By John Lee Pendall
We’ve all seen the pictures: seas of sand or gravel flowing in intricate designs around rocks of all shapes and sizes.
Sometimes there will be a few plants, a pond, or moss thrown in for good measure. Occasionally, rocks will be stacked in steps to resemble waterfalls. These are karesansui or rock gardens. They started in China, and most were based on Chinese landscape paintings. Like Zen, they migrated to Japan and became a staple of Japanese culture.
Zen gardens are often highly symbolic, and putting them together or concentrating on them is a form of meditation.
The gardens represent nature, and since nature was often seen as the purest representation of the Tao, they represent the true nature of things as well. Nothing is done haphazardly in a Zen garden; each rock is carefully chosen, and each line in the gravel is raked with intimate care. Most of the knowledge we have on stone gardens is from the from the Sakuteiki, an ancient manual. There are also several other, more modern, works available.
Oneness is the basic idea behind a stone garden. Everything is connected to everything else. The largest mountain is dependent on the same laws of nature that govern the smallest pebble. Zen gardens aren’t usually symmetrical because nature isn’t often symmetrical. Nature’s balance isn’t necessarily in symmetry, but causality. A leaning rock resting against one that’s standing straight; lines are usually curved to represent waves, and sometimes they’re drawn into circles to represent ripples.
The equilibrium is in the actual act of assembling it, and in viewing each part as an aspect of the whole.
Stone gardens aren’t usually that expansive; some are just a few feet. Most modern stone gardeners try to express a message that may or may not be traditional. No matter the message, most recommend gravel rather than sand to symbolize water or space because gravel holds up better against the elements. Most gardeners change the raking patterns over time, but the main fixtures are rarely tampered with once they’re placed.
Regular gardening can be a meditative practice as well, and provide just as many insights into the nature of things as stone gardening, if not more so. A stone is deceptively stable to the naked eye, that’s why in Zen gardens they typically represent things like the Three Jewels. In regular gardening, everything’s plainly in a constant state of growth and decay. Also, rocks and improvised ponds and streams can be utilized in typical gardens as well to the same effect: emulating a landscape.
In both cases, it can be a highly rewarding task to base your garden on a painting, as the ancient Zen gardens were. This can reveal another subtle insight: life is art. Everything can be appreciated if it’s viewed with the eye of the painter, poet, or architect. It’s a whole other aspect of being that’s easy to overlook as we rush frantically from A to B. The lessons learned and insights cultivated while gardening—whether it’s with stone or otherwise—are transferable to daily life.
Now, do I think that everyone needs a Zen garden? No. We don’t need a Zen garden any more than we need tea ceremonies or calligraphy, but they can be great tools if you have the disposition for them.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".