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Zen Gardens

Zen Gardens

Ryoanji, Kyoto Japan

Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto Japan

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A Reader recently Wrote:
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Could you explain what a zen garden is( Much like you did in your podcast with the mandalas)? Thanks

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My Response:
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I’m assuming by ‚ÄúZen Garden,‚Äù you mean ‚ÄúJapanese Rock Garden,‚Äù which is what most Westerners associate with the term.

I suspect most of us have a fairly accurate idea what a Zen Garden looks like already. It’s a flat area of ground covered in sand, with gravel on top. There are usually a few larger rocks scattered around, and there are very few (and often no) plants. I was in Kyoto last December, and while I was there, I visited the Ryoanji Temple, which is best known for its rock garden. I have some pictures from my trip posted here. If you’re ever in Kyoto, it’s within easy walking distance from the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji Temple); I’d recommend taking in both in the same day.

Ryoanji, Kyoto Japan

Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto Japan

So what is the point of a Zen Garden?

The placement of the stones is intentional and very well-considered. In the Ryoanji Temple, for example, there are 15 stones, but they are placed in such a way that you can only see 14 of them at any time, no matter where you stand. Supposedly if you achieve Enlightenment, then you can see all 15 at once. The stones in other gardens have different stories. Some are laid out in reference to mountains or islands, with the sand or gravel representing the ocean and the rocks becoming the islands. Other gardens may be more random or apparently haphazard, emphasizing the space between the rocks. Every one of them is different.

Mystical Misconceptions

Many people believe the gardens are laid out to create a peaceful, relaxing environment. Although the gardens do sometimes have this effect, this is not actually intentional, and there is certainly nothing mystical involved. Many of the gardens are set up to be viewed from a single sitting position. When one person sits there alone, admiring the aesthetically pleasing garden, they tend to think, “why is this garden arranged like this?” Or perhaps they choose that spot for meditation. Without plants or wildlife, these gardens are very quiet and conducive to contemplation.

There is a misconception that many hold that the purpose of the garden is that the person maintaining the garden would quietly stir the gravel with a rake and maybe reach Enlightenment. In reality, however, the gardens do not change. The garden at Ryoanji, for example, has kept the same layout for over 600 years. Other than occasional minor maintenance, they don’t go in there and play with a rake every day.

Did you know though, that the term “Zen Garden” is a recent invention? Apparently, this term is almost offensive to some people— check out the comments at this page: http://www.rothteien.com/superbait/zenviewpoints.htm, although I suspect they are using a wider definition of Zen Garden than just the gravel & stone variety.

Still, they are attractive and fun to visit. In fact, you can even buy your own ‚ÄúDeluxe Zen Garden‚Äù kit (Amazon link): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00005OUHD/?tag=askdrarca-20. It might make a fun gift, but I doubt you’re going to become Enlightened by stirring sand in a little toy tray.

Hotel reservations in Kyoto

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