Category Archives: Zen

Zen and three friends of winter

In Japan, rock gardens were created by Zen Buddhist priests to offer a place for quiet reflection near Japanese temples. Several features are essential to these gardens; a typical garden will contain a water element, boulders, a gravel sand area reminiscent of the seashore, and plantings – often a combination of bamboo, plums and pine, called the “three friends of winter.”

Pine (shou) showing brilliant green in the bleakest of winter. Pine have been as a symbol of long life in China since ancient times.

Pine (shou) showing brilliant green in the bleakest of winter. Pine have been as a symbol of long life in China since ancient times.

Bamboo (chiku) another plant that stays mostly green throughout the winter. The stalk of the bamboo is hollow, that symbolizes tolerance and open-mindedness.

Plum (bai) show a beautiful elegance during the bleakness of a hostile winter. The character of the plum tree serves as a metaphor for inner beauty and humble display under these extreme conditions.

If you don’t have space for a full-sized Japanese garden, you can create one in miniature: bonsai ponds can be made to fit a very small space. A water garden following Zen design principles is a simple do-it-yourself project, as any watertight containers can be made into bonsai ponds. Start with one container large enough to house all the elements of your project and a smaller container for the pond. You will also need a small aquarium pump to aerate the water. Ready-grown “three friends of winter” bonsai and the supplies and instructions to maintain them are available online. You can buy rocks, sand, and gravel at your local aquarium or home improvement store.

Arrange your garden according to the following Zen aesthetic principles: kanso, or simplicity; fukinsei, or asymmetry; shibui, or minimalism; shizen, natural materials; yugen, surprise or revelation; datsuzoku, or a sense of wonder; and seijaku, or tranquility. Fill your small container with water and place it on one side of the garden container; this will be your pond. To prevent the water from stagnating, conceal the aquarium pump in the garden to aerate the water – you can even arrange the pump outlet to create a waterfall over your rocks, if you like. To satisfy the principle of shizen, make sure any artificial elements are well hidden, for example you can use natural stone and gravel both to hide the edges of the water container and to create a shoreline around the water’s edge. Opposite the pond, arrange the “three friends of winter” bonsai with the larger rocks, surrounded by more gravel and sand: this balance between the pond and plantings will create asymmetry, or fukinsei. Make sure to place a few rocks in such a way that they may be hidden or may hide other elements that to offer surprises, or yugen.

No matter the size, a Japanese Zen garden will offer a peaceful haven from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Zen Gardens, Imagination in the Making


By their very nature Zen gardens encourage you to use your imagination.  Using carefully placed rocks and stones and open spaces filled with sand or gravel these gardens tend to capture the eye and the mind and hold both. Soon one can see the waves undulating in the sand ponds as they push around the rock islands that break their flow. The carefully placed rocks along the shoreline become craggy mountain ranges. Perhaps a bit of moss adds a hint of color and the impression of a hidden valley between those ranges. As you sit deep in thought and relaxed, you realize the garden has indeed captured you.

Zen gardens are done in the Japanese dry gardening style of Karesansui. It was developed in the 13th century by a Japanese priest in Kyoto, the site of one of the world’s most famous Zen meditative gardens. Created over 500 years ago, the Zen garden at the Ryoan-ji Temple is one of the most visited sites in Japan. It contains no plants at all within its 30 metre by 10 metre design. Fifteen rocks are cleverly arranged on a bed of gravel and sand in such a fashion that one can only see fourteen of them at one time.

Kyoto is also home to Nanzenji, a Zen temple located at the foot of the city’s eastern hills. It is the head temple for the Rinzai sect’s Nanzenji Zen Buddhism school of thought and is famous not only for its contemplative Zen garden but for its artwork and rich history that dates back to 1291. The Seiryo-den is the main building, where hand painted sliding doors, called fusuma, open to the rock garden. The entrance gate, called the Sanmon, was completed in 1628.

Zen gardens have found their way to other parts of the world as well. In Portland, Oregon, sister city to Sapporo, Japan, the popular Japanese Gardens have included a Zen garden in their design. The creator, Professor Takuma Tono based his layout on a 2,000 year old legend that tells of Buddha saving a starving tiger and cubs that were trapped in a ravine. The expanse of combed gravel is accented by four smaller stones and one upright, all covered with a patina of moss after standing for fifty years.

Zen gardens may one day invite contemplation on the moon, or beyond. The National Space Society held a design contest for lunar space station layouts. Artist Ayako Ono from Japan entered her “Lunar Zen Garden” painting. It features a lunar layout with several domed buildings, solar panels and all else you would expect to find in a space colony. What was not expected was the groomed circles around the domed buildings and strategically placed rocks that seem to have no other function than to capture the imagination. Of course on the moon, limiting your gardening materials to rocks, sands and gravels isn’t much of an issue.

Why not try to sculpt your own Japanese Garden or create a Japanese Water Garden.

Ryoan-ji Temple, The Temple of the Peaceful Dragon.