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A cat napping on a wooden deck in front of a zen garden.

Zen Gardens: A brief history and instructions for making your own

Inspire, Sublimate

The Zen garden is a synthesis of the foundations of the tradition that tends toward lightness.

Of all the variants of Buddhism, Zen is among the best known and most popular. In the cultures of the West, this may be because Zen Buddhism has been one of few traditions of Eastern thought introduced to the West by distinguished personalities. These include Alan Watts and, from another perspective, the composer John Cage, among others.

In theory, we may think that the current of Buddhism won wide acclaim because many in the West were attracted to Zen’s tendency towards the minimal. Other religious traditions are characterized by the complexity of their rules and rituals, by the magnificence of their celebrations and the solemnity of the practices associated with the faith. Zen Buddhism runs counter to all of these and its potential complexity lies elsewhere. In fact, one could say that Zen is complex, but not variegated. Its foundations and its objectives can seem entirely inaccessible at first. And perhaps for this reason, at least in the West, we’re accustomed to starting on a pathway with rules to define our actions, and to follow them as if hoping to learn – before researching.

A large loi pond

With Zen Buddhism, though, there are a handful of precepts that, although they give meaning to a specific way of understanding and living in the world, are but axes around which happen our daily lives. And with that said, it will be we who find our own place in this plane, as ourselves. Thus, it can be said that Buddhism in general, and Zen in particular, bear in their very lightness some of their best qualities. Meditation, breathing awareness, recognizing what truly matters in life, are some of the basic guidelines of Zen.

A good summary of Zen Buddhism, one totally palpable and perceivable with all of our senses, is the rock garden, or as it is usually known, the “Zen garden.” As a practice, the Zen garden emerged in the 8th century CE, apparently in imitation of the Chinese gardens of the Song Dynasty. The arrangement of rocks symbolized a mythical view of Mount Penglai, home of the legendary Eight Immortals.

In the Zen tradition, the gardens evolved toward a more earthly purpose: to remind practitioners that life can be elemental, simple. Some of the first Zen gardens were called “zazen-seki”, “meditation rocks” because in their simplicity, their very reason for being was to radiate silence, calm and tranquility to anyone contemplating them.

In the same vein, by the 15th century CE, a variant of Zen gardens moved toward total abstraction, though without entirely losing a link with materiality. Water and vegetation decreased (and even disappeared in some cases) and there was only a delineated area and some grouping of rocks. A feature preserved over the centuries, though, was that the garden was to be observed from a fixed position within the monastery. This was also to encourage a sudden recognition or a rediscovery of an elemental sense of existence.

Below are brief instructions for building your own Zen garden, partly as an invitation to investigate and learn more about the practice, but also as a return to a real, though abstract, point of contact with life and with mindfulness as to that fact.

A zen garden with pattern drawn in

How to make a Zen garden:

  1. Decide on your garden’s dimensions. You can have a Zen garden in your yard or on your desk. But choose the size carefully.
  2. Build a container. Use four wooden boards and a stable surface to make the base which is to contain mostly gravel or sand. If it’s to be a large garden, you can use planks, or beams, and a base of thin but strong wood. A smaller garden can be made from materials from any lumberyard.
  3. Bring the five outside pieces together. They can be attached with glue, nails or screws to form the base container.
  4. Line the bottom. To prevent the germination of weeds, line the bottom of the container with an impermeable material such as plastic (recommended for outdoor gardens). In the Zen tradition, cleanliness is very important.
  5. Fill the container with sand or fine gravel. Once the container is ready, you can proceed to fill it with the base material.
  6. Place larger stones in groups (along with plants). Zen Buddhism has a long tradition of gardening and which has resulted in treatises examining each for detail and quality. The most common recommendation is that the stones be arranged in groups of three, in straight lines or symmetrical patterns. Some variation is allowed in the forms and size, but it’s preferable to avoid brightly colored rocks which may distract the observer. You may include other elements such as a log or other sign of vegetation or water. But remember that the garden should appear simple and balanced to inspire the same: simplicity and balance.
  7. Draw patterns on the surface of your garden. Using a rake, you may design patterns on the surface of the garden. Again, lean towards symmetry and simplicity of form, and do this as many times as you like. Each line in the sand will be a new line, although it may seem a repetition.

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