What Really is a Zen-Style Japanese Garden?
John Stuart Leslie
I was reading an article about Japanese gardens where the
author got all bent out of shape about how western culture mistakenly refers to “dry landscape” style gardens in
Japan as “Zen Gardens”. Their point was that the term “Zen Garden” has become loosely defined only because
historically, some Zen Buddhist Monasteries built karesansui style gardens and therefore, all dry
landscape gardens are “Zen style”. So I did some research and found the following. See end of article for
sources. < landscape’) ‘dry meaning (literally Karesansui in present water no is
there gardens, traditional other>Water is symbolized both by the arrangements of rock forms to create a dry
waterfall and by patterns raked into sand to create a dry stream or to symbolize the ocean. The raked sand patterns
mimic waves on the water’s surface.
The rocks and gravel used are chosen for their aesthetic shapes, and
mosses as well as small shrubs are sometimes used to provide contrasting elements to the austere rock and
竜安寺(Kyoto) Zen Garden
Photo courtesy ofJAANUS
The vertical forms using stone boulders suggest mountains on islands in the ocean.
The word karesansui is found in the 11th century garden manual
and garden historians have designated Heian-period rock arrangements as zenkishiki karesansui.
Karesansui gardens were created similar to ink monochrome landscape painting and like
paintings, the gardens are meant to be viewed from a single, seated perspective. In addition to the aesthetic
similarities to Chinese painting, the rocks in karesansui are often associated with Chinese
I have also read that the Ryoanji garden, is comprised of 15 stones, laid out in five
groups and that from any single vantage point, one cannot see all 15 stones at the same time. One must change
viewing locations in order to see the hidden stone(s). But again, some other stone will be hidden upon
changing your position of view. This design feature is something that a two dimensional landscape painting
cannot achieve. I therefore question whether
these gardens were designed to be viewed from a static position as suggested above.
Given the multiple Chinese associations of karesansui gardens, they are the preferred
type of garden for Zen temples (Buddhism having arrived from China in the 7c) and the best examples are found
in the front or rear gardens of Zen abbots' residences.
While Muromachi karesansui tend to use plants sparingly, early Edo period gardens of this type often contrast an
area of raked gravel with a section of moss and larger plants along the rear wall.
The aesthetic resonance with abstract art, clean lines and overall simplicity, largely
accounts for the resurgence of karesansui gardens both in Japan and abroad in the 20 century.
This last point is well taken. As an experienced landscape designer, I have consulted with
hundreds of clients, many of whom have expressed interest in “Zen type” gardens. Whether or not they even
know the symbolic meaning of a karesansui type garden is beside the point.
Their motivation is usually that it fits into the category of being a Xeriscape type
that of having low maintenance, no watering and no lawn. Further, they find the abstract simplicity appealing. The
boulders are therefore seen more as sculptural elements rather than as mountains or islands in an
Clients such as the hypothetical scenario above has taught me to first find out how much
the client knows about garden symbolism, sacredness and spirituality before I jump in and recommend the ”best
spot for a meditation garden”. Heck, they may have no idea what I mean by doing a “Zen Garden”
Sources: Partial content for this article excerpted from Japanese Architecture And Art Net
Users System (JAANUS)
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