Our lives are go, go, go. We’re always plugged in, and, very often, our backyard gardens do not provide the kind of relaxing, sacred space one needs to unwind after a busy day at work. Our Western gardens stand in stark contrast to the serene, contemplative spaces known as Japanese Zen gardens. Westerners tend to design gardens with a wide variety of color, a broad palette of plants and materials, and for the purpose of doing things like barbecuing and entertaining.
In contrast, Japanese Zen gardens, sometimes referred to as Japanese rock gardens, are designed with the purpose of Zen meditation in mind. They are meant to cultivate a sacred atmosphere and create a space in which to sit and meditate for hours. In other words, Japanese Zen gardens are designed as places in which to do nothing, to empty the mind of one’s thoughts, and just sit.
Some of the best Japanese Zen gardens are located in Kyoto, Japan, but the closest thing most of us ever get to a Japanese Zen garden is the miniature, sand-filled, desktop version – with the tiny Japanese rock garden rake for pushing the sand into various patterns. While these desktop versions probably hold some meditative value, it seems safe to say that the depth of one’s Zen meditation is probably directly proportional to the size of one’s Zen garden.
So, is a Japanese Zen Garden right for you? Even if you’re not a person who has a regular meditation, yoga, or tai chi practice, we all need a place where we can go unwind, relieve the stresses of the day, and just sit.
Tips for Creating Zen Gardens
Where Zen gardens go wrong in Western gardens is when people try to create literal copies of Japanese Zen gardens. When you see an old, two-story craftsman home, with a Tuscan pergola, and yes, over in the corner, a Japanese Zen garden, it creates chaos to the senses and ends up looking like a theme park. The best way for your landscape or garden to add value to your property is for everything to work together to create a cohesive design. This is a basic design tenant of Japanese Zen garden design: How the garden looks from the inside is just as important as how the garden looks when outside. The windows and doors of the house create frames from which to view the garden. That’s one of the many reasons pictures of Japanese gardens are so beautiful. They’ve been planned that way.
It is wise to remember that Japanese rock gardens are meant to represent nature in miniature. To see a Japanese Zen garden in Japan makes sense. The large garden stones in a Japanese rock garden symbolize islands. The gravel represents water, like Japan surrounded by ocean. Consequently, water is a very important element in Japanese gardens. The plants are used sparingly and with control. Red and black pine trees are of particular importance as they provide structure to the garden, but are also believed to represent positive and negative forces in nature, and a delicate balance between yin and yang. In addition to the many symbols in Japanese rock gardens, there is always attention paid to the elements and principles of Feng Shui.
So, rather than appropriating Japanese Zen garden design outright, filling the garden with little, concrete lanterns, and trying to create a literal copy of a Kyoto garden, why not make a Zen garden using principles of Feng Shui, abstract symbols of nature from your region, and a controlled number of plants? For example, if you live in Arizona, a copy of a Japanese Zen garden would look out of place. Not only would you waste an insane amount of water, but, if the day comes when you want to sell your home, you may limit your potential buyers if the garden does not fit with the house. Does that mean that if you live in Arizona, creating a Zen garden is out of the question? No.
Rather than buying Japanese maples and concrete statuary, concentrate on the basic Zen garden design principle of creating an abstraction of nature in miniature. Use large rocks from your region to represent your region. Rather than gravel representing water, in Arizona, perhaps it represents desert. Symbolism is central to Zen garden design. The very act of raking gravel is symbolic of preparing the mind for a deeper state of contemplation and meditation. The rocks may represent the hurdles we hope to overcome through meditation. Rather than using pines and Japanese maples, incorporate a limited number of native cacti.
The most important thing when creating sacred space is to design a Zen garden to provide an ideal environment for problem solving. The main aim of Zen garden design is to eliminate distraction, while inviting those entering the garden to embrace the untamed thoughts of the human psyche, or merely to meditate on the meaning of life. Most importantly, make it your own. Start creating your Zen garden design by looking inward.
The meditation garden should be free of distractions and distracting features. It should be separate from other functions of the garden such as entertaining and storage. Its sole purpose should be a place for meditation. Eliminate anything that seems unnecessary or that causes distraction. Have a comfortable place that will allow you to sit for long periods of time, and create a space where anyone approaching the garden will feel their mood changing and their pace slowing as they are about to enter.
We’re interested to hear your comments. Have you designed a meditation garden? If so, what did you do? Realtors®, what are your thoughts on garden themes, and what challenges do they bring to selling a home? Do you have examples where a Japanese rock garden became a major selling point?