An Introduction To Japanese Zen Gardens

Zen gardens, ranging from large and colorful landscapes with plants and water elements such as streams and ponds, to austere, simple rock gardens with stones large and small set amidst raked sand or gravel, have been a feature of Japan’s cultural landscape for at least a thousand years and possibly more. They represent man’s search for inner understanding and peace and are designed to instill a sense of calm in the viewer, allowing for self-reflection and meditation.

These gardens were inspired by the exchange of culture between China and Japan – for 1000 years before the appearance of such Zen gardens in Japan, landscape gardens were being created in neighboring China. There, too, they had religious foundations – the first such garden, constructed by a Han dynasty emperor named Wu, was intended to represent a holy mountain that, in Chinese legend, was said to be the home of eight immortal beings. The emperor’s hope was that by creating a beautiful landscape garden, these immortal beings would be drawn to his garden, even mistaking it as their own home, and grace him with their presence. That didn’t happen, of course, but the landscape garden craze was born.

Sung Paintings Inspire Zen Rock Gardens

The turning point that led to the creation of the kind of Zen rock gardens that are well-known and famous around the world nowadays came during the reign of the Song dynasty in China. Japanese Zen monks, going to China to study, came back with deep appreciation for the art form of Sung monochrome painting – simple, reserved paintings made with black ink, diluted to various shades of grey as necessary, on parchment. Few brush strokes and landscapes painted in an incomplete way, to suggest mist or the vastness of nature, appealed to the monks who found the distillation of landscapes to simple, abstract shapes to be representative of their religious and meditative practices.

With the return of these monks to Japan, the rise of the samurai warrior class and their appreciation for the Zen philosophy, and the progress of the Muromachi era, this visual austerity and simplicity became a much more popular approach to the design of Japanese gardens, especially those in or near Zen temples. Water elements, once a staple of such gardens, came to be replaced by white sand and gravel, which had long been elements in Japanese gardens and symbolized purity in the Shinto religious tradition.

In Zen gardens, they came to symbolize water or, like the negative space in Zen paintings, the emptiness of reality – what in Buddhist tradition is called sunyata. These gardens increasingly came to be associated with the serious and solemn religious practice of Zen Buddhism. They received the label of kare-sansui – “dry landscape.” In this era – known as the Kamakura era of Japan – the Zen garden came to represent the Western Paradise of Amida Buddha.

The contrasts between Chinese and Japanese gardens were many – whereas the Chinese cultivated symmetry and didn’t hesitate to present their gardens as somewhat fantastical exercises of the imagination, with unnatural and unusual features, Japanese Zen tradition favored asymmetry and naturalness that suggested the endlessness of nature and existence.A Bridge in a Japanese Zen Garden