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.
Tenryuji temple garden
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). 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 examples 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.