Zen and it’s Influence on the Japanese Garden

There have been other philosophies that have found their way into the garden. Persia had its paradise gardens. Descartes theories of a mathematical ordering of the universe were clearly defined by Versailles’s geometric layout. But rarely has any one philosophy had such a clear and defined impact on a garden style as the indelible mark left by Zen on the Japanese garden. While many of the stylings now thought of as Zen had their roots in earlier forms, it was the discipline of Zen thought that helped give them the ageless quality we associate with the Japanese garden.

A (very) Brief History of Zen in Japan

Zen is thought of as a very Japanese philosophy, yet its roots go back all the way to India. A monk from India by the name of Bohdidharma came to China around 500 A.D. to spread the Dharma (word of Buddha). Along the way he had obviously become acquainted with Taoism, and this colored his brand of Buddhism, called Cha’an by the Chinese, Son by the Koreans and eventually Zen in Japan.

Bohdi married the strict self reliance of the Tao to the meditative practices of Buddhism, creating a more disciplinary form of practice (He also started a monastery at Shao-Li, and is credited with inventing Shao-lin Kung-Fu; obviously a very tough character…). While Buddhism had already made its way to Japan around 600 A.D., Zen took nearly another 300 years to make the trip. Heian Period Japanese temples were a retirement home for high officials and a seat of political power. Not surprisingly, retired emperors, princes, and dukes were slow to embrace austerity as a way of life. Not until the rise of the warrior caste did Zen become a staple of religious thought in the island kingdom.

The Sengoku Jidai, or period of great unrest, brought the rise of the samurai and bushido, the way of the warrior. The samurai was a kind of knight, expected not to just hone the skills of war, but to appreciate poetry, painting and all the fine things in life. Yet he was a warrior first, and discipline is the soldier’s way. Zen could not have found a more fertile ground to plant its seeds. The reliance on one’s self to achieve enlightenment through stern practice meshed well with the practice disciplines of bushido, and as the samurai and their retainers adopted the new religion, Zen flourished throughout Japan.

Temple Construction and it’s byproduct: The Zen Garden

As new temples were constructed (in some cases with funds from further Chinese trade), the priests put in gardens. Some priests actually began wandering the country trading their services as garden builders. These ishi-tate so, or stone-setting priests, were the first “professional” gardeners of Japan. They were influenced by the Sung painting style of the period, an ink on paper style that was more influenced by capturing the spirit of something than photographical representation. The subtlety of black, white, and shades of grey found its way into the garden in the karesansui (“dry water”) style most associated with Zen (While the raked gravel had existed before Zen, it was always a side note. The ishi-tate-so made it the main theme of the garden).

Enduring Principles of Zen upon the Japanese Garden

As Japan settled down and new intrinsically Japanese forms of Buddhism sprang up, Zen began to fade in importance and the Meiji Edicts suborned it entirely. But the principles it embraces are what set Japanese gardens apart. Let’s look at these principles…

The Zen Aesthetic for Japanese Style Garden

There are six basic aesthetic principles embraced by Zen

  1. Fukinsei

    Asymmetry is intrinsic to Buddhist thought. There is no perfection in the world; imbalance is what creates all movement and energy. The exact center is never occupied, not in gardens or paintings or even when you pot a bonsai. This does not jibe with our western traditions of symmetry in all things, balanced, if so on the left then also on the right, so it is a difficult idea for westerners to embrace…

  2. Kanso

    Simplicity is a key tenet of Zen. Embracing the everyday, unadorned things in life is to embrace truth. The cleanliness of simple form is a repeated motif in Japanese art, be it painting, flower arranging, or gardening. It is often expressed as wabi-sabi, which we will discuss later. Wabi-sabi also relates to…

  3. Koko

    Venerability. Maturity with an edge of austerity is a hallmark for Zen thought. The patina on an old stone lantern, the feeling that a stone has always been in the garden, or the bleaching of weathered wood are all examples of this principle. It also implies resraint and selection; this is the stern discipline of Zen practice appearing in the garden…

  4. Yugen

    Subtlety and mystery is found throughout Zen thought, in the puzzling koans or teaching questions, or in the constant search for personal enlightenment, certainly the most elusive mystery of all times. Probably the most prevalent element of yugen in the garden is the use of miegakure, or “hide and reveal”, where the whole garden is not shown through a window, just a small piece. Or a bend in the path offers just the barest of hints of what waits around the corner. The play of shadows on the garden is another display of yugen (“darkness”).

  5. Datsoku

    A single word translation is poor here, but otherworldliness comes close. It is the sense of a fantasy realm, a transcendence of this plane of existence that is so much part of the Japanese garden. There should be a sense of surprise, of wonder at the garden, what Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of American Zen, called “beginners mind” or what we often call child-like wonder. As Zen maintains that everything is illusion, this is a very important concept…

  6. Seijaku

    Stillness is probably the most central tenet of Zen. From silent meditation to arrival at the “still point” or enlightenment, this principle the peace and calm that a well done Japanese garden engenders. Bringing different landscape features (that also display Fukinsei, or imbalance) into harmony to achieve equilibrium is the true secret to this art.

The Six Principles Together are Known as Shibui

All these different elements combine to create shibui. While the literal translation might be elegant, this only begins to scratch the surface of the words true meaning. It also denotes an almost hidden beauty, a simple restrained use of materials, color or elements to best express the craftsman’s or artist’s intent. It often incorporates wabi-sabi as an element of design. These are usually linked ideas in Japanese thought.

A definition of Wabi Sabi

  1. Wabi
    Wabi can refer to a way of life, the introspective, philosophical side of things. It is the crack in the old teapot that sets it apart from a thousand others of that same design, the everyday wear marks on the handle of your grandfather’ shovel. Wabi is most concerned with space…
  2. Sabi
    Sabi is the artistic way of looking at things, a more light-hearted, aesthetic view. It is the moss grown over the roots and stones, the gnarled plum bough abloom with flower before anything else. Sabi is the element of time showing itself…

Wabi-Sabi & the Japanese Tea Garden

The first tea master, Sen no Rikyu, proposed a different aesthetic as a replacement for the ostentatious stylings of the Momoyama Period (sometimes referred to as the Japanese Rococo). Simple, even rustic peasant-like settings replaced the red-lacquered bridges and cut stone hardscapes as the tea garden or Roji (literally “Dewy path”) became the new garden of choice. While tea had become a pastime of the rich (despite the fact that it too had been introduced by Zen monks), Rikyu adopted the wabi-sabi style to his vision of the tea garden and the ceremony. Rather than a chance to show off expensive antique teapots (as had become the rage among the newly affluent merchant class), Rikyu saw teaism as a wabi-sabi affair, a purifying ritual. As his most famous poem suggests…

“Since the Dewy Path

Is that way that lies outside

This most impure world

Shall we not on entering it

Cleanse our hearts of earthly mire?”

Rikyu was most focused on the wabi side of tea; it was his student Kobori Enshu that began to introduce the sabi to the tea ceremony. As the times relaxed and war became a distant memory, Enshu began to use more elegant vessels and tools and display some variance in Rikyu’s original ceremony. When he was told by one noble that he surpassed Rikyu as everyone liked his pots and tools while Rikyu’s tattered and worn tools made some uncomfortable Enshu replied

“Rikyu decided that certain vessels were interesting and beautiful and satisfying on his own initiative and authority and used them for Cha-no-yu and gave names to them, and his judgment was not only accepted in his day but is still praised as a criterion.

This is because of Rikyu’s great merit as a Tea Master, and not because of the age or value of the vessels. Articles so transformed by virtue of the master’s praise are famous and precious indeed.

But as for me I don’t possess the capacity for giving real value to anything on the authority of my own taste. When noblemen bring things to me and ask for an opinion I don’t care to offend them and so am inclined to say what they want to hear. But this kind of consideration is not in accordance with the best traditions of tea. There is a difference of Heaven and Earth between Rikyu’s lofty principles and mine.”

Zen Symbology in the Garden

There are myriad displays of Zen thought in the Japanese garden. Nearly every design element in the repertoire has some tie-in to the ancient philosophy. While this is not intended as a complete listing (best left to more scholarly types) I will try to touch on some key features as examples


Ishi (Stones) Shumisen (also known as Horai) was the immovable mountain at the center of the universe in early Buddhist thought and was one of the first stones incorporated in Japanese gardens. The three stone arrangement known as the Sanzon-ishi-gumi is an often used arrangement depicting the Buddha and nyorai, or lesser buddhas. There is often a large flat stone set in the forefront of a garden known as the Rei-hai-seki, or Worshiping Stone (it is always set facing the Sanzon-ishi-gumi).

The mizu wake, or water dividing stone, set in the water at the bottom of a waterfall was symbolic of the mythical carp that, through steadfast unwavering effort, climbed to the top of the waterfall to become a dragon, a regular teaching parable in the Soto Zen monastery. And the repeated symbology of mountains as represented by set stones (“deep mountains, mysterious valleys”) is very reminiscent of Dogen’s ‘Mountains and Waters’ sermon, where he likens all the goings on in the universe to walking mountains (the Sakuteiki, or Book of Garden, allows that if “some stones flee others should chase”). Design suggested by philosophy…


Mizu (Water) 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. This reflects the teaching of mu, or nothingness, that sought after goal of Zen meditation (mu is the counter-balance to everything). White gravel (Shirakawa suna) areas, as seen in karesansui gardens, are also representative of this “ocean” space. All waterfalls over two feet tall symbolize the Fudo, a fierce guardian of Buddhist thought, especially meditation. The dripping of water in the shishi-odoki (deer scare) is a measure of time in the garden, each clack a reminder of the moment. And as found almost everywhere in the world, water is a symbol for cleansing and purification, as seen in the Western tradition of baptism or the hand washing in the Roji, among other traditions.

Shokubutsu (Plantings)

Zen actually pared down the plant palette when it arrived (there was use of annuals, perennials, and grasses before the arrival of Zen stylings). 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 (key tenets of the Soto-shu school of Zen, who taught gradual enlightenment through meditation). All three are often found together, especially at New Year, and are called “Three Friends of Winter”.

Hashi (Bridges)

In earlier gardens these often led to the nakajima (central island) representing the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. 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. As suggested by the Roji, the journey is representative of life in general, and the bridge is just a symbol of transition on many levels.

Tenkeibutsu (Ornaments)

Most of the ornamentation in the garden springs directly from religious tradition. While Buddhas are not common garden features outside of temples, lanterns have become symbolic of the gardens themselves, despite the fact that these were not found outside a temple garden until Rikyu adopted their use in the Roji (many of the lantern styles are named after tea masters). Parts of the lantern are purely Buddhist; the hoju (jewel) on top of the lantern is a direct symbol of enlightenment (as are lanterns in general); many use a lotus motif at that base or just under the firebox (the lotus is a symbology actually used by Buddha himself in teaching). Stupas are also found in gardens and point to heaven to show the way to dead souls. The tea basin is the repository for purifying water, again a symbol of life. Occasionally you may see a Frog figurine in gardens. This is Basho’s frog from the famous poem on his own enlightenment:

“Old pond Frog jumps in Splash!”

The splash was Basho’s sudden burst of realization and representative of sudden enlightenment, as espoused by the Rinzai sect of Zen. Kakis to hei (Fences) While not a totally Zen concept, fences are the best chance to actually inject some artistry into the garden without resorting to overt ornamentation. A well chosen fence sets off the plants well, marries the garden to the architecture and most importantly, encloses the space, creating another world.

This fits seamlessly with the Zen concept of perception; how entire worlds can be contained in motes of dust or dew drops. Enlightenment comes from discerning reality as one’s own perception and balancing that against one’s place in the grand scheme Dogen says,

“Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.”

The message here is that every divided area remains representative of the whole of nature; the fence helps us to recognize the division and the garden should remind us of the whole. The gates in fences are very much like the bridge in deep meaning; the phrase “to go through the gate” is a metaphor for becoming a monk. Transition between one state of existence and the next is a recurrent theme in both Zen and the Japanese gardens, further evidence of the immutable ties between them.

“There are those who, attracted by grass, flowers, mountains, and waters, flow into the Buddha Way. “ Eihei Dogen