Zen gate

Zen, a specific arena of Buddhism emphasizes contemplation and meditation as mediums for achieving self-knowledge. A Zen garden helps to achieve the status of mindfulness in order to ultimately achieve Enlightenment. Both creating and meditating in these gardens aid us in our understanding of the Buddhist religion.

The art of garden-making in Japan goes back to the 6th century, when hill and pond gardens were introduced from China and Korea, where aristocrats gathered to enjoy poetry and games alongside a stream. Japanese monks further developed gardens into a high art over hundreds of years of temple gardening. They emptied their minds of worldly distractions and came to know themselves in their gardens.

The world’s oldest garden manual, the ‘Sakuteiki’, was compiled by Tachibanano Toshitsuna in the 11th century. It describes how to dig waterways, choose plants, site pavilions; how to make pond bottoms watertight, and how to keep shoreline rocks from toppling over.

Background of Zen Gardens
Karesansui, or the “dry-landscape” style japanese gardens have been in existence for centuries, but it wasn’t until the late sixth century with the advent of Zen Buddhism did “dry style” gardens began to evolve. The earlier gardens were created where one could enter and walk around and much larger in scale. Around the eleventh century, zen priests adopted the “dry landscape” style and began building gardens to serve a different purpose. They were to be used as an aid to create a deeper understanding of the zen concepts. Not only was the viewing intended to aid in meditation but the entire creation of the garden was also intended to trigger contemplation. By the late 1200’s, the basic principles had been established and up to the present day, they have been refined and extended. The garden created by the zen priest are called “kansho-niwa” or contemplation garden and termed by many today as “ zen gardens “. Generally, the term “ zen garden “ is often generically used as any japanese garden that has a dry style element.

Whether your creating a full pledged zen garden or adding an element of dry landscape to your japanese garden, a successful dry landscape garden is one of the most appealing landscapes to contemplate. The dry landscape style garden may be adapted to any area and offers the ideal solution to evoke the feeling of water or to actually provide drainage for garden runoff.
The two main elements of a zen or a “dry style” garden are rocks to form mountains and sand to form flowing water. The “sand” used in japanese gardens is not beach sand but a crushed granite and comes in varying shades of white gray to beige and approximately 2 mm. in diameter. Avoid using light colored crushed granite in sunny areas for it will produce a blinding glare, but it will brighten up an indoor garden or dark shaded garden. If crushed granite or rocks are not available in your area, the grit fed to turkey and chickens also work great.

Islands have a particular importance for the Japanese. Islands represent a symbol of the isles of the Blest immortal souls and also represent a symbol of longevity and continuing health. Most japanese gardens have both single rock islands and built up islands of rocks and earth as shown here. Often, the islands are built to resemble the shape of two prominent symbols of longevity; the tortoise and the crane. The tortoise is believed to live for 10,000 years and the crane 1,000 years.

Bridges are also common in dry landscape gardens for they not only serve as a function of a path to cross the “seas”, connect islands to one another and also open up alternative views that may not be seen if not crossed. Ornaments add atmosphere to the garden and serve as focal points or used help give a sense of distance as shown here.

Symbolism in Zen Gardens
Zen gardens should create an environment where one can obtain mindfulness. They can evoke a quiet or explosive emotional response, depending on the mood created by the display of elements. Each element has a purpose for being in the garden of symbolic nature.

Rocks, one of the most important parts of the garden, can symbolize many things depending on shape, color and texture. A vertical rock can symbolize the sky, while a horizontal rock can symbolize the earth. Rocks can even symbolize an animal or a shrub is the garden is portraying a specific place. For instance, if the garden is portraying a specific place, rocks can also symbolize islands or mountains.
Gravel, sand or small pebbles are also major aspects of a Zen garden used to create an adequate atmosphere for meditation. Often sand is used in place of water. The sand is swirled around with great care to emulate rippling or rushing water. These ?swirls? also provide energy to the garden. Although sand is often used in place of water, water is also present in some Zen gardens. The thought is that without water there is no life, thus the water accommodates the garden with life.

Plants also hold specific purposes in a Zen garden. Specific plants have meaning, such as a pine tree. Pine trees are highly respected for its jagged bark. The bark resembles the scales of a dragon, or a red pine can symbolize the female presence. Plants are used to accent each other bringing wholeness to the garden. Plants also bring emotion to the garden with the various colors and textures of each plant. Because a Zen garden imitates nature, and floral arrangements are not readily found in nature, plants are used very carefully to bring a subtle yet eloquent beauty to these gardens. Pruning is important when plants are used because one does not want to create a mass image, but rather shape them where the sunlight will shine most appropriately.

Aside from natural elements, some architectural elements can be added. Pathways, bridges and lanterns are frequently found in Zen gardens. Since Buddhism puts great emphasis on correct posture, pathways and bridges help to enhance this philosophy. These pathways allow a visitor to follow the path of the Buddha. Bridges and paths are carefully designed. Often they represent philosophical doctrines of Buddhism. One example is a bridge that is made with small planks joined, but zigzag, symbolizing the Eight-Fold Path. Bridges and paths allow a spectator to view things from all different angles. Lanterns are put in the gardens too, but are carefully chosen. Because the main focus of a Zen garden is to create a natural atmosphere, lanterns made of elements such as wood and stone are chosen over metal lanterns. When these elements are applied to a Zen garden, a peaceful, balanced environment can be achieved to create a quiet, meditative ambiance.

Gardens have always been thought of as a relaxing place to work or observe. Zen gardens go beyond the emotion of simple enjoyment. Zen gardens serve a purpose that enables a person to understand the Zen Buddhist philosophy. Every aspect of Zen gardens has meaning and purpose. These gardens spark a sense of spirituality and life. As a whole a Zen garden embodies the Zen Buddhist religion in an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere. While planning, creating, caring for and enjoying a Zen garden one is actively practicing Zen Buddhist beliefs though artistic and mindfulness means.