The Beauty and Meaning of Zen Gardens

Updated on October 24, 2016

Morikami Museum Portico

All photos of the Morikami museum and its gardens shown with their gracious permission. This is a detail of the portico of the museum, which has a small garden influenced by Zen garden aesthetics.
All photos of the Morikami museum and its gardens shown with their gracious permission. This is a detail of the portico of the museum, which has a small garden influenced by Zen garden aesthetics. | Source

An Ancient Story

There is an ancient Zen story where a student asks, "How do I enter the Way of Zen?" The teacher replies, "Can you hear the flow of the distant stream?" The student sits very quietly, indeed, can hear the stream down in the valley on the other side of the hill. "Yes," he says quietly.

"Enter from there," the teacher instructs.

"And if I had not been able to hear the stream?" the student asks. And the teacher answers, "Then I would have told you to enter from there."

We can do Zen meditation whether or not we hear the distant valley stream. We can do Zen meditation anywhere - I used to do my daily meditation on a subway in New York City during morning rush hour. The mind is non-local, and we can concentrate and clear it wherever we are.

But when we relax and open our minds in the midst of quiet, unobtrusive beauty, our senses open wide. The mind is sharp and clear, and, at the same time, the body is relaxed and sensitive. This awakens a great deal of healing power, and also artistic and emotional sensitivity. A deep, healing, spiritual and physical integration is possible.

The meaning of Zen gardens lies in their peculiar beauty, a beauty which calls and allows us to be aware of things in a much more open and sensitive way than we normally can.

Zen Mind in Many Places

The original instructions for Zen meditation, or dhyana, to use the Sanskrit pronunciation of the same word, involved going into a secluded forest and sitting under a tree. Later, small hermitage huts for individuals and larger meditation halls for groups sitting together were developed as quiet places that allow this deep concentration.

Zen, however, is not just for the meditation hall or hut. There, we do zazen, or sitting zen. In the meditation hall, we also do kinhin , slow walking meditation. We can also walk outdoors in nature. The effect of sitting zen in nature is very different from the effect of sitting zen in a room, even if it is a simple hermitage or an elegant meditation hall. Nature has a rhythm all its own. And when we become aware of that rhythm with the quiet, open mind of Zen, we open to a vastness or harmony that comes nowhere else.

But we can't all go off to visit ancient temples or build rustic hermitages in the mountains. That is why Zen gardens developed: to give us the feeling and presence of nature in a relatively small outdoor space.

Zen Grows in Medieval Japan

The dhyan meditation school of North India spread to China, and got called chan, and then to Vietnam, where it was called tien, and Korea, where it was called was soen. When dhyana reached Japan, the pronunciation shifted again, and so it was called Zen. Because the Western world learned of the tradition from Japan, we call it Zen. But Zen, concentrated mind, the mind of Awakening, is the same everywhere.

In medieval Japan, the Samurai warrior class took up the practice of Zen. And for about 300 years, from the 1300s until 1630, there was civil war. The Samurai had to be ready to defend his life with a sword, any moment, day or night. And so Zen mind was combined with sword fighting and self-defense.

In 1630, peace was imposed for 230 years by the Tokugawa. But assassination was still frequent, and the Samurai still had to live in constant danger. And so they had to develop ways of keeping Zen mind without always using their swords. Thus the Zen arts were born. Zen flower arranging, or ikebana; paper-folding, or origami; archery; and the tea ceremony are the most well known. There were many others.

For a man who must always be on guard, even when sitting in a meditation hall, it must be very relaxing to sit in a garden with a wide clear view, feel the breeze, and look at nothing except the patterns of sunlight on mossy stone. Thus the Zen garden was born.

Morikami Early Dry Garden Detail

This early waterless, or dry Japanese garden already has the patterned, raked stones of the Zen garden. But the ornament is carved stone, not natural rock, and there is still a tree in the garden.
This early waterless, or dry Japanese garden already has the patterned, raked stones of the Zen garden. But the ornament is carved stone, not natural rock, and there is still a tree in the garden. | Source

Elements of the Zen Garden

Before the Zen garden existed in its mature form, the Japanese dry garden, with stones, ornaments, and objects that were reminiscent of distant landscapes and towers, already existed. This combined with the Zen veneration of nature to create the mature form of the Zen garden, a quiet field of medium-sized gravel, raked into a fresh pattern each day, with large stones reminiscent of mountain landscapes.

Haiku

This haiku reflects my experience sitting in Zen gardens:

Silent stones
on a cloudy afternoon.
I feel my breathing.

Zen Gardens

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This close-up of the raked gravel gives a feeling of the space of the Zen garden.My favorite aspect of the Zen garden and dry garden is looking over the stones to a natural background.I can gaze at this scene for hours and relax deeply.Samurai preferred the safe feeling of walled gardens.This view of the full length of the garden gives the feeling of both safety and space that a Zen garden inspires.
This close-up of the raked gravel gives a feeling of the space of the Zen garden.
This close-up of the raked gravel gives a feeling of the space of the Zen garden. | Source
My favorite aspect of the Zen garden and dry garden is looking over the stones to a natural background.
My favorite aspect of the Zen garden and dry garden is looking over the stones to a natural background. | Source
I can gaze at this scene for hours and relax deeply.
I can gaze at this scene for hours and relax deeply. | Source
Samurai preferred the safe feeling of walled gardens.
Samurai preferred the safe feeling of walled gardens. | Source
This view of the full length of the garden gives the feeling of both safety and space that a Zen garden inspires.
This view of the full length of the garden gives the feeling of both safety and space that a Zen garden inspires. | Source

Zen Garden, Zen Mind

After time in the Zen garden, I am very aware of natural flow and harmony. As my heart opens to the flow of nature, I become a more sensitive artist, poet, and photographer.

Can you see the rhythms of nature in these photos?

Seeing the Flow of Nature

Click thumbnail to view full-size
How the pine needles play with the clouds!The pine's reflection ripples in the pond.The careful raking of the gravel is like a brushstroke of a Japanese ink painting. And onto it fall delicate pine needles. Nature and art become one."The tree . . . influences the landscape of the entire region." For the meditator, this view recalls this inspiring quote from the Chinese classic, the I Ching.
How the pine needles play with the clouds!
How the pine needles play with the clouds! | Source
The pine's reflection ripples in the pond.
The pine's reflection ripples in the pond. | Source
The careful raking of the gravel is like a brushstroke of a Japanese ink painting. And onto it fall delicate pine needles. Nature and art become one.
The careful raking of the gravel is like a brushstroke of a Japanese ink painting. And onto it fall delicate pine needles. Nature and art become one. | Source
"The tree . . . influences the landscape of the entire region." For the meditator, this view recalls this inspiring quote from the Chinese classic, the I Ching.
"The tree . . . influences the landscape of the entire region." For the meditator, this view recalls this inspiring quote from the Chinese classic, the I Ching. | Source

Questions & Answers

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      • SidKemp profile imageAUTHOR

        Sid Kemp 

        6 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

        Actually, Zen gardens are dry, with just gravel and rocks. There are many types of Japanese gardens, including ones with lakes and waterfalls. I'll need to write more about the many types of Japanese gardens. Many thanks for your thoughts & feelings.

      • krsharp05 profile image

        Kristi Sharp 

        6 years ago from Born in Missouri. Raised in Minnesota.

        Sid, this is very informative and as always, well written. The Zen garden sounds tranquil and wondrous especially with the waterfall and the lake. Water has always had a calming effect on me. I'm excited to read more from you about Zen gardens. -K

      • SidKemp profile imageAUTHOR

        Sid Kemp 

        6 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

        Simone! No Ugh! More is on the way!!!

      • Simone Smith profile image

        Simone Haruko Smith 

        6 years ago from San Francisco

        I have been to many Zen gardens- both in Japan and the states- but had not known much about the philosophy or history behind them. This is great!! I'm fascinated by the manner in which the practice of Zen evolved from simple sitting and walking forms to advanced arts like ikebana.

        Ugh- now I really want to learn more! Thanks for the fantastic introduction, SidKemp.

      • SidKemp profile imageAUTHOR

        Sid Kemp 

        6 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

        To step in . . . for a moment . . . or for a lifetime.

        Thanks, Nancy

      • profile image

        Nancy Feth 

        6 years ago

        Interesting article...an invitation to step into a Zen way of life.

      • SidKemp profile imageAUTHOR

        Sid Kemp 

        6 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

        Thanks, brsmom!

        I'll be writing more about Zen gardens - next month, I think. I'm growing towards making one myself.

      • brsmom68 profile image

        Diane Ziomek 

        6 years ago from Alberta, Canada

        I have never been in an actual Zen garden, but it is a feature i would like to add to my own garden one day. Voted up and interesting!

      • SidKemp profile imageAUTHOR

        Sid Kemp 

        6 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

        Thanks, Kris! It's hard to describe how the mind is changed by meditating in the gardens. But I know that the photos I take after spending time there are much deeper and richer than my other pictures.

      • KrisL profile image

        KrisL 

        6 years ago from S. Florida

        I love the combination of text and photographs . . . they work together to help the reader understand the meditative mood that zen gardens foster in us.

      • SidKemp profile imageAUTHOR

        Sid Kemp 

        6 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

        Thanks Natasha! Maybe we can meet there for walking meditation? In any case, keep an eye out for more hubs on Zen gardens.

      • Natashalh profile image

        Natasha 

        6 years ago from Hawaii

        I LOVE The Morikami. It is literally one of my favorite places in the world.

        Thanks for this hub, the pictures, and the explanations. Voted up, interesting, and beautiful.

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