08. South, East, & Southeast Asia, Art & Humanities, Buddhism, Religion

Student Series! Rock Out, but actually the Opposite: Zen Gardens

This blog post is part of my Student Series! in where I highlight articles written by previous Humanities students on a topic of their choosing that relates to our course content. Keep in mind this is written by high schoolers and anything that could identify them personally has been removed or altered by me.


We all share this planet earth, we have to learn to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. This is not just a dream, but a necessity.
— The Dalai Lama

Intro to Zen Buddhism

There is nothing more extraordinary and breathtaking than the beauty of nature; it inspires and initiates deep thought and contemplation. By reflecting on the essence of nature, we can begin to better understand ourselves and reflect on who we are when we are stripped of everything except the natural world. This is the basis of Zen Buddhism and the revelation of the Japanese Zen Garden.

Buddhism was brought to Japan during 500 A.D. by an Indian monk known as the Bodhidharma. This monk ended up founding the Zen sect of Buddhism. Zen Buddhism was split into three different but similar “schools:”

  • Rinzai
  • Soto
  • Obaku

Rinzai is the school that focuses most on meditation and kensho (insight into one’s true nature) so this is the most important to our topic. The Bodhidharma’s’ teachings were spiritual based on meditation and also influenced many Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony, calligraphy, and most importantly in this case, rock gardening.


Dry Rock Gardens

Early Buddhist temples within Japan had a heavy Chinese influence when being designed. However, during the 14th and 15th centuries, during the Japanese Muromachi period, there was a huge flourish of Japanese culture that influenced the creation of Zen gardens, especially in Kyoto. A Buddhist monk named Muso Kokushi came to the Buddhist temple, Saiho-ji, and began to transition it into the first Zen monastery. Along with the creation of this monastery, he had created also created the first true “dry” rock garden.

The connection with nature is highly emphasized within Buddhist teachings and even more so within Zen Buddhism. The name Zen garden is somewhat of a misnomer with the real name being karesansui, “dry landscape garden.” These gardens incorporated many aspects of nature in order to imitate the essence of nature but not its actual appearance. They are designed to be in the form of miniature stylized landscapes and suggest natural shapes such as rivers, mountains, and waves. These gardens are usually surrounded by a wall and are composed of the arrangement of rocks, water features, moss, pruned trees, bushes, and gravel or sand.

Monks of the monastery diligently and carefully rake the gravel or sand every day to imitate the effect of rippling waters. Contrary to assumption, these gardens are typically only supposed to be able to be viewed fully from one particular spot. This spot is usually on the veranda of the hojo, the abbot’s residence. Seated at this spot, one can fully appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the garden’s imitation of nature. Karesansui are well-known to be a haven for contemplation and reflecting on the beauty of nature and inner self.



Zazen is defined literally as “seated meditation” and is considered to be the heart of Japanese Zen Buddhist practice. The aim of zazen is just sitting, suspending all thoughts and judgmental thinking in order to let ideas and thoughts pass by without giving them any notice. With the aid of a karesansui, one can be fully enveloped within nature and become essentially “one” with their surroundings. Due to the tranquility and beauty of the gardens, an abundance of Zen monasteries have come into being since their original founding. The diligence of creating such breathtaking imitations of nature in order to reflect on said nature and the inner self, is a truly one of a kind and beautiful experience that many people don’t realize exists in Japanese culture.

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