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What Really is a Zen-Style Japanese Garden?

August 12, 2009
John Stuart Leslie

I was reading an article about Japanese gardens where the author got all bent out of shape about how western culture mistakenly refers to “dry landscape” style gardens in Japan as “Zen Gardens”. Their point was that the term “Zen Garden” has become loosely defined only because historically, some Zen Buddhist Monasteries built karesansui style gardens and therefore, all dry landscape gardens are “Zen style”. So I did some research and found the following. See end of article for sources. 

< landscape’) ‘dry meaning (literally Karesansui in present water no is there gardens, traditional other>Water is symbolized both by the arrangements of rock forms to create a dry waterfall and by patterns raked into sand to create a dry stream or to symbolize the ocean. The raked sand patterns mimic waves on the water’s surface. 


The rocks and gravel used are chosen for their aesthetic shapes, and mosses as well as small shrubs are sometimes used to provide contrasting elements to the austere rock and sand.

 Zen Garden Ryoanji

Karesansui Type
(Kyoto) Zen Garden
Photo courtesy of

The vertical forms using stone boulders suggest mountains on islands in the ocean.  

The word karesansui is found in the 11th century garden manual  SAKUTEIKI 
and garden historians have designated Heian-period rock arrangements as
zenkishiki karesansui.  

Karesansui gardens were created similar to ink monochrome landscape painting and like paintings, the gardens are meant to be viewed from a single, seated perspective. In addition to the aesthetic similarities to Chinese painting, the rocks in karesansui are often associated with Chinese mountains.  

I have also read that the Ryoanji garden, is comprised of 15 stones, laid out in five groups and that from any single vantage point, one cannot see all 15 stones at the same time. One must change viewing locations in order to see the hidden stone(s). But again, some other stone will be hidden upon changing your position of view. This design feature is something that a two dimensional landscape painting cannot achieve. I therefore question whether
these gardens were designed to be viewed from a static position as suggested above.  

Given the multiple Chinese associations of karesansui gardens, they are the preferred type of garden for Zen temples (Buddhism having arrived from China in the 7c) and the best examples are found in the front or rear gardens of Zen abbots' residences.  

Karesansui style japanese garden design

While Muromachi karesansui tend to use plants sparingly, early Edo period gardens of this type often contrast an area of raked gravel with a section of moss and larger plants along the rear wall.  

The aesthetic resonance with abstract art, clean lines and overall simplicity, largely accounts for the resurgence of karesansui gardens both in Japan and abroad in the 20 century.  

This last point is well taken. As an experienced landscape designer, I have consulted with hundreds of clients, many of whom have expressed interest in “Zen type” gardens. Whether or not they even know the symbolic meaning of a karesansui type garden is beside the point.  

Their motivation is usually that it fits into the category of being a Xeriscape type garden,
that of having low maintenance, no watering and no lawn. Further, they find the abstract simplicity appealing. The boulders are therefore seen more as sculptural elements rather than as mountains or islands in an ocean. 

Clients such as the hypothetical scenario above has taught me to first find out how much the client knows about garden symbolism, sacredness and spirituality before I jump in and recommend the ”best spot for a meditation garden”. Heck, they may have no idea what I mean by doing a “Zen Garden” either!. 

Sources: Partial content for this article excerpted from Japanese Architecture And Art Net Users System (JAANUS) 

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