscape, to reconnect with the landscape of body-mind.
Kokan Shiren (虎関師錬), 1278–1347) was an important figure in the Zen Buddhist world of Japan, who was responsible for establishing many Zen temples across the country at a time when Zen was beginning to become an established form of Buddhism in Japan. He was also regarded as a great poet in the Chinese style. Circa 1300 Shiren wrote a piece entitled ‘Rhymeprose On a Miniature Landscape Garden’, in which he details the response of a visitor to a trayscape he had constructed with small stones on a green celadon tray filled with white sand. Whilst Shinren felt the resulting landscape was successful, his visitor was less impressed, and commented the trayscape was “a little bald”, that is, lacking in planting.
Shinren responded ….“You see a pile of stones and fail to see the mountains. The marvelous thing about miniature landscape gardens is that they are imitations of mountains and streams. The base is made to look flowing waves and the cliffs are made to seem covered with vegetation. Sometimes you can see miniature gnarled pine or knobby plum. You might see unusual blossoms or strange new shoots from their trimmed branches. Of course you will discover the utter vexation of your creations withering and wilting due to carelessness of slow watering and tending. If you fail to exert yourself, then you will simply fail to fashion a magnificent mountain and a smaller world among the smaller mounds and hills.
“…. These stones then, just a number of inches tall, and this tray roughly a foot across, they are nothing short of a mountainous island rising from the sea! Jade-green peaks penetrate the clouds and are encircled by them. A blue-green barrier, immersed in water, is standing straight up. There are caves as if carved in the cliff sides to hide saints and immortals. Jetties and spits flat enough and long enough for fishermen. The paths and roads are narrow and confined, yet woodcutters can pass along them. There are lagoons deep and dark enough to hide dragons….
“Another thing, do you think this miniature landscape is big? Do you think it is small? I will blow on the water and raise up billows from the four seas. I will water the peak and send down a torrent from the ninth heaven! The person who waters the stones sets the cosmos in order. The one who changes the water turns the whole sea upside down. Those are the changes in nature that attain a oneness in my mind. Anyway, the relative size of things is an uncertain business. Why, there is a vast plain on a fly’s eyelash and whole nations in a snail’s horn, a Chinese philosopher has told us. Well what do you think?”
My visitor got up from his seat and made his excuses. He saw that these stones purified my senses and purified my intellect. He realized that events are really not what they seemed and yet they enriched me. I told him that he only understood what he perceived with his own eyes and did not understand my point of view at all. I asked if he wouldn’t like to sit for a while longer and study the matter afresh. He said he would, but there were no waves for him. He said nothing more and I was silent. After a while my visitor left without another word.”
From these extracts we can see that Shiren is looking beyond the limitations of a mechanistical interpretation of the trayscape, one that only sees small stones and white sand on a celadon tray. In Shiren’s perception, his imagination conjures up a landscape in all it magnificent detail. More than that it is a landscape in which he is completely and utterly immersed, there is no separation between the landscape and Shiren, they become one and the same; it is therefore an immersive, haptic landscape, as much as an act of imagination. Shiren’s writings have had a profound influence on the development of the Japanese garden, particularly the karesansui or ‘dry landscape garden, which are in many respects trayscapes writ large, and likewise on the perception of these gardens.
Containers for trayscapes need not be trays. In fact nearly any manner of container can be turned to use in creating a trayscape. Dishes that are suitable for bonsai planting are very suitable, they are available from many sources, and are available in a wide variety of sizes, depths and colours. Containers can also be created out of timber, particularly if one is creating trayscapes that are not destined to contain planting. Karesansui, or ‘dry landscape’ style trayscapes are suitable for placing indoors, on balconies, or any location that may not be conducive to the use of plants, which will require light and regular watering. The size and configuration of the container can be of any dimension, there is no reason to constrain oneself, rather it is a question of using what is available, else creating a container for a specific location if the trayscape is to be a long term exhibit. Most bonkei will have a relatively short life span, and the materials and layout can be changed or reassembled anew.
The design principles for creating trayscapes are just the same as have been outlined for the creation of stone arrangements. The selection of stones is always important and for trayscapes this is particularly so, as the stones will be observed at close quarters. It is not always necessary to use small stones in relation to the size of the container, as this will generally have the effect of emphasizing the limited dimensions of the container. Where the stones dominate the space they are displayed in then the stones will have a greater visual impact, this is particularly the case when using relatively tall upright stones in a container. As noted above, a viewer will likely be looking at the stones in some detail, so if one can find stones will interesting textural effects then they will make good subjects for a trayscape.
Traditional bonkei use fine sand, often white in colour. This is principally because the trays themselves are covered by black lacquer, in such a case the white sand shows in stark contrast and make good visual impact. Where the container is ceramic or composed of wood, then the range of sand or fine gravels are greater. If gravel is chosen then generally a maximum particle size of 8-10mm works best. Anything over this will look very coarse, and be out of proportion unless the container is large, and even then it is probably better to stay with a finer, 8-10mm, gravel in all cases. It is of course possible to create trayscapes using simply different gravels and not using stones to create vertical planes. In such a case then the design and layout of the gravels or sands can work well in creating abstract flowing patterns within the container. Although it is taking the trayscape idea beyong representations of landscapes, or landscape features, it is interesting to also look at Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas. These are complex and intricate geometric patterns that are depicted by using coloured sands, some designs can take several weeks to complete. The sand mandalas are ritualistically destroyed when the accompanying viewing ceremonies are completed, this is intended to reinforce the Buddhist conception of the transitory and ephemeral nature of all material things.
Where planting is used in trayscapes it needs to be proportional to the container. In Chinese peng jing bonsai trees are used to great effect to create at times visually complex and dramatic landscape scenery. In general evergreen material works well, though there is no need not to also incorporate deciduous material too. Leaf size is important, and in general small, fine leaved plants, such as Buxus sempervirens, Hebe raikiensis, and Ilex crenata, work well. Other species to consider can include heathers (Erica spp.), dwarf Spirea, and evergreen Japanese Azalea. If the arrangement is only for a limited time then it may be interesting to consider other options such as grasses and other herbaceous material, even bulbs and corms such as small leaved cyclamen could be incorporated. Then there is a very large range of alpines that can be incorporated into trayscapes. A visit to a local garden centre or plant nursery will invariably turn up a range of interesting material. Bear in mind to look for plants that will be in the correct proportion to the trayscape, also bear in mind the fewer different species works better than trying to mix a number of different species together. Many trayscapes incorporate small bonsai trees, and these are excellent to create the impression of a landscape. In peng jing arrangements trees are planted into small pockets, either natural or hollowed out in stones, or trees can be planted and nurtured to grow over a rock, so that in time they will ‘grasp’ the rock.
One of the great joys of creating trayscapes is that there is a great sense of creative freedom. You can make your own rules; most trayscapes are small in size and require limited materials so one can allow the imagination to run with the idea. Also consider incorporating overlooked materials such as broken pieces of moss covered concrete, gathering stones out of the garden or picking pebbles up on country walks. The world is literally in your hands.
 Joseph Parker, ‘Zen Buddhist Landscape Arts of Early Muromachi Japan’, State University of New York Press, 1999
 Saihokushu. ‘The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature’. Milner, Odagiri, Morrell. Princeton University Press, 1985.
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