When you hear the term “Zen Garden” the picture conjured up is of a dry landscape with rocks surrounded by carefully raked gravel which invites you to withdraw from the noise of the world outside and to enter into silent meditation. Some say that zen priests adopted the dry landscape style in the eleventh century as an aid to create a deeper understanding of the zen concepts, but others hold that the Japanese Zen Garden is a myth. They claim that it is a late 20th-century western creation that has nothing to do with the Japanese Garden Tradition and that the dry garden style is not unique to zen temples but can be found associated with many other buildings.
Whatever your view it is undeniable that there is something rather special about this dry landscape style which is generally known as a Zen garden. The main elements consist of rocks representing mountains or islands surrounded by flowing water in the form of sand or gravel.
Recently scientists used computer analysis to study one of the most famous Zen gardens in the world, at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, to discover why it has a calming effect on the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come every year. The researchers found that the seemingly random collection of rocks and moss on this simple gravel rectangle, when viewed from the right position, created the image of a tree in the subconscious mind.
Not all Zen gardens are restricted to dry stones and gravel, but often include plants and mosses as well as shrine lanterns, bridges and water features. A Zen garden should be equally attractive and inviting throughout the year, which is why evergreens play such an important role in their design. Black pines and bamboo, moss and other evergreen ground covers provide seasonal continuity which is always green and alive.
Construction of a Zen garden starts with the selection of suitable rocks. It is important that you find rocks in shapes that appeal to you since these will form the backbone of the design. It may take some time for you to find the right stones and gravels to blend together to form a harmonious picture, but taking time and making careful choices is an important part of transforming simple gardening into an act of “meditation”.
Zen gardening means that design, construction, planting and cultivation is all part of the garden itself. A Zen garden is a continuing process in which the creation and maintenance of the design is as much a part of the meditation as contemplation of the completed garden.