Zen Garden History and Defining Characteristics

phpboc8zeam.jpgZen Garden Fundamentals

A Zen garden is an interesting and deeply spiritual aspect of Japanese gardening traditions. The typical Zen garden consists of an enclosed and shallow sand box of sorts which features predominantly sand or gravel with rocks of various shapes and sizes. The rocks and sand (or gravel) are the chief elements of the garden, which generally creates the scene of islands in the sea.

The sand or gravel in a Zen garden represents the sea or ocean and is used instead of water. It will be carefully raked by tending monks to create the impression of waves on the surface of a body of water. The rocks themselves represent islands or rock formations jutting out from the water. The overall goal is to create a small-scale recreation of an aerial or cliff-top view of an intricate coastal scene.

One of the primary differences between a Zen garden and most other varieties is the lack of living elements. Although grass may sometimes be included, no other plant or flower species will be found in a classic Zen garden. This can be both unusual and exotically appealing to people with no past experience with the history and meaning of a Zen garden.

The History of the Zen Garden

Japanese rock gardens have become known in the West as Zen gardens. The term was probably first used in 1935 by the American writer Loraine Kuck in her book “100 Gardens of Kyoto.” It has since also found its way into the Japanese language (“Zen Niwa being the name in Japanese).

The Zen garden has an impressive and lengthy history of use in Japan. The most famous is the dry garden, which is called a “Karesansui.” This word translates into “Dry Mountain and Water Garden” and to create the look, rocks and gravel are used as described above.

This type of Zen garden is designed in such a way that the raked gravel resembles water. Then to create the look of water flowing, small rocks, pebbles, and sand are used. Often in the dry Zen garden, you will see one large rock that is the predominant feature. This rock is representative of the mountains that tower over the countryside. With this type of garden, it is believed that the stillness of the “water” represents the peace and tranquility of the mind.
The Zen garden as we know it today originated around the eleventh century in Japan. Its purpose was to provide a location for Buddhist monks to stroll and contemplate the teachings of the Buddha. The tranquil scenes were often used as meditation aids, as gazing upon them and thinking about the peace and order represented within could aid one in bringing about such qualities in their mind.

It is common practice for such gardens to be included in Buddhist monasteries to this day. Their usefulness as a meditation aid is invaluable to the resident monks, and due to the fact that maintenance and space requirements are fairly limited, they become appropriate for use in a monastery (which often relies on donations to keep operational).

Monks will often rake and re-rake the sand and gravel into new patterns to simulate the changes that oceans go through. Likewise do our minds experience such changes, meaning that physical representations of this fact can aid with meditation and careful consideration. The mundane and peaceful act of raking itself can help a monk to order his mind.

Creating a Zen Garden at Home

You can easily build your own Zen garden at home. All you need is a flat open space and the basic standard materials. Build a containing wall out of wood or stone and then fill it with gravel and sand. Including several small or large rocks for strategic positioning will complete the look. Try to come up with interesting patterns that inspire thought and contemplation.

Rake the surface several times a week or more often if your desire so as to maintain the appearance of waves. You’ll more than likely need to do this after a heavy rain or windstorm. Large areas can take a while to rake (makes a good family activity), but you are not limited to creating a gigantic Zen garden.

Small gardens can be created on top of a table. Simply fashion a small wooden box with a solid bottom (plywood works well) and then fill it with gravel. Use small rocks and sand on top to create a miniature replica of the larger thing. This is a common and popular activity amongst monks, who will disturb and then re-build the garden in order to capture new images and ideas.

For more information on the nature of Zen and the construction of such gardens, stopping by a local gardening center or speaking with volunteers at a Japanese cultural center can be a great idea. You’ll find that getting an inside cultural perspective can be very useful.

Copyright (c) 2008 Brant Florist

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2 Responses to Zen Garden History and Defining Characteristics

  • Deena says:

    Adam,
    Do you know of a resource for the purchase of a wooden(or bamboo?) rake for a Zen dry garden?

  • Annalese Hayes says:

    This was a very useful peice of information!!!!! Im trying to do a history report, due very soon and this website gave me a lot of handy information.

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