If you’ve ever been to a Japanese Zen garden, you know there is so much that goes into its design. I’m always fascinated by their simplicity, their fluidity, and the attention paid to every element present. It’s no wonder temples are surrounded by them.
Whether Zen rock gardens are your go-to or another type, it’s possible to make your own Zen garden or Japanese-inspired garden based on the principles of Zen Buddhism. This gives you a good glimpse into the intricacies of Zen Japanese culture and makes your garden a place of peace and calm.
In this piece, we’ll dive into the tenets of Japanese gardening, focused on Zen gardens. We’ll examine their history and their varying uses. And we’ll finish it out with information on how you can incorporate these tenets and elements in your own backyard too.
The History of Japanese Zen Gardens
Zen garden origins occurred before the first recognized monarchy in the Yamato Period (250 to 710). Indigenous Japanese Shinto Buddhist peoples emulated principles behind Chinese gardening. At the time Japan was ruled by Daoist China, but the principles of the Dao were easily integrated into the naturalistic focus of Shinto.
Later in the Heian Period (794–1185), the Buddhist monastery became a locus of power in Japanese culture. It was at this time that monks focused on recreating the Pure Land at their temples, due to the belief that the end times or the age of mappō was beginning. By creating these Pure Land spaces in the Japanese garden, monks ensured paradise would be waiting for them after they passed out of this life and into the next.
In the 11th century, the tenets of the Japanese garden were established along with the five great zen temples. These ideals, or Sakuteiki, explained the 5 types of Japanese gardens and fortified the use of rocks in their construction. In the 12th century, Zen Buddhism was introduced into the Japanese rock garden. Instead of emulating paradise, gardens became a place for distilling sensation. Here, pre-eminent purveyors of Japanese garden design got their start.
The Silver Pavilion in eastern Kyoto was built in 1482. It was first the home of a shogun and then converted to a Zen temple 8 years after its construction. The temple is one of the most famous of the Zen gardens that still exist today. Since then, the importance of the Zen monastery has waxed and waned in multiple cycles. Cultural shifts have also contributed to changes in the meaning of each design element. Today it is accepted that the Four Noble Truths and the 8-Fold Path of Buddhism are the basis of Zen gardening.
Elements of a Japanese Zen Garden
There are 4 elements involved in designing a Zen garden: water, rocks, plantings, and ornaments. The elements are considered on their own. How they will be incorporated into the overall design is considered as well.
Ishi or rocks can be pathway stones (tobi-ishi), stopping stones, or boundary stones (tome-ishi) incorporated to serve a practical function. Randomly placed rocks (sute-ishi, or “abandoned rocks” or “nameless rocks”), yama-ishi, or simply yama (“mountain”) may not serve the same function in a Japanese garden but instead are placed to invoke ideas of mountain ranges or punctuate a design. A pure rock garden called ishiniwa (literally, “stone garden”) or ishihama (pebble beach) could be the basis of a Japanese garden. Alternatively, sand or gravel is placed to simulate water in a dry form. In Shinto philosophy, rocks are representations of kami, or spirits.
Mizu or water is present in most Zen gardens through ponds (called ike, enchi, or chisen depending on the type). Running water, like streams (“kyokusui”, or meandering streams that display banked curvature; or simply, streams, aka “nagare”) are also incorporated. Included in this element are waterfalls. Sometimes water features are meant to emulate the ocean or mythical bodies of water. Smaller ponds house koi fish and larger ones are meant for rowboats and star-gazing.
Shokobutsu, or plantings, are one of the most important aspects for a Japanese garden designer. Common trees might include blossoming cherries that flower in spring or pines that are either pruned or not. Cloud pruning is common among pine trees. Fruit trees are often open pruned. Japanese plums are grown for the bright colors of their blossoms and their fruit. Bamboo is common as well, acting as a symbol of good fortune in rock gardens and foliage dominant spaces alike. Small shrubs, called “karekomi” when they are clipped are interspersed among plants like ferns. A moss garden can be carefully cultivated to produce a specific effect. Shokobutsu are chosen to achieve an overall feel. What is important is that the plantings provide year-round interest in the garden.
Tenkeibutsu are ornamental or decorative elements. Stone lanterns (ishidoro) or items shaped like cranes or turtles are common. A “kamejima”, for instance, is a collection of stones placed in the center of a pond to evoke the imagery of a turtle. Kamejima translates to “turtle island”. There is also a “tsurujima”, or crane island. A “tsuru ishi” is a stone that looks like a crane. Other ornamental elements include stone frogs, stone basins, gates, and statues of Buddha. Archways are a common ornamental that has a symbolic purpose. Bamboo clackers are included to scare away evil spirits. Sometimes water features are placed in areas where they act as cleansing stations in the garden. Especially for Zen garden tea ceremonies, walking past a bamboo dipper in a natural stone water feature cleanses those participating.
Hashi or bridges are important aspects of Zen gardens and while they fall into the realm of tenkeibutsu, these almost deserve their own category because of how visually stunning they are. The most common form of hashi is the curved, arched bridge with red railings that features in many Japanese gardens. This bridge is called sori-bashi, or arched bridge. Practically, these act as transitional spaces connecting one part of the garden to the next or signifying the connection of the Zen garden to the outside world. When it comes to the Japanese tradition of tea ceremonies, zig-zagging bridges that lead up to a tea house emulate poetic epics. Symbolically, these transitions connect varying planes and worlds, illustrating each person’s journey between and among them.
Zen Garden Design Principles
Now that we’ve discussed the physical elements in Japanese gardens, we’ll cover the principles of these gardens. Historically, Zen gardens surrounded important temples and incorporated many Chinese traditions. These principles remain today and promote the beauty of the natural environment that exists around the garden.
Natural materials are not symmetrical. Therefore, one of the basic elements of Zen gardening is the encouragement of asymmetry to mimic the aesthetic of the great outdoors. Straight lines are therefore less desirable than an abstract composition that focuses on the inherent curvature of natural features.
The use of enclosures as a way to encourage contemplation of the garden overall is very important. This could be enclosures that exist within the garden itself, or it could include different elements in the buildings surrounded by the garden. Large windows in a temple face many different garden angles, influencing the meditative state with varying views.
Instead of trying to mask nature as it is, Zen gardens use the surrounding natural features to accentuate the central parts existing within the garden. A large, old tree or mountainside are examples of the overarching landmasses that are integrated into these beautiful gardens. One of the important Zen temples, the Jenryu-Ji Temple in the Arishayama district of Kyoto, accentuates the lush forests of the Arashiayama mountains as a backdrop. By incorporating the surrounding natural elements, this Buddhist temple flows seamlessly out of those features.
While asymmetry is important, it’s also imperative to take a balanced approach to the natural beauty within and outside the garden. Embracing and enhancing imperfection is one mode of Zen that has survived from the Dao, its historical precursor. One of the best examples of this principle is in the pruning of small trees, like Japanese maples which have delicate leaves that are prized in Zen design. It’s unlikely you’ll ever see a symmetrically pruned tree in the whole garden. That’s because the growth of each small tree is taken into account, and there isn’t any force applied to control their shape. In this way, the focal point of the tree is simply its natural state.
Many features of the garden are reminiscent of the metaphorical journey between planes of existence. Similarly, large rocks in a rock garden can mimic or invoke nearby mountains. Pathways to a tea house are often zig-zagging to represent events in poetry, or stepping stones are employed to emulate the journey of passing between planes or from one life to the next, or even to represent swimming baby tigers. There may be more literal symbolism in the form of statues and figures as well.
Types of Japanese Zen Gardens
Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about the essential types of Japanese gardens. Each has its function and primary features. They also have their own origins.
Dry Landscape Garden
In Japanese, a sand and stone garden is called the Karesansui garden. This garden type incorporates all the elements and principles of Zen garden designs but lacks a water feature. Standing in for streams, or a real pond is raked white gravel or carefully raked white sand. A dry waterfall may be present in the form of cascades of rocks that act as a focal point. The most important part of a dry garden is the space between larger rocks. The placement of fine gravel in dry gardens, and the skill of raking the gravel or sand are paramount. Plantings are second to these themes, but the practice of raking the stones is supposed to aid meditation among Zen monks. This garden type was popular in the Muromachi period (1336-1573). One notable example is the Ryoanji temple where the dry garden contains fifteen stones, of which only 14 can be seen from any vantage point at any given time.
Known as Shoinzukuri Teien in Japanese, these gardens are made to inspire meditation among visitors. The common format of this garden contains a pond at the front where visitors may find a turtle swimming among koi and the land behind inclines. Across the pond are bridges, and the upward sloping land holds large stones and stepping stones. Other stonework may be present in the form of pagodas, lanterns, and statues. The origins of study gardens lie in the formative years of Japanese gardens altogether, in the 6th to 7th centuries.
Called Kayushiki Teien in Japan, these simple gardens are built to promote peace among their inhabitants. They were first developed in the Edo Period (1603-1868). During this period, feudalism was a way of life, and daimyo or feudal lords held the most power next to emperors. Therefore, these gardens are sometimes called daimyo gardens. These gardens are soft and subtle in their features, containing recreations of scenes from the real or mythical world. They’re often arranged around a central pond that has a curved bridge running across it. The purpose of the strolling garden is to create an environment where those strolling peacefully can witness various naturalistic scenes that stimulate meditation or promote higher understandings. They may also simply be a place where one can experience the beauty of nature. One notable example of a strolling garden is the Kokedera moss temple, where over 120 different varieties of moss exist.
The central focus of tea gardens – also known as Chaniwa or Roji – is the tea house where tea ceremonies take place. Therefore, the space itself is preparation for the ceremony. Through participation in various rituals, inhabitants purify themselves on the way to the tea house. The tea garden is highly complex, containing multiple gates, waiting areas, a bathroom, a water basin, a trash can, and stepping stones. The plantings are typically evergreen, and the use of moss is employed.
Known as Tsuboniwa in Japan, these are the smallest of the Zen garden types. They’re contained in the courtyard of a dwelling or monastery, illustrating the principle of enclosure. Developed during the Heian era (794 – 1192), these spaces were developed to not only provide a central naturalistic area where features can be enjoyed, but they also had the practical function of regulating temperature and airflow in larger homes. It’s here that the water basin makes another appearance, providing a space where occupants can wash their hands. Another interesting water feature is the Suikinkutsu, which makes a sound like a harp as water drips through it.
How to Incorporate Zen Design Into Your Garden
What does it take to create a Zen garden in your own backyard? Whether you want to promote more self-discipline in your design practices, or simply enjoy the aesthetic appeal of a Zen garden, it’s easy to include Zen principles in gardening. It’s possible to do a full design on a blank slate or add features to an existing garden too.
To start, ask yourself what the purpose of the space is. If you’re interested in designing around an outbuilding that acts as a kind of domestic temple or sub-temple, consider what kind of garden works best with that feature. If you live near a large natural landmass or body of water, remember to incorporate that into your design.
Then make a list of the features you want to include. Maybe a meditation rock is essential to your garden. Maybe your backyard Japanese Zen garden will include a tea house and needs the various gates and stations that take you to the tea ceremony. After you make this list, consider your plantings. Maybe you have room for only a handful of plantings. Or maybe there is more. Consider the trees, shrubs, and ground cover that works best for your plan and your current situation.
Most of all, remain flexible. While you may have high aspirations, sometimes the reality of implementing your plan can limit what you had in mind. Acknowledging the nature of things is of utmost importance in Zen, so remember the principles involved when you’re creating your designs. Also, remember to integrate the ecology and land that exists there into your design.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the purpose of a Japanese zen garden?
A: Each Zen garden type has its purpose. See the ‘Types’ section above.
Q: What are three items in a Zen garden?
A: Depending on the type it could be many different items. Three of the most important ones are large rocks, plantings, and dry or wet bodies of water.