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.

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