Japanese Zen Garden: Its History and Philosophy

Zen rock gardens, which originated from Japan, defy the definition of a “garden” in nearly every conventional sense of the word. It is not a place where you will find rows of lush trees, an ornate gazebo, or a pond filled with beautiful Koi. There is no field of green grass but sand, gravel, and a sparse scattering of moss and nondescript shrubs; nor is there much contrast in colors, as there are no flowers planted on the ground or in cute tiny pots.

A Japanese rock garden, often called a Japanese Zen garden, creates a miniature stylized landscape through the carefully composed arrangement of rocks, water features, moss, pruned trees and bushes, and uses gravel or sand that is raked to represent ripples in the water.

In this article, you will learn how Japanese Zen gardens have come to be and what fundamental philosophy is behind their creation.

To better understand how the Japanese Zen garden evolved, we first need to look back to the 5th century when Chinese Taoism started to make an imprint on Japanese art. According to an ancient Taoist belief, somewhere in the middle of the ocean, there are three or five islands where immortals dwell.

In Japanese literature, this belief manifested itself in the form of a folktale about a fisherman named Urashima Taro, who saved a sea turtle and was sent to one of the immortal islands where he married a princess and became immortal. In the end, he decided to return to his old village, where he suddenly grows old and dies.

Japanese Zen Bridge

A typical Japanese Zen garden from the 5th to 8th century would usually comprise a large pond surrounded by lush trees. In the middle of the pond, one island is floating, or sometimes just a big mountain-like rock, symbolizing the land of unfading youth and eternal life.

In the Heian period (late 8th to 12th century), garden makers began to shift their attention from Chinese Taoism and dedicate their efforts to developing art that would reflect their own culture. And so, a lot of Japanese Zen gardens were arranged in ways that portrayed Japanese natural landscapes, and Buddhism became a prevalent, inspirational force behind their creations.

Although the pond and islands remained the vital part of Japanese Zen gardens during the Heian period, all the other elements were selected and organized in a more painstaking manner. Even the birds in the trees and fish in the pond were considered to be parts of the Japanese Zen garden structure.

This style of Japanese Zen garden both depicts the core of Buddhism as well as the unease of civil wars that raged throughout the country during this period.

During the Muromachi period (14th to 16th century), dry and rocky landscapes were built as part of conventional Japanese Zen gardens. The professional landscapers back then were called “ishitate-so”, which means “monks who arrange rocks”. Since Buddhism was so crucial in the art of gardens in this period, it wasn’t surprising at all that monks were the ones responsible designing and creating Zen gardens.

It actually wasn’t until Muromachi period that the Japanese Zen garden was fully developed, eventually rose to its fame, and continued its legacy up to this day.

Thanks to Zilm for providing some resources for us.