Numbers of movie starts and economic and social leaders speak about their passion for saving their time for zen and how it helps them with their personal and spiritual growth or even productivity. As the world becomes noisier, more people seem to be seeking peace within, not elsewhere. Zen is no longer a mysterious ritual done behind closed door, it is as common as joining gym. But how many of you have thought zen had such a big impact on Japanese gardening history?

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If you observe collection of traditional Japanese gardens, you’d notice there are two types of gardens. Gardens with water and no water. The dry garden is called Karesansui and there are a lot of them if you visit temples in Kyoto, since this style of gardening developed alongside zen culture. This is why those gardens are sometimes referred to as zen garden.

Establishment of Zen Garden Style

Zen garden usually consists of white sand, stone, and moss. White sand is graved with a rake to mimic running water, stones are placed as representation of mountain. The world created in zen garden leaves the viewers to complete the picture. Some may see quiet stream of river flowing through calm country side field. Some may see it as waterfall hitting hard into a pond and think of how uncontrollable the world can be. Or small islands floating in wide quiet ocean and they are reminded that we humans are just a small part of the universe.

Karesansui was already mentioned in a literature written during Heian period. But karesansui was not fully established as a style of gardening to fill the whole garden for exhibition. The concept was mainly used when gardeners were deciding where and how to place what kind of stones in the gardens they’re designing.

Garden meant more than just a view then, especially gardens made in temple premises. A lot of religious ceremonies were held in the garden in the open air. In order to be able to host the spiritual ceremonies, the monks came up with an idea to keep the spot sacred. They dedicated southern garden of specific room called ‘hojo’ for the purpose and filled it with white sand to keep the space pure and undisturbed. But as time passed more ceremonies started to take place under the roof, and completely inside the temple. Soon the ceremonial sacred garden lost its original meaning, and were converted into gardens after some stones were placed and white sand was graved. The birth of zen garden. Monks gradually perfected the art of expressing their zen teaching into gardening, and the karesansui style was completed during Muromachi period.

Zen Garden

When zen buddhism flourished during Kamakura period, the land of Japan was rapidly changing. Noble used to rein, but the power shifted to samurai class. They later started to build many zen temples as zen duddhism because more popular among them. They believed in constantly advancing themselves as samurai in every aspect of life, and they also believed their state of mind greatly influence their sward-ship (they carried their sward as their spirit). They both shared the idea of understanding one’s need and appreciating the basic needs they have. Samurai saw zen as a way to perfect stable and unshakable spirit.

In modern era, we could definitely benefit from zen and what better way to breath in the same air as samurais may had sat in front of peaceful zen garden.

How to Enjoy Zen Garden

The graving on white sand is called ‘samon’ and usually raked every several days. It is graved as the water move and you’d understand the grave as a stream of river when there’s a stone bridge over. Wide waving grave would remind us of ocean. Because it is manually graved, it is said to have unique characteristics every time, even though the graving is done using the same tool and done in the same order. Creating samon is considered part of monk’s training, because it shows the person’s state of mind. They learn to be in control of their emotion as well as their body.

People are trained to see what humans cannot see with their eyes or hear without ears through zen training. Expressing water without actually using water is somewhat connected to the concept of zen. Sitting in front of karesansui garden also works as a tool to scale your state of mind, because a lot is left for individual people’s imagination and understanding.

Karesansui is not colorful, it is rather minimalistic approach to gardening. It can seem dull for some people’s taste. But it may have something to do with the fact that the gardening style owe large part of its development to zen temple monk’s involvement. They often hosted tea ceremony and it is epidemy of simplicity in a sense of understanding one’s true need and appreciating the beauty of what is there. You could easily find resemblance in the tea ceremony and zen garden. Every available space does not need to be filled with trees and flowers. Beauty lies in the eyes of holder.

There are a few zen gardens worth visiting. We have also added a place where weekly zen sessions are held.

Ryoanji Temple – Kyoto

This temple is maybe one of the most well known karesansui garden after Queen Elizabeth 2 personally requested to view the garden and the stone garden was widely introduced to the world in 1975. But the history of this garden is full of mystery. No clear record of completion year, designer, nor the concept of the garden are kept or discovered to this day. This temple was built in 1450 and is registered UNESCO world heritage. There are 15 stones placed in the stone garden all together, but they are carefully placed in a way that viewer is only able to see 14 of them at the same time, always missing one. It is said the designer intended to hide one from every angle so that the viewer is reminded no one reaches the point of completion and there is always a room for growth.

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Tofukuji Temple – Kyoto

This temple was built in 1255 after 19 years of construction and said to have one of the oldest remaining Buddha statue. Tofukuji temple has the most extensive size of karesansui garden. The garden is designed upon 8 important life stages of Buddha from his birth to death.

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Kodaiji Temple – Kyoto

This temple is where Nene, the wife of late Toyotomi shogun, spent her remaining 19 years of her life after transferring part of their old residence and garden to the spot. A lot of people kept visiting Nene after her move and this temple functioned as a cultural salon, not only as a temple to bring peace to people. The karasansui garden possesses sense of both toughness and calmness depending on where it is viewed from.

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Daisen-in Zen Temple – Kyoto

The temple was built in 1509 and the garden was rebuilt according to the original design in 1960. Their garden is made very simple, but the garden is said to represent the style of Omaci period. They host zen sessions in front of the karesansui garden every weekend.

Held: every Saturday and Sunday
Time: 17:00 – 18:00 (Mar – Nov) , 16:30 – 17:30 (Dec – Feb)
Price: 1,000 Yen

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Top Image @Mr Hicks46