Elements of a Zen Garden & Their Meaning

Written by debra rigas
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Elements of a Zen Garden & Their Meaning
Harmony and peacefulness are felt by visitors to Japanese gardens. (Japanese tea house in the fall image by Jorge Moro from Fotolia.com)

Zen Buddhism is dedicated to the study of nature and humanity's place in the world. Japanese Zen gardens capture the philosophy of making a peaceful way. Attaining enlightenment by regular practice of Buddhist concepts may be doable, but for those who need a moment now and then in serene places to invigorate the soul, few places can match the setting of a Japanese garden. Within its boundaries, rock, stone, plants and water combine to still the mind.

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Rocks, or ishi, are foundational items in Japanese gardens. They typically represent mountains, but may also symbolise the figure of Buddha, or a gesture of strength and power. At many gardens, the entries are marked by a large stone, as a sign of welcome. Stones figure into the water elements and are sometimes used in forming paths. When water is not available, sand or small white pebbles are substituted to symbolise the space often held by water.

Elements of a Zen Garden & Their Meaning
Mountains, Buddha and worship are suggested by the use of stones. (boulders on the grass in the Japanese garden image by Daria Miroshnikova from Fotolia.com)


A vital element to life, mizu, or the water element, is found as ponds, streams, and waterfalls. Sometimes a small fountain designates the water element. Water is for purification and cleansing. When peering at or walking beside a pond in a Zen garden, the stillness and empty space are important for reflection in a literal sense. Meditation is the literal meaning of the word Zen, and water is a superb conduit for such practice. Falls have several symbolic overtures, and dripping indicates the passage of time.

Elements of a Zen Garden & Their Meaning
Water is the purifying element but also can suggest space and time. (Japanese garden image by Pavol Kmeto from Fotolia.com)


Care is given in selecting the plantings, or shokobutsu, for a Japanese garden. Cherry trees, with their delicate pink flowers in spring, are a well-loved feature tree. Also often found are plum trees, different pines and bamboo. The sound of wind in bamboo and its motion teach the Zen principle of the "empty heart," providing strength through flexibility. The layout and groupings of plants must be subtle and pleasing, all year round.

Elements of a Zen Garden & Their Meaning
The form and layout of plants must create a satisfying panorama. (Japanese garden fantasy image by smn from Fotolia.com)


Lanterns are used as symbols of enlightenment. They are one form of tenkeibutsu, or ornamentation. Others might include frogs, basins and gates. Statues of the Buddha may be present, or of other deities, and a garden's teahouse might have a painting of carp or mandalas. Deeply traditional gardens will keep ornamentation to a minimum, and every item has a clear purpose.

Elements of a Zen Garden & Their Meaning
Garden ornaments may include lamps, lanterns, frogs, fish or other statuary. (autumnal Japanese park image by d_j_ang0 from Fotolia.com)


To support the interconnectedness of all in existence, shakkei, or borrowing pre-existing scenery, is applied. The garden itself takes up a certain amount of land, but beyond its perimeter there might be hills or valleys, or something to frame with plants or structures within the garden's walls. The attentive garden designer will seek out how to blend with the near, far, high and low surroundings proportionately and gracefully.

Elements of a Zen Garden & Their Meaning
The garden designers incorporated a distant view behind a teahouse. (Japanese garden image by Galina Barskaya from Fotolia.com)


Hashi, or bridges, are constructed in the Zen garden to symbolise a person's journey between the planes of existence, the inner and outer, the multiple dimensions beyond and the place that lies between worlds. Man's unity with nature can be symbolised by his simple walking across a bridge to move from the world of humans into the wider world of all forms and beings. For the visitor to any Japanese garden, the bridge and all other elements present, may simply allow a moment of harmony and appreciation for what is.

Elements of a Zen Garden & Their Meaning
Bridges, or hashi, symbolise the journey between planes, and between worlds. (quiet garden image by Rosemary Robenn from Fotolia.com)

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