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Zen Rock Garden - History, Philosophy and How-To Guide

Updated on April 5, 2016
Komyozen-ji Rock Garden in Fukuoka, Japan
Komyozen-ji Rock Garden in Fukuoka, Japan | Source

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Originated in Japan, the Zen rock garden defies the definition of a "garden" in almost every conventional sense. It isn't a place to find rows of lush trees, an ornate gazebo or a pond filled with beautiful fish. There is no field of green grass but sand, gravel, and sparse scattering of moss and nondescript shrubs. Nor is there much contrast in colors, as flowers are nowhere to be seen. Before learning how you may design and create a rock garden of your own, it's crucial to understand how this unique landscaping style has come to be and what fundamental philosophy is behind its creation.

A Japanese Garden, depicting the Taoist belief of immortal islands
A Japanese Garden, depicting the Taoist belief of immortal islands | Source

Brief History - Evolution of the Japanese Rock Garden

5th - 8th Century - To understand the evolution of the Zen rock garden, we first need to look back to the fifth century when Chinese Taoism started to make an imprint on Japanese art. It is an ancient Taoist belief that somewhere in the middle of the ocean, there are three or five islands where immortals dwell. In Japanese literature, this belief is manifested in the form of a folktale about a fisherman named Urashima Taro who saves the life of a sea turtle, which in return, takes him to one of the immortal islands. There the fisherman marries a princess and becomes immortal. As time goes by, however, he is stricken with homesickness and decides to return to his old village. Sadly, not long after he sets foot on the familiar shore of his birthplace, the fisherman immediately grows old and dies

The Taoist immortal islands had not only inspired storytellers but also garden creators in Japan from the fifth to eighth century, so much so that the word for "garden" in those days was "shima", meaning "island." A typical Japanese garden in this period would usually comprise a large pond surrounded by lush trees. In the middle of the pond floated at least one island or sometimes just a big mountain-like rock, symbolizing the land of unfading youth and eternal life as appeared in the tale of Urashima Taro.

The Heian Period (Late 8th - 12th Century)

A Japanese Garden at Tenriu-ji, Japan
A Japanese Garden at Tenriu-ji, Japan | Source

As Japan's capital was moved to Heian-Kyo (Kyoto) in 794, artists and garden makers began to avert their attention from Chinese Taoism and devoted their efforts to developing art that would reflect their own culture. Gardens were arranged in ways that portrayed Japanese natural landscapes, and Buddhism became a dominant, inspirational force behind their creations. Although the pond and islands remained the integral parts of Japanese gardens in this period, all the other elements were selected and organized in a much more scrupulous manner. For example, the constructions surrounding the garden must be connected to each other by lengthy covered galleries. There was a preference for deciduous trees whose shapes and colors would shift from season to season. Even birds in the trees and fish in the pond were considered parts of the garden composition.

This style of Japanese garden both depicts the core of Buddhism as well as the anxiety of civil wars that raged throughout the country in the second half of the Heian period. The incessantly altering state of the garden echoes the Buddhist teaching about the evanescence of our being and the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth. On the psychological level, it shows that the ominous wars had awakened people to recognize the precariousness of life and find reasons to be more sensitive to ephemeral beauty of nature; magnificent spring flowers that were so short-lived; colorful foliage that would die in the bitterness of winter.

The Muromachi Period (14th - 16th Century)

Zen Rock Garden at Ryoan-ji, Japan
Zen Rock Garden at Ryoan-ji, Japan | Source

Around the late 11th century in the Heian period, dry rocky landscapes were built as a part of mainstream gardens. The professional landscapers back then were called "ishitate-so", meaning "monks who arrange rocks." It might sound a bit strange to us, modern citizens, but since Buddhism was so critical in the art of gardens in those days, it wasn't surprising at all that monks were the ones responsible for designing and creating Zen gardens. It wasn't until the Muromachi period that the Zen rock garden was fully developed, rose to its fame and continued its legacy to this day. Muso Soseki, a great Zen monk, was said to be the father of Zen landscaping who created some of the oldest rock gardens and brought popularity to this enigmatic landscaping technique.

While Heian gardens mirrored the vicissitudes of life, Muromachi rock gardens completely rejected transitory phenomena and meaningless facades of material world. Garden makers in this period stripped nature bare and created Zen gardens mainly out of rocks and sand, in order to reveal the true substance of life and nature. Occasionally, small evergreen bushes were added but not portrayed as the focal element. This doesn't mean that the Muromachi landscapers totally neglected the tradition of pond gardens of the earlier days, though. Zen rock gardens are basically pond gardens without water. Zen monks draw wavy patterns in the sand with a rake as a way to mimic undulating movements of streams. All the rocks in the garden also represent elements found in regular Japanese gardens, such as islands, mountains, trees, bridges and even animals. Muso Soseki beautifully summed up this idea of imaginary components in his poem, "Ode to the Dry Landscape":

Without a speck of dust being raised,

the mountains tower up;

without a single drop falling,

the streams plunge into the valley.

All the Zen gardens that come after the Muromachi period are an evolving part of its legacy. To this day, new rock gardens continue to emerge in Japan and various countries. There are countless variations born of modern landscapers' distinctive imagination and creativity. Yet, Zen gardens built in the Muromachi period always remain revered as the ancient prototypes of this unique landscaping style.


Philosophy Behind the Zen Rock Garden

Traditionally, Zen rock gardens are not meant for picnics or other recreational activities. It is a sacred realm for Zen monks to perform their daily practice. The Japanese word "niwa" that means "garden" nowadays actually denoted "a ritual space" in the ancient time. So how can a seemingly barren garden have such significance in those clergymen's practice? In Zen Buddhism, reading scriptures and reciting prayers are considered to be superficial activities. To attain enlightenment, one must also undergo long periods of sitting meditation as well as physical work. At the rock garden, Zen monks contemplate upon nature and search for the utmost freedom of the mind. The true purpose behind the sand raking isn't to create something aesthetically pleasing but to train their own thought; it is, in other words, an implicit form of moving meditation.

Buddha Nature - Zen is a branch of Buddhism, which should not be considered a religion, at least not in a conventional sense, as it has nothing to do with divine power or metaphysical theories of human existence. It is simply a school of thought or a mode of thinking. The main activity of being a Zen is not to study Zen, but rather, to study oneself and regain one's "original nature", which is often referred to as "Buddha nature." Everyone was born with Buddha nature, but as we age, we become attached to things and experiences we have encountered. To rediscover our Buddha nature doesn't mean to forget everything or to be naïve, but to see things with a mind that is open to all possibilities, ready to accept and to doubt; a mind that isn't hindered by ego, desires, prejudice or selfish obsession. Without realizing our Buddha nature, our activities will always be affected by our preconceived ideas and fragmented, spinning mind. We don't fully see anything as it is but receive everything just as an echo of ourselves. By stripping a garden to its bare bones, Zen monks create a miniature image of the universe in its rawest form, which they believe can remind humans of their own deepest nature.

Reality vs Manipulation of Nature - In a Zen rock garden, the rocks may represent mountains or trees or animals. The sand may symbolize an expanse of water or a waterfall slithering down a mountain. Yet, in reality, the rocks are just rocks, and the sand is just sand. This, in a profound way, reflects how humans habitually manipulate nature, assign meanings to things around us and in the process of that, fool ourselves into becoming obsessed with those empty values. Diamonds, for example, are something lots of people adore and long to own. Many are more than willing to pay high prices or even get in debt for a tiny piece of this gemstone. The diamond is supposed to represent luxury, beauty and eternal love. In many cases, it becomes a reason for envy, greed and superficial happiness. But in reality, isn't it just a shiny rock? Contemplating upon the bareness and simplicity of a Zen rock garden, one may learn how to perceive the true substance of nature and see things beyond their meaningless appearances.

Materials for Making a Rock Garden

What You Need
Optional Additions
bricks, small rocks or a low wooden fence for the border
landscaping tarp
small bench
small shrubs
sand or gravel
garden lamps
wooden rake

How to Make a Japanese Rock Garden

  • Take a careful look at your backyard and decide where you want to build your rock garden. Decide on its size and shape. Most rock gardens are rectangular or square, but there's nothing wrong with building yours in a circular or irregular shape. Also, bigger doesn't necessarily mean better. A small Zen garden can bring just as much peace to your mind as a spacious one does.
  • Remove all the grass from the area on which you want to create your rock garden.
  • Dig a shallow trench of about 2 - 3 inches deep around the border.
  • Cover the area with a landscaping tarp. This will prevent weeds from growing and poking through the sand.
  • Tuck the edges of the tarp into the trench.
  • Put bricks or small rocks over the trench to secure the tarp and also to create the border for your garden. If you don't want to use bricks or rocks, you may build a low wooden fence over the trench instead. Bamboo is probably the most common type of wood for Zen garden borders.
  • Lay sand or gravel (or a mixture of both) all over the tarp. Try to make the surface as even as possible. If you live in an area that is very windy or has a long rainy season, gravel is a better material for your Zen garden, as it tends to be less affected by wind and rain.
  • Arrange some rocks on your Zen garden, then rake the sand to create an image of streams or ripples.
  • Add some moss, small bushes, a bench for meditation or some garden lamps if you like.
  • Your Zen garden is complete!

Sand Raking Technique - How to Make "Ripples" on the Sand

Zen Rock Garden Designs

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Tofuku-ji, Kyoto, JapanDaitoku-ji, Kyoto, JapanMyoshin-ji, Kyoto, JapanRyoan-ji, Kyoto, JapanAnyo-in, Kobe, JapanKomyozen-ji, Fukuoka, JapanDaisen-in (Daitoku-ji), Kyoto, Japan
Tofuku-ji, Kyoto, Japan
Tofuku-ji, Kyoto, Japan | Source
Daitoku-ji, Kyoto, Japan
Daitoku-ji, Kyoto, Japan | Source
Myoshin-ji, Kyoto, Japan
Myoshin-ji, Kyoto, Japan | Source
Ryoan-ji, Kyoto, Japan
Ryoan-ji, Kyoto, Japan | Source
Anyo-in, Kobe, Japan
Anyo-in, Kobe, Japan | Source
Komyozen-ji, Fukuoka, Japan
Komyozen-ji, Fukuoka, Japan | Source
Daisen-in (Daitoku-ji), Kyoto, Japan
Daisen-in (Daitoku-ji), Kyoto, Japan | Source

How to Design a Rock Garden

According to the Sakuteiki, the earliest surviving manual for Japanese garden design, one must first acquire an overall "feeling of the place" before arranging rocks onto a landscape. What does the scenery around it look like? What is its natural aesthetic mood? It's important to keep in mind that nature itself is a consummate artist. Even though we are modifying nature to suit our personal preference, we should still consider the fundamental atmosphere of the whole place.

The number of rocks used in a Zen garden varies, depending on the intention of each landscaper. The majestic rock garden at Ryoan-ji, for instance, contains only fifteen rocks and no shrubs, leaving a long stretch of empty space carpeted with grayish gravel. All of the rocks are of similar colors, and none has any distinctive features. Many have tried to decode this simplistic yet enigmatic arrangement, and there are more than a dozen well-known interpretations. One of the most popular theories is that the creator of the Ryoan-ji garden didn't intend to replicate an abstract version of a pond garden at all. Rather, the five groups of rocks in this garden stand for the five primordial elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. By contrast with the garden of Ryoan-ji, the one at Daisen-in, a sub temple of Daitoku-ji, is much smaller in size but has about a hundred rocks in it. Each rock was meticulously selected on account of its size, shade and figurative shape. For example, an oblong flat rock on a wavy sand pattern evokes the image of a ship sailing in the sea, while a small round stone next to an erect jagged rock reminds us of a turtle at the foot of a mountain.

You may create a rock garden similar to the one at Ryoan-ji if you want to give your landscape an airy and minimalistic feel. Or you may build one with multiple rocks of various shapes and sizes if you prefer your rock garden to appear more artistic and explicit like the Daisen-in garden. There is no right or wrong, no better or worse, in the art of Zen gardens. Whether you use fifteen or a hundred rocks, your Zen garden would still serve its purpose of bringing you closer to nature and peace. In case you have no idea where to start, think of a natural landscape or scenery that has a special meaning to you, and allow it to be your source of inspiration. Consider the positions of the main rocks or the bigger elements first, and the rest will naturally fall into place.

My Mini Zen Gardens


Miniature Zen Garden

Since sunlight and water don't matter to it, a mini Zen garden might be an excellent choice for those who don't have a backyard but would like to bring some nature into their home. Many websites and gift shops provide indoor Zen-garden kits containing a mini wooden rake, a small bag of sand, a wooden tray and an assortment of rocks. The prices usually range from $10 - $30 for tabletop-size ones. If you're inclined to exercise your creativity, you can also build your own indoor Zen garden from scratch. First, you have to pick a frame for your rock garden. Any type of shallow container will work. You may use a wooden serving tray, a shallow soup plate, a cardboard box or even a photo frame. As for decorative rocks and sand, you can buy them at a hardware store, art-supply shop or a department store that sells home décor items. Garden-supply stores may offer a larger variety of these materials, yet they don't always sell them in small quantities. And last but not least, you also need a mini rake. On Amazon.com, they are sold at about $3 each. If you have a nice wooden fork or a small back scratcher, however, you may use that as a rake instead of buying a proper one. As mentioned earlier, there is no right or wrong in the art of Zen rock gardens, and that also applies to the miniature versions. You can be as innovative and resourceful as you'd like.

Some of the Most Famous Rock Gardens to Visit in Japan

show route and directions
A markerAnyo-in -
Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan
get directions

B markerDaitoku-ji -
Japan, Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Kita Ward, Murasakino Daitokujicho, 53
get directions

C markerGinkaku-ji -
Ginkakujicho, Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
get directions

D markerKomyozen-ji -
Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan
get directions

E markerRosan-ji -
Ryosanji, Misaki, Kume District, Okayama Prefecture, Japan
get directions

F markerRyoan-ji -
Japan, Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Ukyo Ward, Ryoanji Goryonoshitacho, 13
get directions

G markerShinteno-ji -
Shintojo Sanbongicho, Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, Japan
get directions

H markerShoden-ji -
Nishigamo Chinjuancho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 603-8846, Japan
get directions

I markerTaisan-ji -
Japan, Hyogo Prefecture, Kobe, Nishi Ward, Ikawadanicho Zenkai, 224
get directions

J markerTofuku-ji -
Japan, Kyoto Prefecture, Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, Honmachi 6 Chome, 15
get directions


Submit a Comment

  • gabriela 26 profile image

    gabriela 3 years ago from romania

    good post

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

    You're very welcome, greencha :)

  • greencha profile image

    greencha 4 years ago from UK

    Fantastic ,excellent,thankyou. Regards ,Greencha

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    Thanks, ducktoes. :)

  • ducktoes profile image

    ducktoes 5 years ago from Calgary, Alberta

    This is a lovely site, very informative. Thank you. I love the lines drawn in the sand around the rocks.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    Thanks so much for the kind words, Pras. I'm glad to know you're interested in the Zen rock garden. It's such a unique landscaping style, isn't it?

  • prasetio30 profile image

    prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

    Wow...this was one of the most beautiful garden, brother. Actually I had heard about Zen Garden from television (TV Champion-Japanese television program). But no one better than your information about this garden. I really enjoy all review, the philosophy, and tips about how to make Japanese rock garden, including miniature of Zen garden. You covered everything very well, brother. Good job and voted up (useful, awesome, beautiful, interesting). Have a wonderful day!


  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    Thanks, Hippie-Girl!

  • Hippie-Girl profile image

    Janelle 5 years ago from Oklahoma, USA

    Love it!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    Thanks a lot, Purple Perl. Glad you enjoyed this hub!

  • Purple Perl profile image

    Purple Perl 5 years ago from Bangalore,India

    WOW! Interesting and informative. Didn't know there was so much to these beautiful creations.Thanks very much for sharing. I loved every picture too! Made your hub so impressive. Sure earned your win! Congrats!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    @Eiddwen - Thank, Eddy. Hope you enjoy your day as well.

    @radhikasree - Thanks a lot :)

  • radhikasree profile image

    Radhika Sreekanth 5 years ago from Mumbai,India

    Highly informative hub on Zen garden. You've crafted it very well and it's a prestigious matter to go through the same. Congrats to the contest winner!!

  • Eiddwen profile image

    Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

    A brilliamnt hub and so well informed.

    Your obvious hard work certainly paid off here and I vote up.

    Take care and enjoy your day.


  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    @SweetiePie - Thanks! So glad you stopped by :)

  • SweetiePie profile image

    SweetiePie 5 years ago from Southern California, USA

    I always thought someone was trying to mimic the patterns of Japanese rock gardens when the crop circle thing was going on. The rock gardens look very beautiful by the way.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    @Simone - Oh lucky you! Japan has always been one of the places I really want to visit. I have a friend in Fukuoka, but haven't been able to save enough money to fly there and visit her. And yeah, I know my mini rock gardens totally rock! hehehe

  • Simone Smith profile image

    Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

    Having been to at least one of the places on your map, I've really come to love zen rock gardens! They're such peaceful places- so good for reflection. It was great fun to learn more about their history and meaning. Thanks for the fantastic Hub! Your mini rock gardens rock!

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    @anglnwu - Hehehe...."One who arranges rocks" is a pretty cool title, isn't it? I, too, would be happy to arrange rocks and draw patterns on the sand every day. Thanks so much for stopping by. Always glad to hear from you.

  • anglnwu profile image

    anglnwu 5 years ago

    Now, I would like a job as the "one who arranges rocks, "--the monks had that distinct joy of doing that--I thought that was very enviable on an aesthetic level. You've done a fabulous job of tracing the history and then telling us the tenets of Zen rock garden. Now, I know who to consult should I want a zen garden. Amazing useful hub and rating it up and up.

  • Om Paramapoonya profile image

    Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

    @cclitgirl - Thanks for the kind words, cclitgirl. I'm glad to hear that you might create your own rock garden some day. I don't have a backyard so I just made miniature ones, and it turned out to be a very enjoyable and relaxing experience.

    @pctechgo - Yes, that photo is pretty amazing, isn't it? Thanks so much for dropping by and commenting.

    @randomcreative - Thanks! Glad you enjoyed this hub.

    @Pamela - Thank you so much for your votes and kind comment, Pamela.

    @AliciaC - Yeah, I think a lot of people are more familiar with gardens that have trees and flowers. Although the Zen rock garden might not be a garden of your choice, I'm glad you find it interesting.

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

    Thank you for such a detailed description of Zen rock gardens. This type of garden is a strange concept for me, since I'm used to thinking of an ideal garden as being green and colorful. Your hub provides me with some interesting food for thought!

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

    You made Zen gardens come alive with your thorough explanations and the beautiful pictures, plus instructions to make out own garden. Rated interesting and beautiful.

  • randomcreative profile image

    Rose Clearfield 5 years ago from Milwaukee, Wisconsin

    Well done, Om! This hub is so beautiful and also so useful. Thanks for the great information.

  • pctechgo profile image

    pctechgo 5 years ago from US

    The Heian Period photograph is spectacular.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • cclitgirl profile image

    Cynthia Sageleaf 5 years ago from Western NC

    Wow! What a beautiful, comprehensive hub! I already feel a sense of peace just seeing all these rock gardens. I love how you explain how to make one - maybe I will sometime. You include such beautiful examples and your writing is amazing and perfect. Great job, here. I loved reading about the history in Japan, too. You have my votes.