The Zen garden (枯山水, karesansui) as we know it today came to be around the 11th century. Also referred to as Japanese dry gardens or Japanese rock gardens, Japan’s Zen Buddhist monks carefully crafted these gardens to serve as a sanctuary within the monastery itself dedicated to contemplating Buddha’s teachings- particularly those of nature. By immersing themselves in this beautiful natural environment of their own creation, the monks could reflect deeply on their lessons and the world around them.
All aspects of Zen garden design have a profoundly symbolic meaning and purpose. Each element is placed in the garden deliberately with thought and care. While using only a small space for the garden, usually a fenced or walled courtyard, the garden seeks to isolate the viewer and gardener from the outside world’s distractions and allow the deepest levels of concentration. In this modest amount of space, smaller natural items were used to symbolize greater ones found in nature.
Rocks and stones are the most abundant and significant element in Zen gardens and even have their own classification system based on their shape explaining what they symbolize within the garden. This includes: continents, waterfalls, islands, and more.
Gravel or sand in a light or white color is used to symbolize water. The iconic ripples, created by raking, are meant to resemble waves and movement, while the light color also emulates negative space. Both visually help to aid in focus. The tedious creation of the swirls/ ripples also doubles as a meditation technique in itself. Actual water is traditionally not present in Zen gardens (hence the name “dry garden”), but has become more popular in modern, more ornamental gardens in the form of small streams and ponds.
Plants are also found in abundance within rock gardens- primarily in smaller growths of flowers, trees, mosses, and shrubs. Plants are generally included more for aesthetic purposes, but their presence as a whole also symbolizes perseverance and the passing of time.
A single small bridge is a frequently found element in both classic and modern takes, as its meaning is deeply symbolic to those on the path to enlightenment. It represents the crossing between worlds and our journey to the afterlife.
Statues and sculptures are another more recent but popular addition to both public and private Zen gardens. Their purpose can range depending on who or what they depict. A Buddha or Tara statue, for example, honors those whose teachings we follow, whereas figures of animals or similar subjects may be more for decoration and to add a bit of whimsy or personal touch to the space.
Outdoor statues are not usually an element found in deeply traditional Zen gardens, but in the modern era they have made a rise to popularity for personal and decorative ones, and have become a staple in outdoor meditation spaces. Many of the strict guidelines for constructing a traditional garden have been omitted in favor of suiting one’s own taste and accommodating limited outdoor space.
The key concept to remember when constructing a private Japanese Zen garden is that although there are some basic guidelines to follow, it is ultimately up to the gardener what the final result should look like and what exact elements are chosen to, or not to, include. It is about creating a space for contemplation, meditation, and relaxation all while acknowledging and appreciating the beauty and symbiosis of our natural environment.