The History and Arrangement of Zen Gardens
Article by Warren Marion
What is a Zen garden? When you first encounter these terms, the first thing that would probably come to mind is an arid landscape of rocks and painstakingly arranged pebbles and gravel, somehow drawing you in to meditate despite all the noise and bustle around you.
In fact, most people are of the opinion that Zen gardens were first conceptualised and created by Zen priests n the eleventh century in order to help them attain a better grasp of Zen concepts and principles. Some people, on the other hand, believe that Zen gardens are a 20th century concept that has nothing to do with Zen at all.
In reality, Zen gardens date way back to the very start of Japanese life and culture in the 6th century. They are called the Karesansui, or Japanese rock gardens. These gardens are distinctive for their very simple arrangement of rocks, stones, sand, gravel and pebbles, and the sparse use of plants. Some Zen gardens have nothing growing in them at all. Karensansui is a direct translation of “dry water and mountain”, and the illusion of water is done with the way sand is raked across the ground, creating a pattern of ripples that is very like the movement of water. The rocks and stones, on the other hand, are scattered about to replicate mountains and islands.
One very well-known Japanese Zen garden is an arrangement of only 15 rocks strategically placed on sand with rippling patterns. This rock garden has the distinctive feature of allowing people to view it in its entirety from any angle, unlike other Japanese Zen gardens that need to be viewed from a certain perspective to appreciate its beauty and message. It is said that in this famous rock garden, only 14 rocks can be viewed at any given time from any angle. Legend has it that when a person achieves the highest form of Zen enlightenment, the 15th rock becomes visible to them.
Japanese Zen gardens are recorded to have been in existence from the time of Empress Suiko who reigned in 592 A.D. Some evidence suggests that rock gardens were in fashion even before then. When Zen Buddhism took Japan by storm in the first part of the 700’s, Zen gardens started symbolizing the ideals of harmony, simplicity and serenity that Zen monks believed represented what the universe ought to be.
Zen gardens continued to evolve in design until their present form of arrangement that began in the 13th century which has lasted up to the present time. Some gardens are miniature hand-held versions of the original, while some fall into the category of parks. Most people hold these gardens as representations of the sea, as well as the islands and mountains of Japan. Zen practitioners see them as sources for meditation where their subconscious mind calls forth tranquil images based on the patterns and arrangement of these gardens.
Zen gardens are special in that people who view them are able to attain some form of tranquility in the dry rocky landscape. Scientists attempted to study the effect of calm that these gardens bring using a special computer analysis program and found that the motley collection of rocks, sand, gravel and pebbles called forth the image of a tree in a person’s subconcious.
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