What is a Zen Garden?
In fact, Zen Buddhists believe that contemplation and mediation are tools in the quest for self-knowledge. Zen master gardeners design spaces to clear the mind, providing a perfect environment to reflect and embrace the journey toward enlightenment.
“Zen” means meditation. Gardens designed with Zen principles provide a soothing space for contemplation and meditation.
Elements of a Zen Garden
Within the space, rocks, gravel, sand, and minimal plants are placed to tell a story, using the 7 guiding principles of Zen design:
- Simplicity (Kanso)
- Austerity (Shibui)
- Asymmetry (Fukinsei)
- Naturalness (Shinzen)
- Mystery or Subtlety (Yugen)
- Magical or Unconventional (Datsuzoku)
- Stillness (Seijaku)
Rocks represent enduring elements in nature and a desire for eternity. Gravel and sand, when raked into patterns, suggest water, with wavy patterns mimicking the flow of rivers and lines surrounding large rocks evoking ripples in water. Patterns raked into the sand or gravel signify a season or mood. The actual art of raking the gravel or sand is part of the meditative process and helps improve mental concentration. A fine-toothed metal rake is used to smooth the sand or gravel, while a wide-toothed rake is employed to draw patterns. Straight lines echo serenity, leading the eye through the landscape, while wavy lines provide a flow through the garden. Intricate designs can be achieved through raking.
Photo courtesy Portland Japanese Garden
Zen Buddhism requires that every task is performed with love. It’s believed that the love and care put into raking gravel or removing fallen leaves, for example, will produce a serene and kindly atmosphere in the garden and gardener.
The overriding rule with Zen gardening is: less is more.
Photo courtesy Portland Japanese Garden
Symbolism in a Zen Garden
Along with numbers, symbolism runs throughout all elements in a Zen garden. Rocks placed vertically represent heaven, while rocks with break lines pointing horizontally represent earth. Diagonally-placed rocks represent humanity.
Sand or gravel represents an empty mind, which is then raked into swirls resembling the way water eddies around stones and islands or patterned into waves to represent rivers. While water is a vital element in Japanese gardens, in a dry Zen garden it’s symbolized through raked gravel to imitate the energy of real water. Positioning of “rivers” is important, as traditionally dry rivers run from east to south to west.
Plants tell stories in the Zen garden, too.
Although used selectively, each plant is chosen carefully for its symbolic addition in the garden. Pines are one of the most venerated trees. Loved for the bark, which resembles dragon scales, pine trees symbolize longevity. In fact, pine, plum, and peach trees are known as the Trees of Life. Plum blossoms symbolize the beginning of the Japanese New Year, representing quiet strength for surviving winter. Acers often are included in Zen gardens, representing the fresh spirit of spring, as well as the richness of fall’s shortening days. A gorgeous, lacy-leafed Japanese maple makes a perfect addition to a Zen garden.
How to Create a Zen Garden
Here are some tips to get started:
- Select a site. Pick a spot away from noisy neighbors or busy streets. Choose a flat area and measure the space. Many Zen gardens are designed to be seen from the house to enjoy a soothing view even when you don’t have time to meditate in the garden. Wherever you choose to create your garden, make sure you include a spot where you can sit and reflect while enjoying the view.
- Visit virtually. Nothing is more inspiring than seeing what Zen master gardeners create. Take an internet trip to Ryoan-ji Zen Garden or the Sand and Stone Garden at The Portland Japanese Gardens for inspiration.
- Draw a design. Sketch the garden space, making sure to incorporate the 7 guiding principles of Zen gardens. Remember: asymmetry is integral in Zen gardens, as it’s believed to create harmony. Design a simple, uncluttered garden that exudes a feeling of calm.
- Think about scale. Stones are the main features of a Zen garden, but large boulders can overwhelm a small space. Likewise, small stones become lost in vast spaces. Choose elements that look proportionally correct in your garden. Also, make sure you’re happy with the position for large rocks: they’re difficult to move once installed.
- Remember color and texture. Play with complementary and contrasting colors, choosing darker stones that stand out in a sea of lighter gravel. The palette of a Zen garden creates a soothing aesthetic, so eschew bold blooms and rainbow foliage. Instead, incorporate plants that provide a mix of textures in shades of green, like mosses, ferns, hostas, and evergreen shrubs or trees.
- Select a specimen plant as a focal point in the garden that provides four seasons of beauty. A cherry, plum, or Japanese maple make excellent choices for a featured tree.
- Add a spot to meditate. Place a bench or chair where you can enjoy a full view of your serene space.
- Maintain. Caring for the garden is an important part of the meditative process. Rake the gravel to keep patterns sharp and looking fresh. Pick up fallen leaves and remove weeds for a pristine, clutter-free garden. (“Leave the leaves” doesn’t pertain to Zen gardening. The space should be tidy and free from distractions while you relax and reflect in the garden.)
- Enjoy. Leave your mental “to-do” list outside the garden. Your goal is to reflect, relax, re-energize, and reconnect with nature as you enjoy your Zen garden
Ah…now don’t you feel better after spending time in the calming, reflective space of your new Zen garden?
“This post about Zen Gardening is provided as an educational/inspirational service of the National Garden Bureau and our members. Please credit and link to National Garden Bureau and author member when using all or parts of this article.”