Calming, tranquil and ordered, Zen Buddhist gardens bring simplicity and meditation, together in a philosophical approach to garden design.
words by Jack Wells
Being in a well-made garden can be an incredibly soothing experience, so it shouldn’t be surprising to discover that in Zen Buddhism, gardening and meditation go hand in hand. The Zen garden is more than just a section of outdoor space to escape into – it’s a physical manifestation of a philosophy, a space intended to stimulate meditation and contemplation on the very meaning of life.
Crafted for tranquillity
Zen gardens may at first appear to be very simple, but they’re created according to a strict set of aesthetic principles, as set out in Japan’s oldest gardening guide, the Sakutei-ki (The Way of Gardening). This gives in-depth illustrated directions on every detail involved in creating a Zen garden – from the ways rocks should be grouped to how miniature ‘mountains’ should be made.
A mixture of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, Zen emphasises the power of experience over the study of scriptures or intellectual pursuits. The word ‘zen’ itself derives from the Chinese word Chan, which in turn comes from the Sanskrit word Dhyana, which roughly translates as meditation.
Zen gardens are carefully ordered outdoor spaces that are often found in the grounds of Zen temples. They are there to be used by monks and visitors alike – places to enter into an active state of stillness known as Seijaku, a kind of tranquil contemplation. The repetitive work of raking gravel, removing moss and pulling weeds is said to form a distraction from the busyness of the mind, allowing the soul to speak.
Whereas many gardens are designed to contrast with the surrounding world, Zen gardens seek to replicate it in a new, miniature form. Mountains are represented by large rocks, while carefully raked stones speak of rivers and streams. Sometimes, in the Sansui style of Zen gardens, actual water features are used to create these images, and sometimes it’s presented metaphorically with gravel, following the Karesansui approach (Kare means dry).
The idea of recreating large landscapes in small gardens is called Shakkei or, literally, Borrowed Scenery. The scene is intended to communicate something of the essence of nature, acting as an aid for meditation on the meaning of life.
It’s partly thanks to the concise proportions of these garden vistas that they have become so ubiquitous in Japan. In a country where 70 per cent of the population lives in 30 per cent of the geographical area, most personal gardens are small. Creating a Zen garden gives people a way to create a natural space within a densely populated environment.
The most famous example of the Zen garden is the Ryoan-ji temple garden in Kyoto, Japan. Recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site, it was first built during the 1450s. After being burnt to the ground during the Onin wars, it was rebuilt in 1486 and now attracts visitors from all over the world.
The garden is famous for its 15 stones, which are placed on polished white gravel that is carefully raked by the temple’s monks every day. The large rocks are arranged in such a way that, wherever you stand in the garden, one of the stones is always hidden from your view.
However, they do say that if you manage to see all 15 at one time, then you have reached the goal of all garden-lovers – true enlightenment.