One of the most significant features of a Japanese Zen garden is that it is never considered complete, and there is no ‘typical’ Zen Garden. The evolution of the Zen garden comes from ancient times and Zen Buddhism. Zen Gardens are meant to not only encompass the history of their surroundings, but to evolve and mature with the surroundings in order to enrich the entire experience of the garden. Japanese garden structure, much like other architecture in that country, is determined by its surroundings. Buildings, pathways, and other landscape are all determinants for what will become the composition of the Zen garden.
An important distinction in a Karesansui Zen garden is that it’s elemental features do not include water – streams, rivers, ponds. The natural surroundings, including rocks, stone, sand, moss and trees, are what make up this Zen garden and these elements represent water. The maintenance and pruning of such items is what makes up the practice and technique of a quality Zen garden.
Unlike typical care and maintenance of gardens, the care for a “dry” Zen garden includes the practice of raking the sand or gravel into patterns that mimic those of waves and water. Zen priests might be found raking in order to help in their meditation practices. While it would seem quite easy to rake sand into a pattern, the perfection with which one has to rake is a difficult task. Other elemental features in a garden preclude raking in a mere haphazard way. Ultimately, raking has to be done with regard to the structure and placement of all the elements of the Zen garden. Acquiring the skill of raking a Zen garden is a coveted prize, and is considered a challenge. Moss, sand and gravel are all used interchangeably in place of and to represent water. Other objects, including stones and rock are used to mimic mountains and other natural structures; sometimes, even people!
One of the most famous Japanese rock gardens is the Karesansui garden at the temple called “Ryoan-ji” and it is located in northwest Kyoto in Japan. This garden is very long and wide, and has no trees at all, just oddly shaped rocks of all different sizes that are surrounded by moss, sand and gravel. This sand and gravel, like in all Zen gardens, is raked daily. The work in the garden, while not confirmed, has been attributed to an artist by the name of Soami who lived sometime in the late 15th or early 16th century. However, there is some evidence in inscriptions in the garden elements that suggest that some others, by the names of Kotaro and Hijojiro deserve credit for the construction of the garden.
Another type of Zen garden is a mainly green garden that incorporates lush, green plants into the garden. The idea of the consistency of the green plants (in grass, moss, etc) is that it creates a mystical impression of a long voyage in a very specific space. Many of these types of gardens boast long pathways that lead up and down the garden space, meandering through trees and bushes as well as near to streams and waterscapes. The meandering walk way is meant to serve as a reminder of the individual’s path and the journey that they are on.
The existence of the Zen garden began probably before the 6th century, but wasn’t until then that the Zen garden began to evolve into what it is today. Early Zen gardens were large, and gave the Zen priests a place to wander and meditate. All of the gardens, whatever their style or comprehensive features, are meant to provide a place of meditation and reflection. Replication of the calm found inherent in nature is the key ingredient to a quality Zen garden. The arrangement of all elements is crucial to the style and representation of this calm.
Today, Zen gardens can be found all around the world, including the United States. The popularity of Zen gardens has grown so much that Zen gardens are sold in miniature for use in offices and homes. The meditative and calming properties have become the focal point of much of the success of the Zen garden.