History of Zen Gardens


Authored by Tucker Cummings in History
Published on 02-27-2009

Japanese rock gardens (in Japanese: 枯山水, karesansui) are believed to have actually originated in China, although it is not exactly clear when and how the first gardens were created. It is believed the zen rock garden is a descendant of a style of garden called a stroll garden. The origins of stroll gardens go back to India, where one would walk in a pattern around a sacred place such as a temple. This is not unlike the Labryinth symbol incorporated in to some medieval European churches, most notably in France’s Chartres Cathedral. India’s stroll gardens were adapted by the Chinese, who decorated their gardens with symbols of the Buddhist universe. The presence of these symbols would purify the cluttered mind of the viewer with each encounter. The Japanese term “karesansui” translates roughly as “dry mountain and water garden.”

In Shinto, there is a belief that there is a presence of “kami,” or divine spirits. The kami are found in everything in the world, but are believed to dwell most frequently in rocks. The zen rock garden is
therefore significant because it is made almost entirely of rock, and therefore most be densely populated with spirits. The beauty of the garden lies not in the arrangement of rocks, but in the tranquility and mental clarity it bestows upon the viewer.

Gravel and rocks had been used for centuries to denote a sacred place of worship in Japan, and so it makes sense that the zen rock gardens developed out of an existing tradition. The arrangement of rocks and sand are meant to represent the calmness of nature. Water is represented by sand and pebbles, and the grooves raked into the sand help to further this illusion. Mountains are represented by large rocks; and islands are sometimes added into the mix and represented by moss or some other organic material.

Zen priests often used distant mountains or well known scenes from the natural world as design elements in their gardens, a principle known as “shakkei” (borrowed scenery). In these gardens, the desired aesthetic is severely minimalistic. This minimalism is tempered by an artistic flourish of individuality typical of Zen, which varies from garden to garden. For example, a dry rock garden may be complemented by a lush green one, as the one at at Koke Dera (Moss Temple) in Kyoto. This particular garden is a stroll garden. The garden creates the illusion of a long journey, which parallels the spiritual journey of those seeking enlightenment. At Koke Dera, the stroll takes you around a pond. At each turn in the path, the viewer sees a variety of special objects of symbols, each of which is deliberately place to ensure that the viewer keeps his mind of spiritual matters and self-reflection.

These days, it is a very simple matter to tend to your own zen rock garden. They come ready made from a variety of gardening shops, or can even be purchased in a miniature kit in major bookshops around the country.


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