What Is the Philosophy Behind Zen Gardens?

In Japanese culture, a Zen garden is a place for reflection where all the natural elements that make it up nourish the mind and body.

Jun 10, 2024By Vedran Obucina, PhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA Philosophy

philosophy behind zen gardens


Zen gardens, also known as Japanese Karesansui, have been used for meditation and contemplation for centuries. They are designed to express the essence of nature in a minimalistic and harmonious way, using carefully placed rocks, raked sand and gravel, and sometimes a few additional elements. Let us delve together into the world of Zen gardens!


A Brief Note on Zen Buddhism and Zen Gardens

Kinkaku Ji The Golden Pavilion, by Pen_Ash, Source: Pixabay


Zen-Buddhism and its two branches were created by Eisai (the founder of the Rinzai school) and Dōgen (the teacher of the Sōtō school); they introduced it to Japan in the Kamakura (1192–1333) and Muromachi (1336–1573) dynasties respectively. Zen gave a spiritual basis to overall life, and especially to the warrior class, the samurai. The main characteristics of Zen—spontaneity, simplicity (sabi), calmness, and solitude (wabi)—influenced calligraphy, ink painting (zen-painting), flower decoration (ikebana), poetry (renga and haiku), drama (), tea ceremonies, and swordsmanship (kendo).


Zen Buddhism is rather unusual in its teachings. Today, historians and philosophers are divided on whether it is a religion or a philosophy because Zen denies any external rites, does not require special clothing or a way of eating, and there are no philosophical discussions or religious revelations. The entirety of Zen literature consists of anecdotes from the lives of Zen teachers and their students. Although often humorous and full of spirit, these anecdotes may seem incomprehensible, even meaningless, but of course, that is not true. Zen Buddhism actually fully follows the philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism, relying primarily on the teachings contained in the Prajnaparamita Sutra. Zen has no books because learning basically boils down to the teacher’s direct guidance of their student. In this context, anecdotes about teachers served as the basis for teaching new generations of students, but to think that they contain the entire teachings of Zen Buddhism would be completely wrong.


Generally, a garden that does not use water and expresses a mountain or waterside landscape using stones and plants is called a Karesansui. In particular, the relationship between Zen Buddhism and Karesansui is deep. Zen, has been influenced by Chinese Taoism, and ideally involves training in remote, deep mountains. Karesansui is a recreation of such scenery.

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The Philosophy of Zen Garden 

Temple Garden Gate in Kyoto, by DerWeg, Source: Pixabay


A Karesansui is a garden that abstractly expresses the philosophy and spirit of Zen. They are often situated next to Zen Buddhist temples. Such a garden uses stones and sand as the central materials to express a landscape of landscapes. Without flowing water or plants, stones and sand resemble mountains and rivers flowing through a gentle, hilly area, allowing the majestic scenery of nature to be captured in a limited space. The most outstanding feature of Karesansui is its expression in space.


Since a completely natural landscape cannot be called a garden, it requires an artificial relationship with nature. Zen Gardens typically offer the scenery of a hermitage/arbor in the middle of nature (rural scenery overlooking nature itself), or take the form of a miniature garden-like model that imitates nature, incorporating various natural elements without selecting them prior.


The most crucial thing about making a Karesansui is to take advantage of the natural properties of these natural materials without making any changes to them. The landscape of Karesansui, which has been stripped down to its bare minimum, will give peace of mind.


Modern Karesansui is an important element of Japanese culture, and it is often loved by foreigners visiting Japan too. Karesansui has a deep connection with Zen, expressing the state of mind of the Zen monk who created the Karesansui.


Japanese Zen Garden, by Franckinjapan, Source: Pixabay


To enjoy Karesansui, knowing how to see them correctly is important. Zen gardens are not symmetrical but are characterized by asymmetrical compositions. This aesthetic sensibility symbolizes Zen, is born from Zen spirituality, and represents the fact that organic beauty is never complete.


The main feature of Karesansui is the Iwagumi, which is an arranged row of stones and one of the viewpoints of Karesansui. Iwagumi is an important element that determines the quality of the entire Karesansui, and there are various ways of assembling it, such as Taki Iwagumi, which uses only stones to represent the shape of a waterfall, and Sanson Iwagumi, which uses three stones to represent the Buddha and a samurai. Depending on whether the top of the stone is sharp or blunt, the overall impression of the Karesansui feels different.


Peace, harmony, and beauty are the three fundamental elements that characterize the art of the Japanese Zen garden. It is impossible to define or label it with one typology. There are, in fact, many types, each with their own unique and unmistakable style. The goal is to provide the observer with a revised vision of reality where every element contributes to the creation of the landscape.


History of Zen Garden

Garden at Golden Temple in Kyoto, by artistadiabolico, Source: Pixabay


The basics of the Zen Garden were created around 2,000 years ago. At that time, they marked sacred places outside, in nature, with stones. These were and are, the so-called Shinto shrines, which are part of native Japanese religion. Zen gardens have also been influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, and the principles of Yin and Yang.


Zen Gardens continued to develop in the late Kamakura Period under the influence of the introduction of Zen Buddhism. In the world of Zen, in addition to having a heart that admires nature, it is essential to purify one’s mind through meditation. In Zen training, most Zen temples were built on vast plots of land in the mountains to become one with nature. But as Zen Buddhism spread, they began to be built in urban areas with small plots of land. Karesansui became a natural element.


In addition, the creation of dry landscape gardens was used as part of Zen monks’ training to reflect their mental and physical state. As a relationship between the Rinzai sect and the Shogunate gradually emerged, Zen gardens were also created at the imperial court.


In the Muromachi Period, the style of buildings changed from Shinden-zukuri to Shoin-zukuri, and the influence of ink paintings created the need for ornamental gardens instead of formal gardens. Karesansui rapidly developed and they remain the same to this day. The foundation of Zen Gardens as we know them was completed in this period.


Particularly after the Onin War, when the country was in financial trouble, Zen gardens were valued because they were inexpensive to create. During the Edo Period, Japanese gardens were built all over the country, and the appeal of Karesansui became popular in general.


Symbolism in Zen Gardens

Bonsai Trees, by IlonaBurschl, Source: Pixabay


The four main elements of a Zen garden are: stones, water, moss, and trees. However, large plants are avoided. The lack of water in rock gardens is embodied by gravel and sand. These elements and areas are often separated by the so-called torii, classic wooden gates, which serve as a transition and a link. The addition of too many playful details and colors is deliberately avoided. A Zen garden should look calm and orderly, intended to promote creativity and concentration.


Stones are an important component of Japanese gardens. You can use just one stone to balance the landscape of the entire garden or combine several stones to depict waterfalls, mountains, etc. Due to the influence of Zen Buddhism, stones play a special role in this form of Japanese garden. In contrast to the paradise or tea gardens that were often prevalent in the past, Zen gardens provided something new.


Consisting mainly of stones and white gravel areas, plants were almost completely eliminated. These new gardens should not necessarily be entered but instead should be viewed like a picture from the outside. Through the influence of Zen, gardening became less of a job and more of a spiritual practice.


Moss growing in The north garden of Tofuku-ji Hojo, Kyoto, Japan, photo by Ka23 13, Source: Wikimedia Commons


According to the teachings of Zen Buddhism, there is no distinction between I and you, or subject and object. Clear boundaries, such as those we would like to draw everywhere in the Western world, either fall into disuse or need to be created.


The non-essentials should be left out to have a pure mind for meditation. This Zen wisdom is called “Mu” or “Ku” in Japanese. Translated into English, it means something like “emptiness.” This “emptiness” is embodied by the white gravel surfaces.


The reason for using stones in a Zen garden is rooted in classic Japanese aesthetics. A term that plays a significant role here is “Wabi-Sabi.” The syllable “Sabi” can essentially be translated as “patina.” Due to its origin, every stone has a certain patina, i.e., a thin surface layer. A stone in the mountains has a mountain patina, and a stone by the sea has a sea patina. While they remain in a Zen garden, stones take on a garden patina over time. However, only old stones are used. Young stones are strictly frowned upon. Old and used stones radiate transience.


Here, Zen Buddhism shows itself clearly again because change is the only constant. “Wabi” connotes an appreciation for things that show “Sabi.” This leads to an appreciation of the transience of the stones, which is reflected in the different patinas and other features, e.g., scratches, notches, and color differences. It is also important to mention that the stones should never be arranged in a geometric figure, as this cannot be found in nature. An even number of stones should also be avoided. There are usually five or seven stones that are placed either together or individually.


Japanese Zen, by Jggrz, Source: Pixabay


The curved lines in the gravel and sand areas highlight the stone settings. These usually symbolize natural structures such as streams or other bodies of water. It should be noted that no beginning or end to the lines can be seen and that the lines of the individual patterns merge. Taking up the teachings of Zen Buddhism, stones themselves are pretty meaningless, just like man alone is pointless. Meaning only comes into being in connection with an environment.


Zen Gardens are representations of natural scenery such as deformed nature, rough seashores, beaches, etc. They visualize stories from myths, Buddhist scripture, and Zen proverbs. Mt. Horai, Mt. Sumeru, Gokuraku, Nine Mountains and Eight Seas, and many other mythical features permeate Zen Gardens.


Rocks, water, sand, gravel, and other material elements can recreate hills, seas, lakes, and rivers. When creating a Zen landscape, you must abandon the classic idea of a garden that Western gardening has accustomed us to. Each individual plant, each stone, and each grain of sand has a specific function and corresponds to a predetermined order and symbolism.


There is no room for frivolity, embellishments, or chaos. The “randomness” with which classical gardens are often created must be abandoned. The idea is to provide balance and harmony with a minimalist style and almost obsessive attention to detail.


Rock Mountain and gravel river, at Daisen-in stone garden, Horaisan Mountain in Daitokuji, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Zen garden is typically a dry garden. As a result, plants are usually used less. Traditionally, they are limited to moss, which grows over the stones or is placed around the stones. The green color of the moss stands for wisdom and it helps you immerse yourself in meditation. In practice, however, these traditional rules are often broken, and Zen gardens are given an individual touch. However, to maintain the traditional line, plants from Asia, such as Japanese maple or bamboo are particularly recommended.


Choosing plants is one of the fundamental steps after decorating the space. Tall trees are rarely inserted to avoid too apparent contrasts and asymmetries. Small plants, limited in size and manageable with simple pruning, are better. The function of plants is not namely decorative but symbolic. They are used to connect nature and man in the ever-evolving universe.


Evergreen species with long flowering periods and regular vegetative development are generally preferred. Bonsai are usually the protagonists, along with maple, bamboo, reed, and juniper. The lawn must be made of moss, not grass. The green mantle softens the shape and creates soft lines of a beautiful, intense green color that does not fade throughout the year.


Ginkgo biloba is highly valued among the few permitted deciduous species. It is an ancient, almost extinct species characterized by large lobed leaves. The weeping willow is also widely used for its decorative leaves that sway with every light breeze. Among the evergreens, cedar and silver fir are also widely used.

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By Vedran ObucinaPhD History, MA Political Science and Theology, BA PhilosophyVedran is a Croatian political scientist, historian, and theologian. He is an Old-Catholic priest and is interested in the history of religions and philosophy. He is also very active in religious peacebuilding. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Regensburg; an MA in political science from the University of Zagreb; and an MA in Theology with a BA in philosophy from Old-Catholic Seminary. He writes about world religions, their histories, and rituals, as well as the history of philosophical ideas.