Asia Garden

Furman Reflective Walk

Asia Garden

Greenville, South Carolina 29617, United States

Created By: The Cothran Center for Vocational Reflection, Furman University


In 2016 The Charlotte Observer listed Furman’s Asian Garden as one of the twelve best drive-to gardens in the Carolinas. This garden is rich in symbolism that has its origin in Japanese culture, but it holds meaning universal to the human experience. Our walking tour begins at the intersection of Bell Tower Point Road and Carl Kohrt Drive, a point across the street from North Village Apartment Building F.

This garden was not included in the original landscape plan for the campus. The idea was nurtured by Mrs. Beatrice (Bea) Plyler, the wife of Furman’s president Dr. John Plyer (1939-1964), as the solution to the problem of how to beautify the primary water source forming Furman’s lake. At the time of its creation Mrs. Plyler drew heavily on Japanese models, and despite its more recent renovation and renaming as the Asian Garden, the space continues to draw predominantly on its original Japanese inspiration.

A Japanese garden seeks to create a balance between nature in its natural state and the carefully constructed beauty that campus planners created for what is now Furman Mall, a precisely ordered version of nature favored by European “classical” landscape garden designers of the European Baroque period – trees evenly spaced and in straight lines, pools and fountains. For a Baroque garden in miniature, a form much admired in British colonial America, please visit Furman’s rose garden between the dining hall and the student center.

By design the Japanese stroll garden is a hybrid blending of the carefully shaped nature of the Furman’s front mall with the natural forest areas behind the Chapel and on the far side of the lake. At the time of its origin the area now occupied by North Village was a forest, as was the athletic field now across the road from the garden. At its inception the garden served as an idealized transition between Nature, firmly ordered by human hand (the front mall) and Nature largely undisturbed (the back campus forest).

Asian gardens, particularly Japanese ones, are designed to evoke meditative experiences. They are conceived as visual aids to spiritual work. Upon one’s initial casual encounter, these gardens excite our aesthetic sense, our appreciation for the beauty and creativity of design. This is what immediately claims the attention of photographers and sketch artists. While Furman’s garden definitely fulfills this graphic expectation, for the discerning eye, the landscape invites more contemplative consideration, particularly when understood from the perspective of Japanese cultural symbolism.

Within a few feet as you walk toward the Bell Tower, you will pass a cherry tree. Notice the commemorative plaque at the base of the trunk dedicated to Chigusa ­Tsuzuki, the matriarch of the family that donated the Place of Peace to Furman. She also donated a large number of dogwood trees to beautify Greenville when it became clear that our native dogwoods were dying. If you have the good fortune to be visiting the garden in early April you may see this tree in bloom. The cherry blossom has a special place in the Japanese lexicon of flower symbolism. Generally speaking, the beauty of most flowers is expressed in their petals. In the life-cycle of a flower, once the period of its youthful glory has passed, the petals fade and shrivel in old age, but cling tenaciously to the center. The cherry is deeply admired because its flower blooms for only a few days, and at the height of its beauty the petals release themselves from the receptacle center and in their fresh pristine beauty float carelessly on the breeze to their ultimate end. It is the symbol of a youthful life well-lived yet released in its prime without regret.

Looking across the initial garden pond behind the cherry tree you will notice a small pavilion reminiscent of such structures in a tea garden. It is here that the tea ceremony host’s carefully selected guests first meet each other. It is a place where community is formed, new friends are made as they gather for a shared aesthetic experience.

Step down into the garden area for a closer look at the stream flowing in front of you. Here we have another physical metaphor of our human life experience. The movement of the stream water around and over the garden rocks invites us to consider the vicissitudes of a human life – moments of calm, moments of challenge, but constantly progressing. It is here that you encounter another characteristic of Japanese stroll gardens , the audio surprise. It is meant as an aid to calm us and prepare our minds for quiet contemplation. Not easy with a busy road just a few feet away. Spend a moment listening to the deliberately designed gurgle of the water as it passes over the carefully placed stones

Japanese stroll gardens also incorporate tactile experiences. As you begin to walk along the pathway to your right, notice the feeling as you tread from one smooth flat stepping stone to another. Then compare this with walking on the pea gravel which not only has a completely different feel, but also gives a definite crunching sound. The garden designer means for you to walk on the stepping stones. The pea gravel functions something like the rumble strips on the edges of a highway to keep us from wandering off the road.

Walking further down the pathway you will notice a large upright stone in the shade of a maple tree. This stone suggests several interpretations. Unquestionably the stone projects a sense of power. Looking beyond the stone across the garden you see a large stone lantern. This lantern also suggests power. It is the kind of lantern you would find in the garden of a Japanese warlord, a daimyo. Looking to your left you will see a lantern with a far less aggressive form. You are much more likely to encounter that style in a tea garden or temple yard. The upright stone and the lordly lantern along the middle length of the stream suggest the quest for influence and status commonly sought in the prime of life.

The stream eventually meanders into a pool that is home to a variety of lotus plants and water lilies which you can enjoy in the late spring and early summer months. The lotus has iconic significance for several Asian spiritual traditions. It is essentially illustrating a message of hope. The lotus seed emerges out of the mud at the bottom of the pool. If the pool is one foot deep, the lotus sends up a shoot and blossoms just above the surface of the murky water. If the pool is six feet deep, the lotus sends its stem all the way to the surface to produce its beautiful flower. We all can reach “Enlightenment” or “Awakening.” Some of us have further to go than others, but we are all capable.

From the lotus pond the water flows into a much larger pool. Following a strict Buddhist interpretation, this large pool would represent entering Nirvana, melding with the One. However, there are other symbols embedded in this terminal pool. Stand with the small waterfall in front of you. Across the pond you will notice a line of stones in the water. These are known as “night mooring stones” depicting boats lined up for safe keeping through an evening. The garden begins with the small pavilion for forming community. Here at the end, we are again reminded of value of community. For those who do not pass away in the beauty of youth, but whose lives flow through weeds and around rocks to conclude in old age, mooring our boats together with others is an abiding comfort. Another symbol of longevity as well as courage, perseverance, and character are the koi fish that inhabit this pond representing the final summing up of life’s journey. The various colors of koi give each a special meaning. Gold symbolizes wealth both in monetary terms and in life experience. White with red spots represents success at work. If you notice a koi with red around the mouth it represents relationships that are long-lasting.

Again, moving around to your right, the garden path ends at the small bridge near the road. Standing there you are offered a glorious view of Furman’s iconic Bell Tower across the lake. Furman’s Asian Garden has invited us to consider points at which an Eastern cultural tradition can serve to enrich our intellectual and spiritual lives. The Italianate tower reminds us of one of the powerfully influential periods in Western culture – the Renaissance with its explosion of new learning and new spiritual challenges. In Furman’s libraries, laboratories, and classrooms students are encouraged to appreciate the breadth of human cultural achievements. As you have seen, Furman’s physical environment does much the same.

Questions for further consideration:

  • Where are you along the water course of life so carefully plotted in the garden?

  • Do you share the hope for fulfillment suggested by the lotus?

  • Have you formed a sense of community promised at the guest pavilion and fulfilled in the night mooring stones?


Dr. James B. Leavell, Herring Professor Emeritus of Asian Studies, received his BA and MA degrees from Baylor University,and his PH.D. from Duke University. Jim has traveled extensively in Asia, enjoys hiking and kayaking, and is an avid photographer.

This point of interest is part of the tour: Furman Reflective Walk


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