There are several types of Zen gardens, the most prominent being the dry rock
type, called karesansui, literally meaning dry-mountain-and-water gardens.
Gravel and rocks have been used to denote sacred areas of Japan since time
immemorial, so the development of rock gardens to express Zen thought
was an easy transition.
These gardens seek to replicate the deep calm of pristine nature in a highly
stylized manner. Water is often represented with sand or pebbles; mountains
with stone; and islands with masses of moss or rock material. An excellent
example of this type of garden can be seen at Tenryuji Temple, the first of
the five great Zen temples of Kyoto. Muso Soseki, a famous garden designer,
transformed Tenryu-ji's existing garden into a Zen masterpiece with the addition
of seven vertical rocks called Ryumon no Taki (Dragon's Gate Waterfall - photo). This
arrangement refers to a Zen fable about fish that had the strength and willpower
to swim up a waterfall. At the top, they metamorphosed into dragons. The story
is supposed to inspire inner strength and discipline, central to Zen training.
As part of the Zen daily ritual, rocks in the garden are raked in the pattern of
a flowing river, complete with detailed water eddies. The power of this garden,
however, emerges from its silence and ability to still the mind.
The Zen garden at Ryoanji
The garden of Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, created in 1499, is one of the
oldest and the most photographed ex-amples of Zen rock gardens. The wall
that frames this small rectangle of raked white pebbles sets the tone of
wabi sabi, expressing humble simplicity and the passage of time.
Within the rectangle, 15 stones are arranged in seemingly random groups
amid small ripples of circularly raked gravel. This wall is low enough to
screen out the busy surroundings while allowing the greenery beyond to be
incorporated into the composition.
Zen priests often used distant mountains and views as design elements in
their tiny gardens, a principle called shakkei (borrowed scenery). In these
gardens, minimalism is played out to the extreme and then broken by an
artistic flourish or individuality typical of Zen, bringing a smile to even the
most jaded viewer.
For example, a dry rock garden is often complemented by a lush green
one, as at Koke Dera (Moss Temple) in Kyoto's Saihoji Temple. The abundant
and varied moss that has accumulated over the years is a successful joint
venture of man and nature. This is also a stroll garden, another
type of Zen garden that attempts to create the illusion of a long journey
within a limited space, which, in this case, wraps around a pond. Each turn
or bend offers an opportunity to place a special object or symbol meant to keep
the stroller's mind on spiritual matters.
The origins of stroll gardens go back to India, where walking around a
temple symbolizes walking around the spiritual center of the universe.
India's so-called "stroll gardens" were adapted by the Chinese, who
decorated their gardens with symbols of the Buddhist universe, purifying the
mind with each encounter.