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Japanese Zen Gardens

The term "Japanese Zen gardens" is used to refer to the popular dry gardens made of sand and stone often found at Buddhist temples in Japan.

While no one in Japan refers to these gardens by this term, it has become synonymous with the aesthetics of Japanese gardening in the West.

The phrase "Japanese Zen garden" was first coined by a Western writer named Loraine Kuck in her 1935 book on Kyoto gardens, and the name has stuck, whether the term is accurate or not.

According to the Journal of Japanese Gardening, gardens at Buddhist temples are more often than not tended by professional gardeners, and the monks do not meditate on the garden as is depicted here in the West.

Buddhist monks do their meditations facing a wall. And while many Japanese visit these gardens routinely, they do so to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the garden rather than linking it to their religious practices.

This term is used in a broad sense by many different people to mean the gardens at Zen temples, rock gardens, minimalist gardens and so on. The very tenets of Zen philosophy say that you must look within, not at the environment outside you.

All that being said, you can find references to Japanese Zen gardens everywhere.

Even the respected Smithsonian magazine had an article extolling the meditative virtues of the Zen garden. They say that the Zen rock gardens originated in medieval times in Japan.

While it is true that the dry garden, or karesansui style developed during that period, it had nothing to do with Zen or Buddhism in general. In fact, many dry gardens are found at restaurants, homes and other places besides temples.

Now that you know the history behind Japanese Zen gardens, it is time to explore these unique gardens.

Karesansui gardens are made without plantsÂ… or if there is plant life, it is most likely moss that has grown around or on the stones that are situated in various groupings in the sand.

There are two main elements to these dry gardens: stones and sand. These two elements are arranged in such a way that the garden still portrays tranquility and peace.

The stones vary in size and shape, and must be shaped by nature. In fact, a writer on Japan, Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) once said about these rock gardens in Japan, " In order to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand -- or at least to learn to understand -- the beauty of stones. Not of stones quarried by the hand of man, but of stones shaped by nature only. Until you can feel, and keenly feel, that stones have character, that stones have tones and values, the whole artistic meaning of a Japanese garden cannot be revealed to you. Not only is every stone chosen with a view to its particular expressiveness of form, but every stone in the garden or about the premises has its separate and individual name, indicating its purpose or its decorative duty."

These stones are surrounded by sand or fine gravel, which in turn is raked into patterns. These patterns are as important to the Japanese Zen garden as the stones, in fact, the spaces between the stones may be even more important to the design.

To anyone who has done design work of any kind, whether it is in a garden or merely designing a flyer, you come to realize the importance of empty space. In garden design the Japanese seem to understand this better than anyone.

What passes for landscaping in many yards in the West has plenty of empty space, but the other elements have no relation to each other. They are merely plopped down here and there without a thought.

In a Japanese garden, the design is built from the details up. Each element has a relationship to the other, and the entire garden, even if it is only rocks and sand, has an overall sense of balance and harmony.

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