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ZEN GARDEN: HISTORY AND FEATURES

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ZEN GARDEN: INTRODUCTION

The zen garden it is the perfect example of the fusion between Eastern philosophy and the art of gardening, creating a place for meditation and inner reflection, both while doing it and when finished and accurate in every detail.

The oriental culture is breaking through people’s hearts and minds by virtue of the fact to help the human being to take better care of himself, meditating but especially finding time to relax.

Karesansui is a type of Japanese garden and literally means “dry nature“, where the word used for “nature” is sansui (“mountains and water”) which appears within the Sakuteiki gardening treatise written in the 11th century. In Italian it is also referred to as a dry garden or, improperly, a Zen garden.

Characteristic of karesansui is the absence of water, that is one of the four basic elements of the Japanese garden together with the rocks, the growth of plants and the elements of the landscape. In fact, even gardens in which there is a rich vegetation, but no water flows, are still considered karesansui.

Usually, stones, gravel or sand are used to represent streams or ponds instead of using the water itself, for example by setting up expanses of white gravel modeled to simulate the waves and flanked by bridges or other structures typically linked to water.

HISTORY

The karesansui were present inside the noble palaces in a latent form, in the sense that they had not yet been codified as spaces in their own right, but inserted in wider contexts that also contained water. Karesansui was therefore one of several portions of a garden and not a garden in itself. The karesansui were born inside the shindenzukuri noble palaces of Kyoto of the Heian Period (794-1185)

The elevation of karesansui to an independent model of garden was achieved within the monasteries of Zen Buddhism during theMuromachi Period (1336-1573), where they were intended as an abstract representation of reality. Zen monks carried on the conceptual development of both the sense and the space of the karesansui, exploring their expressive possibilities and transforming it into a philosophical model of worldview.

The success in both secular and religious fields of karesansui is also due to the fact that eliminates one of the basic necessities of Japanese gardens, that is to have a source of water supply. Thanks to this type of garden it was possible to build green areas in areas where the water was scarce or almost all absent.

The concept of “zen garden”, with which karesansui are often identified, is considered a false historian by many important experts of Japanese gardens and Buddhism. They argue that it is a 20th century western creation that has nothing to do with the Japanese gardening tradition.

In fact, the aesthetics of karesansui is not unique to the gardens of Zen temples, but is historically present in the context of residences and commercial premises. At the same time, the gardens around Zen temples can have many different styles, and dry gardens are just one of them.

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ORIGIN OF THE TERM

The term “zen garden” first appeared in Loraine Kuck‘s 1935 book entitled “One Hundred Kyoto Gardens”, while the first use of the term appeared in print in 1958. This may imply that some Japanese scholars may have simply followed Western usage, adopting the popular concept of “Zen garden” because it is already used and common among foreigners.

Wybe Kuitert‘s book Themes, Scenes & Taste in the History of Japanese Garden Art, published in 1988, strongly challenges the correlation between Zen and karesansui:

«Kuck confuses his historically determined interpretation of the “zen garden” with an ancient garden belonging to a completely different culture. This distorts its interpretation. [The medieval garden] found its place in the Zen temples and in the residences of the warriors because it increased its cultural prestige. That its assessment was determined by religious elements rather than form is questionable.»

FEATURES OF A ZEN GARDEN

Peace, harmony and beauty: these are the three fundamental elements that characterize the art of the Japanese Zen garden, born from the oriental tradition of Japanese gardening.

First of all, a Zen garden should be minimal. Its main feature is that of being an environment that favors meditation, immersed in nature and simplicity.

Obviously each country has its own traditions and styles, also and above all architectural ones which depend largely on the mentality of the culture they are part of. The oriental gardens in their extreme charm and enchantment are generally asymmetrical and composed of elements with odd numbers, a curiosity is precisely this, we try to insert objects that can form triangular figures in their composition.

Later we will see how to make a Zen garden but first we see that there are common elements that we can find, albeit with some differences in each of them:

  • First of all, the nantei is defined as a southern garden, different and structured differently according to the place;
  • The shoin, a writing room, extremely typical of Japanese architecture, which we find in different buildings;
  • The hōjō is instead the abbot’s room, generally accompanied by a small courtyard;
  • Kokoro is the heart of the Zen garden, where the maximum essence is contained.

Obviously these elements are part of a larger architectural and meditation space.

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ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF THE ZEN GARDEN

Zen gardens have essential elements essential that cannot be missing. Before seeing what they are, let’s remember once again that the essential elements are also and only elements natural.

Among these we find the sand and the stones whose meaning it is totally opposed to that of water.

Natural elements have a specific meaning:

  • The stones and rocks represent stability, synonymous with inner peace in the individual that can only be achieved through deep reflection on one’s own person and through careful meditation;
  • Water, on the other hand, represents in its simplicity and changeability all that is unstable and mobile in the world;
  • Finally, through the cultivation of plants we take care of our soul. The most common plants are fern and moss.

None of them have a mere aesthetic function, everything has a sometimes cryptic meaning whose explanation is left to the free interpretation. Everyone can see a different meaning in them to find the answers he seeks and which can lead him to Zen.

However, in some gardens it is possible to find water, these are special and uncommon places where spirituality and faith is in its strongest form. One in particular, the most symbolic, the Shinden-zukuri, a garden with very ancient origins.

Different from all the others because inside it there is a large amount of water, generally a lake or a pond of modest size. Compared to the others it is the most important precisely because it represents and is built in the name of Buddha, it is not difficult in fact, to find inside it several statues representing the divinity.

HOW TO DESIGN A ZEN GARDEN

The creation of a Zen garden is not very simple but it is possiblefollowing some rules to be able to create one that remembers it very much. Let us start by saying that these are spiritual places, certain sensations and meanings are impossible to replicate, but you can aspire to create a Japanese garden where you can relax in total tranquility.

Certain guidelines must be followed to create an oasis perfect that manages to combine gardening and meditation, almost like the Buddhist monks. Such an environment can be useful for getting close to Zen philosophy and to be able to find inner peace by building a small corner of personal paradise.

First of all it is necessary to conceive and plan a Zen Garden and secondly insert all the zen garden elements, typical and indispensable.

  1. To begin with, it is necessary to have poorly worked rocks, in odd numbers. Remember that disparity and asymmetry are also fundamental to give the whole a natural appearance;
  2. It will be necessary to create a sort of small path whose exit should not be visible from the entrance;
  3. Evergreen plants will be chosen so that the garden is not affected during the winter. Generally we choose female plants, with flowers, symbol of beauty and fragility to be inserted on the path. The male plants, lower than the first ones, should be placed at the entrance from the garden, generally consisting of deciduous leaves so that the visitor bows in front of the Japanese garden;
  4. Obviously, the expanses of sand that can be fenced to keep them in place cannot be missing. We understand that building a life-size Zen garden can be very demanding and expensive but there are small table-top Zen gardens.

Creating a Zen garden can be a solution to create a small moment of relax. Many of them are mostly temporary, so you can change their shapes and change their appearance at any time.

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CREATING A ZEN GARDEN: VALERIA’S ADVICE

Stones, water, sand, gravel and other elements materic can recreate hills, seas, lakes and rivers. Or they can help the observer to pass from one floor to another of the composition.

When creating a Zen landscape we must leave behind the classic idea of the garden to which oriental culture has accustomed us.

Every single plant, each stone, each grain of sand has a precise function and responds to a predetermined order and symbology. There is no space for frivolities, frills or chaos. The ‘randomness’ with which you often realize the classic gardens must be abandoned. The idea is that to give balance and harmony with a minimalist style andand attention to detail almost manic.

For all of these reasons it is advisable to design each space before venture into choosing plants or preparing the ground. Whether it’s a bonsai, a pebble or a statuette, everything must be planned without margin of error.

The target? Create an ‘open’ environment, but at the same time ‘closed’ environment’, that it gives to those who enter in it the impression of being in a space without borders.

It will also be possible to place a bridge, some Japanese lanterns and a Buddha statue, a few essential elements that will guide each one to the rediscovery of simplicity.

SAND AND ROCKS

Starting from a basic model, you need to get sand and gravel in quantity, preferably white in color to reflect the sunlight. Using a classic garden rake, you can work and take care of the arrangement of the sand, passing it gently and drawing the geometric shapes, which will bring to mind the movement of the sea, therefore its waves.

Instead, the rocks bring to mind the mountains. If those with larger dimensions are to be placed in the corners, with the longer side upwards, the more rounded rocks will be placed on the perimeter or near the pond or fountain, if space permits.

The flat stones will be placed on the ground to make the journey, towards the area with water or towards the exit from the garden itself while mosses or small plants will be the embellishment.

Finally, a wooden bench, welcoming for two people, will be an ideal complement, while small candles in the appropriate vases will allow you to visit the Zen garden in the evening, for the last meditation of the day. Or, created by stacking the stones in an orderly manner and placing a slab on top, you will get an even more characteristic seat.

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CHOICE OF PLANTS

The choice of plants is one of the fundamental steps after the design of the spaces. For example, tall trees are hardly ever placed in the Zen garden to avoid too obvious contrasts and asymmetries.

Better small plants, small in size and manageable with simple pruning. In fact, the function of plants is not decorative but symbolic: they are used to connect nature and man in a constantly evolving universe.

In general, evergreen species are preferred, with long-lasting blooms and regular vegetative development. Bonsai trees are certainly protagonists of the Japanese Zen garden, together with maples, bamboo, reeds and junipers. The flowers, however, are few, in general camellias, rhododendrons or azaleas.

DECIDUOUS LEAF PLANTS

Among the few accepted deciduous species, ginkgo biloba is highly appreciated. It is a very ancient species, almost extinct, which is characterized by large lobed leaves. Even the weeping willow is widely used because of the ornamental foliage that moves sinuously with each light breeze.

Maple is another protagonist of this garden, in particular the Acer palmatum also used for the creation of bonsai.

Finally, among the evergreen plants with ornamental function, we find the Fatsia japonica, with variegated palm-shaped foliage, which during the autumn gives inflorescences and berries of great impact.

EVERGREEN PLANTS

Zelkova, lithocarpus, chamaecyparis obtusa, cedar and fir are also widely used. Among many, bamboo is widely used to create small groups in different areas of the garden, as well ascommon cane.

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STYLE

In addition to the quality of the plants, the quantity must also be taken into account, in fact, they must not be too many because they would create chaos and disorder. The style must always be minimalist and harmonious and avoid confusion.

LAWN

To underline the fact that the lawn is composed of moss and not grass, in fact the green coat serves to soften the shapes and to create soft lines of a beautiful intense green that does not degrade during the year.

ENTRANCE

According to Oriental symbology, male plants must be placed at the entrance, namely Pinus pentaphylla and Taxus which are often intertwined to form an arch.

INSTRUMENTS

The instrument-symbol with which the Japanese garden is cared for is the rake that serves to create lines, perspective games and harmonious shapes. Each line drawn in the sand has a meaning and represents a path from one plane of reality to another.

Contemplation is the other pillar at the basis of the philosophy that has inspired art linked to this type of composition for centuries.

In addition to Karesansui, gardens can be created with evergreen or deciduous plants in more or less large outdoor spaces. The important thing is to observe some rules and choose all the elements that will make up the garden according to the right symbols.

PRICE

Creating a Zen garden is certainly an economic option compared to traditional green spaces. The final price obviously depends on the size you want to make and the items you want to insert.

In terms of quantity, the list price for sand and gravel is around € 10 per cubic meter and € 15 per cubic meter respectively.

Finally, musk, if purchased in a gardening shop, costs around € 2.80 for a bag of 100 grams. Instead, rocks and stones are easily found in the woods, in the midst of Nature, being able to choose the shapes and sizes at will near the streams, where the power of the water smooths them perfectly.

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5 REASONS WHY EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE A ZEN GARDEN

Ultimately, there are several reasons why you should have a zen garden, not only aesthetic or decorative. This type of garden has a millennial tradition and have been the basis of the birth of many philosophies, especially oriental; we will try here to list the various reasons they have brought the karesansui to such a widespread diffusion, going beyond the borders from the Far East:

  1. Relieve stress: by systematically arranging stones, crystals and outlining the sand, you can instill a deep sense of relaxation. In fact, focusing on repetitive movements calms the mind and allows you to truly experience the present moment, rather than worrying about the past or the future;
  2. Garden for meditation: meditating with a Zen Garden can help us get a wider perspective and see beyond what is in front of us. Stand in front of your Zen Garden and empty your mind of overwhelming thoughts and release any tension;
  3. The first basic concept is the one called Kanso o “simplicity“, while another concept is that of Fukinsei o “asymmetry“, “irregularity“.There is beauty in things that are irregular, not perfect, in fact the famous “Zen circle is painted as an incomplete circle to symbolize that imperfection is a part of life;
  4. to improve creativity:It is possible to use a Zen Garden to stimulate creativity or to practice seeing things from many points of view. Positioning it in a visible point of your own home can help us find a new perspective or solve a problem that affects us;
  5. Finally, to increase discipline: Working with a Zen Garden and practicing meditation can help improve concentration and patience while other studies have shown that meditation can improve attention and concentration significantly after a couple of weeks of practice.
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LEAVE A COMMENT

In a society so fast and constantly changing, what could be better than a place of peace and relaxation where you can unload the negative energies of the day like a Zen garden?

Furthermore, the Zen Garden is perfect for meeting the principles of the Feng-shui philosophy, since it is a simple and minimal space and in which it is possible to meditate, finding tranquility and calm.

So, don’t hesitate to leave a comment at the end of the article if you have doubts about how to create a Zen garden from scratch or if you want to know more about its incredible beneficial powers!

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