Japanese Zen gardens, also known as Karesansui, Japanese rock gardens, or dry landscape gardens, are a beautiful and unique form of traditional Japanese gardening that has captured the hearts and minds of people worldwide. These gardens are carefully crafted to create a peaceful and meditative space for visitors to contemplate the natural beauty of rocks, sand, and gravel arranged in intricate patterns that evoke the grandeur of a landscape. The art of constructing a Zen garden is based on the principles of simplicity, harmony, and balance, resulting in a garden that emanates tranquility and inspiration.
(The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris)
Zen gardens can be found all over Japan and are appreciated for their simplicity and serenity. They are also a popular subject of study and inspiration for artists, designers, and architects worldwide. In this article, we will delve into the history and significance of Zen gardens, and explore the essential elements that make them so distinctive and appealing.
(The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris)

The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris

Image Credit by National Geographic

What Is a Zen Garden?

The term karesansui is often translated into English as a Zen garden. The root term from which "zen" is derived originally refers to a Sanskrit term that signifies "meditation." However, in Japanese, this type of garden is traditionally called karesansui, which is written as 枯山水 and translates to the characters for 'dry', 'mountain', and 'water'.

A Zen garden is a minimalist dry landscape consisting of natural elements such as rock, gravel, sand, and wood, with minimal plant life and no water. Instead of vibrant flowers and foliage, a Zen garden is a simple bed of raked gravel, punctuated by a few large rocks, and typically enclosed by shrubs. This is why Zen gardens are often referred to as "dry" gardens, as they lack water features and usually have few plants.
(The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris)
Zen gardens originally consisted of dry landscapes where stones played a central role. According to the Association for Asian Studies, rocks are considered the bones of the earth and are essential to the essence of nature and reality. They represent unyielding mountains, while the sand in a Zen garden represents the fluidity of water, creating a dualistic relationship of yin and yang. This is why Zen gardens are sometimes referred to as "rock gardens." 

The primary purpose of Zen gardens was to provide a space for Buddhist monks to meditate and contemplate the teachings of the Buddha. Unlike traditional gardens, Zen gardens do not aim to stimulate the senses, but rather to promote stillness in the viewer's mind. They are specifically designed for meditation and offer a peaceful, meditative environment for visitors, creating a calm and tranquil atmosphere for anyone who enters. The style of a Zen garden is simplistic and aims to evoke the greatest significance using minimum materials.

Meaning and Purpose of a Zen Garden

A Japanese zen garden serves to create a harmonious balance between our fast-paced lifestyles and the natural world, both within and outside of a Buddhist temple or devout Buddhist Japanese household. The hope is that while in the zen garden's landscape, one's mind can find a peaceful sanctuary to rest and experience heightened awareness and emptiness. As the landscape shifts with the seasons and moss thrives and water accumulates, our experience of the garden evolves as well. Therefore, a Japanese zen garden can be regarded as a living work of art.

Japan's leading contemporary Zen garden designer, Masuno Shunmyo, an 18th-generation Zen monk, explains this connection between Zen and the arts: "Through Zen ascetic practice, an emotion of the mind is found that can't be directly exposed or understood.”

Elements of a Zen Garden

(The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris)
Zen Buddhism is devoted to the exploration of nature and humanity's role in the world. Japanese Zen gardens embody this philosophy by creating peaceful and meditative spaces. While achieving enlightenment through Buddhist practices may take time, one can find solace in serene places that invigorate the soul. Among them, few places can rival the atmosphere of a Japanese zen garden. Zen gardens typically consist of carefully chosen and arranged elements, including rocks, gravel or sand, and vegetation, each contributing to the all-embracing sense of balance, simplicity, and harmony.

Stones and Rocks

Rocks and stones play a crucial role in Japanese zen gardens as they are pure elements, taken directly from nature. Zen gardens use rocks and stones to evoke a sense of timelessness and eternity. Large stones often mark the entrances to many gardens as a sign of welcome. Stones are also incorporated into the water elements and can be used to form paths. When water is not available, sand or small white pebbles can be substituted to symbolize the space often held by water.

Furthermore, stones in a Zen garden invite us to contemplate the mysteries of existence and find peace in the present moment. Their presence encourages us to reflect on the impermanence of all things and our own place in the natural world. Through this contemplation, we may find a deeper sense of connection to the universe and a greater appreciation for the beauty and simplicity of life.(The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris)


Water is one of the most essential elements for life, and its presence in Zen gardens adds depth and significance to the space. It is not only used to represent the vastness of the ocean or the flow of a river but also to symbolize purification and cleansing. In the stillness of a Zen garden, water creates a serene and calming atmosphere, inviting visitors to pause and reflect. The sound of trickling water and the reflection of surrounding stones and plants create a mesmerizing effect, further enhancing the meditative experience. As one walks beside a pond or sits by its edge, the emptiness and tranquility of the surroundings encourage deep introspection and contemplation. This connection with nature and the inner self is at the heart of the Zen garden experience, reminding us of the profound beauty and wisdom that exist in the world around us.
(The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris)

Sand or Gravel

One of the most prominent features of Zen gardens is the use of sand or gravel, which is carefully raked to create intricate patterns resembling water ripples or waves. The gravel used in Japanese gardens is known as "suna" (砂:sand), even though the individual particles are much larger than those of regular sand. Gravel is usually preferred over sand in Zen gardens because it is less disturbed by rain and wind.

These lines drawn in the white sand are called "samon" (砂紋), and they can represent not only calm streams, but also larger waves, undulations, checkered patterns, as well as swirling patterns symbolizing enlightenment, psychology, worldview, and the universe. The delicate expression of these sand patterns is a testament to the Japanese people's sensitivity to beauty, conveying the simple, quiet, pure, and transparent beauty of wabi sabi.

Cleaning the samon is considered to be an act of purifying the mind, and monks who study Zen use brooms or rakes to carefully groom them. Overall, the use of sand and gravel patterns in Zen gardens reflects the importance of tranquility, simplicity, and the appreciation of beauty in Japanese culture.
(The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris)


During the Heian period (794–1185), Japanese aristocrats appreciated the beauty of moss, but it was not until the proliferation of Zen culture in the 14th century that it became a highly valued element of gardening. Zen Buddhist monks found serenity in moss, and over the subsequent centuries, garden designers used it to create memorable landscapes.

As a result, moss has become an integral feature in many Japanese gardens, and carries special meaning and significance. In a Zen garden, moss is often used as a ground cover to create a lush, green carpet that contrasts with the gravel or sand used to represent water or land. Moss symbolizes age and tradition, as it often grows in ancient forests and on old buildings.
(The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris)

The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris

Image Credit by Mitsuru Wakabayashi

History of Zen Garden

Zen gardens have a long and rich history that dates back to ancient Japan. The origins of the Zen garden can be traced back to the 6th century when Chinese monks traveled to Japan and introduced the principles of Buddhism. Over time, the teachings of Buddhism and the art of Zen gardening became intertwined, and Zen gardens became an integral part of Japanese culture.

The practice of creating Zen gardens emerged in Japan during the 8th century CE, inspired by the principles of Chinese garden philosophy from the Song dynasty. The arrangement of rocks and other elements in the gardens was influenced by a mythical view of Mount Penglai, believed to be the home of the legendary Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology and known as Horai in Japanese.
(The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris)

Heian period (794-1185)

The oldest Japanese gardening book, "Sakuteiki(作庭記)," which was written in the late Heian period, contains the following description about "Karesansui" (japanese zen garden):

"In a place without a pond or stream, stones can be arranged. This is called Karesansui. The arrangement of the stones includes making a small mountain or creating ridges, onto which the stones are then placed."

The "Karesansui" described in "Sakuteiki" refers to the placement of stones and rocks in one section of the garden, and it is believed to be the prototype of what is now known as the "Heian-style Karesansui" or "Early-style Karesansui." However, it should be noted that Zen Buddhism had not yet spread widely during the Heian period, so the appearance of Karesansui at that time was likely different from what we see in modern times.

Kamakura period (1336-1392)

During the Kamakura period, Zen Buddhism was introduced from China and began to spread widely in Japan. The first Zen gardens were built at Buddhist temples, which were used as places of worship and meditation. The Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and Teacher Muso Soseki played a significant role in the development of these gardens.

Muso Soseki was invited to the western part of Kyoto to help restore the temple, which was previously a Pure Land Buddhist temple called Saihoji. The temple had been damaged during a war, and Muso Soseki was asked to rebuild it as a Zen temple. While restoring the temple, he created the first Zen garden, which was intended to provide a peaceful and contemplative space for the monks to focus on their spiritual practice. Initially, Zen gardens were small, simple, and made only of sand and stones.

Muromachi period (1336-1573)

During the Muromachi period, Zen gardens reached the height of their popularity. After the Onin War (1467), Kyoto was left devastated, and the Karesansui style of Japanese zen garden, which could be constructed on a smaller budget and in a narrower space, gained popularity. Furthermore, as Zen Buddhism became more widely practiced, Zen gardens began to serve as a meditation spot not only for monks but also for the general public, including samurai and commoners, which led to the further development and expansion of these gardens.

Edo period (1603-1868)

During the Edo period, Japan experienced a period of decline in Zen gardens as a whole. The economy stabilized, and wealth began to gather under the powerful daimyo and merchants. As a result, wealthy daimyo began to spend money lavishly on large-scale, recreational gardens, known as "daimyo gardens(大名庭園)." The small and highly philosophical Zen gardens, which expressed a deep sense of harmony with nature, became less prominent during this transitional period. However, it was during this time that Kobori Enshu, a prominent tea master and garden designer, played a significant role in preserving and refining several Zen gardens, including the famous Daisen-in temple garden in Kyoto.

Showa period (1926-1989) until Today

During the Edo period, the popularity of Zen gardens declined, but they were later revived in the Showa period. A Japanese landscape architect named Mirei Shigemori, who aimed for an "eternal modernity" that would never fade, was instrumental in this revival. Shigemori created numerous Zen gardens during this time, with the intention of bringing new life to the traditional Japanese garden while still retaining its original essence. Today, Zen gardens can be found throughout Japan, and they continue to be a source of inspiration and contemplation for people all over the world.

The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris

Image Credit by Mitsuru Wakabayashi
(The Art of Zen Gardens: An Exploration of Simplicity and Serenity - dans le gris)

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March 31, 2023

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