Zen Garden Design – Principles and History

Zen gardens, originating with Buddhist monks centuries ago, have become all the rage recently. Combining a balance of natural and architectural elements and a blend of humble, simple design juxtaposed with natural wonders, these gardens offer tranquility and beauty galore. As for that balance, Zen gardeners adhere to the principle of (female) yin and the (male) yang. Every facet of a Zen garden is characterized by one or the other, i.e. water is yin; earth is yang. The epitome of a Zen garden is achieved when yin and yang balance for harmonious feng shui; this adheres to a second principle of working with nature’s tendencies as much as your landscape allows.

Designed to produce a 3-D effect of height and depth, a Zen garden is planned with foreground and background to draw one’s focus. More harmony is achieved by balancing different colors, sizes, and shapes of flora, so no one plant overwhelms. Trees and larger shrubbery placed at the rear of your garden offer privacy and a natural backdrop. More feng shui tips for your Zen garden?

Planting for your climate: Mosses, ground covers, ornamental grasses, hardy flowering blooms, shrubs, and focal point trees, in varied heights, colors, and textures, add lush vibrancy to your garden. Drought-resistant plants thrive in a Zen garden’s sandy areas and are perfect for low-rainfall zones. Mosses and low-maintenance ground covers serve to soften straight lines, such as pre-existing walkways, and promote the flow of chi. Choose plants that will flourish in your region.

Nature’s Rocks: Rocks give dimension to a Zen garden. They reflect permanence and respect for the passing of time, while adding energy and emotion to your landscape. Select unique rocks and stones, organizing them according to their special characteristics and sizes; place them where best suited for your garden’s flow. Choose smooth, well-worn stones for added appeal.

Water Features: All elements have a purpose in a Zen garden. Water features such as pools, ponds and fountains offer yin energy and encourage beneficial chi.  Garden lighting to highlight special areas balances that with yang (male) energy. You get the idea. Water elements can include natural facets already in your landscape, i.e. a pre-existing stream or pond, or may be added – either naturally or man-made. Sand and pebble formations can also be used to represent water: swirl sand with a rake or fingertips to create a rippling water effect – the swirls also promote the flow of chi in your garden. While sand areas are lovely, I prefer using them in tandem with actual water features for more dramatic appeal.

Paths and Walkways: Paths should never be straight, as chi energy is supposed to flow gently. A Zen garden craves meanderings and curves to soften straight lines and edging, because a curved path encourages chi to move more slowly and freely. If you already have straight paths, plant mosses to soften them; allow plants to grow over edges to help chi to circulate freely.

Bridges: Most of us have seen the stock …

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 is 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 a "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 …