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Japanese Zen Rock Garden – History and Philosophy

Japanese Zen Rock Garden – History and Philosophy.

The Japanese Zen garden originated in Japan. In the conventional sense, the Zen rock garden contradicts with the concept of a “garden”. You will definitely not find trees growing in rows, ornamental gazebo or even cute little ponds with colorful fish swimming in it. The batches of fresh green grass are replaced by gravel, sand and light scattering of nondescript shrubs and moss. Since there are no flowers, color contrast is also absent. Before embarking upon your own mission to develop your own Zen garden, you should understand the origin of this unique style of landscaping and the vital philosophy that lies behind this creation.

Evolution of the Japanese Rock Garden

5th – 8th century:

To understand how the Japanese rock garden evolved, let us first look to the 5th century when Taoism started in China. It influenced the Japanese art in a big way. Taoism believed that immortals dwelled in three to five different islands in the middle of the ocean somewhere. The same belief is found in Japanese folktale about Urashima Taro, a fisherman. He is taken to an immortal island after saving the life of a sea turtle. He married a princess and became immortal himself. With time he gets homesick and decides to go back to his village. Unfortunately, as soon as he steps on his native island, the man grows old and dies.

The immortal islands of Taoism inspired both the storytellers and the garden creators of Japan. In those days “garden” as called “shima” which means “island”. During those days, a Japanese garden consisted of a pond with lush trees and an island or a mountain rock floated in the middle of the pond to symbolize the immortal island.

8th – 12th century of the Heians

When Japan shifted its capital to Heian Kyo, its garden developers and artists averted their focus from Chinese Taoism. They arrayed gardens to reflect the Japanese landscapes and Buddhism inspired most of their creations. The islands and the ponds remained, but other elements were chosen with scrupulousness. For instance, the garden constructions should be connected by long galleries which were covered. Deciduous trees were preferred because its colors and shape shifted with each season.

This new garden creation reflected both the Buddhism core as well as the civil wars that were going on during the period. The changing state of the garden reflects the teachings of Buddhism about the cycle of birth and death. Psychologically, it showed that the civil wars made people realize that life was precarious and made them more sensitive to the beauty of nature which was ephemeral.

14th – 16th century period of Muromachi.

During this period dry and rocky landscapes were created in mainstream gardening. People who professionally landscaped were referred to as “ishitate-so” which means “monks that arranged rocks”. Since Buddhism was at the core, it was not surprising that monks designed the gardens.

Today, Zen gardens are sacred realms of the monks to undergo their regular practice. In the Zen Buddhism, one must meditate for long period and do physical labor to attain enlightenment. Monks meditate and find their freedom in these Zen rock gardens.