The Symbolism in a Zen Garden

The primary structure of a Japanese garden is determined by the architecture that contain it; that is, the framework of enduring elements such as buildings, verandas and terraces, paths, tsukiyama (artificial hills), and stone compositions. It is ideal to set in small areas or places without enough light or ventilation required for a traditional garden.

There is a wide range of Zen thought in the Japanese garden. Here are some key elements as examples:

Gates (torii), fences, straw ropes, and cloth banners acted as signs to demarcate paces.

Bridges(hashi), passing over the bridge was analogous to passing from one world to the next. As Zen influence came into the forefront, bridges took on the more Taoist meaning of passing from the world of man into the world of nature, a move from this plane to a higher one

Water (Mizu) Buddhism always considered water the most apt metaphor for human existence, springing up, gathering strength in its downhill race to disappear calmly into the sea (reborn again as rain). In ponds in the garden, it creates “negative” space in the garden where nothing else resides.

Plantings. Although Zen actually decreased the plant palette when it arrived, still there are a few Zen ideas in the plantings. Large bamboo are often found in temple gardens as the canes are a perfect example of the principle of mushin or “empty heart” (the empty heart provides strength through flexibility). Plums are a recurrent Zen theme, flowering without leaf, often while snow is still on the ground (symbolizing resilience and rebirth). Pine is known as mutsu, a sound-alike for the word for ‘waiting’, so it is set in the garden as a symbol of strength and patience

Shrines were more of a mental construct than physical emplacements, a place that existed in the mind instead of a place that could be seen. The shrine is a setting of spirit. It is also a place where humans and spirit meet.

Sand or gravel represents water. Raked or not raked, that symbolizes sea, ocean, rivers or lakes.

The act of raking the gravel into a pattern recalling waves or rippling water has an aesthetic function. Zen priests practice this raking also to help their concentration. Achieving perfection of lines is not easy. Rakes are according to the patterns of ridges as desired and limited to some of the stone objects situated within the gravel area. Nonetheless often the patterns are not static. Developing variations in patterns is a creative and inspiring challenge.

Stones are the major elements of design in Japanese garden. They are considered more important than trees to the Japanese, perhaps due to the strong desire for eternity and stones represent the eternal elements in nature. In Japanese garden design, stones are used in combination with other stones, or sand to imply a natural scene or to create an abstract design. The shapes of natural stones have been divided into five categories called five natural stones. The Japanese used the characters of …