Zen Rock Garden - History, Philosophy and How-To Guide
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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.
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)
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)
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
bricks, small rocks or a low wooden fence for the border
sand or gravel
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 DesignsClick thumbnail to view full-size
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
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.