Karesansui-or Zen gardens-are one of the most famous elements of Japanese culture. Intended to stimulate meditation, these beautiful “dry gardens” are mainly made of sand and rocks. Thus, these spaces invite reflection on the meaning of life by posing an austere perspective on nature.
Today, Zen gardens are not limited to historic Japanese temples, as many residential properties around the world-where a little peace and quiet is needed-have incorporated this element. On the other hand, you’ve probably seen the miniature gardens that some people have on their desks. Regardless of the size, the purpose of the Zen garden remains the same: to clear the mind and enter a meditative state.
Although they are very recognizable, do you know what the purpose of a Japanese zen garden is? How did zen gardens come about? Let’s learn how sand and stones transformed Japanese culture, as well as some of the best zen gardens in the world.
The history of the zen garden
Zen Gardens originated with the advent of Zen Buddhism. Zen’s ideology was adopted from China to Japan in the 12th century and was very popular with the samurai and warlords who revered it for its emphasis on balance and self-discipline.
Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, during the Muromachi era, which took place at the same time as the Italian Renaissance, special gardens started to appear in the Zen temples. In fact, the monks started building mystic rock gardens in Kyoto, a city that still has some of the most stunning Zen gardens in the world.
By eliminating water and choosing to incorporate stones, the monks created a timeless landscape with an almost abstract shape. In China, compositions made of stone were already commonplace, but it was revolutionary for the Japan of that time. Water was carefully represented by raking the sand in wavy patterns, while garden design often took into account that these gardens would be viewed from a certain perspective on a platform.
White sand not only reflects salt, it also creates a negative space in the formulation and thus a vacuum. At the other side, rocks are used to reflect various elements of a traditional landscape: beaches, cliffs, trees and animals. Designed in a structured (but not symmetrical) manner, and sometimes in groups of three, the obvious simplicity of Japanese rock gardens exposes abstract ideas through meditation.
Seeing the popularity of the Zen Gardens, it is not shocking that the world’s oldest garden preparation book, Sakuteiki, was written in the 11th century to support those who practiced the ideology. Manual directs artists in the picking and positioning of stones and in the precision of raked shapes.
The Kyoto Zen Gardens
Kyoto is still home to the best Zen gardens in the world, since the phenomenon began in the Zen Buddhist temples of this city. Today you can visit these wonderful places of reflection.
Considered to be one of the most stunning gardens in the world, Ryoan-ji is the supreme example of Zen garden architecture. The garden is a rectangle of approximately 250 square meters lined with white sand and 15 stones grouped in five groups of three. A layer of moss around each stone is the only indicator of vegetation, and every day the monks deliberately scrub the sand in precise patterns.
“The Garden of Ryōan-ji does not symbolize anything, or more specifically, to prevent any confusion, the Garden of Ryōan-ji does not symbolize, nor does it have the meaning of reproducing the natural beauty that can be seen in the real world or in the imaginary world,” wrote historian Gunter Nitschke. “I find it to be an abstract arrangement of ‘natural’ objects in space, an arrangement whose purpose is to induce contemplation.
The greenhouse, founded in the 14th century, reveals the transition to the dry landscape that we equate with the Zen gardens. The reflective pool in the backdrop coincides with the waterfall built of concrete, as well as the gritty rocks that can be seen from the observation deck.
This example of the early nature of the Zen garden is exceptional because it is covered with moss. In fact, Saiho-ji is known as the “Moss Temple.” However, this 14th century garden did not always look like this. After the temple fell into disuse, the moss gradually engulfed the rocks and the gravel. Despite this, it is still possible to see the rocky islands of the garden, which represent a turtle swimming in the lake of moss, as well as a reflection rock for peace and quiet, and a dry water faucet.
In addition, this walled temple complex houses 22 sub-temples, many of which have spectacular Zen gardens. In fact, the Rock Garden at Daisen-in is famous for its design-academics claim that it can be a symbol for a journey through life. The garden starts with a stone waterfall, symbolizing conception, and finishes with a circular raking river running into the open “ocean” symbolizing death.
Often known as the Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji is renowned for its beautiful scenery. Built by the Japanese painter and landscape artist Sōami, Ginkaku-ji differs from the other temples because it was designed to act as a sanctuary for shoguns, and instead of being used by the monks, it was turned into a temple after their death. Highlights are the temple gardens and the raked sand cones, one of which is 2 meters high. This unique cone is thought to be the emblem of Mount Fuji.