Zen and the Art of the Japanese Rock Garden

by Emi Noguchi

Fathoms deep, great plates of the earth’s crust slowly advance toward one another. In this geological game of chicken, neither relents. At the collision site, one plate crumbles, and the other is driven beneath. Where once was flat seafloor, there is a mountain. For millions of years, the crash continues, and eventually the rubble rises past the surface and into the open air. Soon battered rocks grow into islands. Wind and water shape steep slopes and forests. The planet leans in toward the sun, and in a Japanese rock garden, mountain runoff makes its way down the path of least resistance. Ice-clear, it trickles through awakening flora, spills down narrow cuts in the slope, splits and rejoins around a giant stone, eventually rushing into a river and into the sea. Sometimes, the water in the Japanese garden is water. Sometimes, it is represented by iconic, slow-raked ripples of sand. The Japanese tea garden is meant to be viewed from one position, framed so perfectly by the sliding doors of a tea room, that it is almost a painting. As with other types of Japanese gardens, it contains water, rock, and plants. Though it is technically “dry,” the Japanese rock garden is no different. 

Zen and the Art of the Japanese Rock Garden

Unlike its Western counterparts, the Japanese garden is a child of philosophy as well as aesthetics. This deep regard for the conceptual has no greater expression than it does in the karesansui, or dry garden, sometimes translated as “Japanese rock garden” or “Japanese Zen garden.” By any name, this is the garden through which mountains, oceans, and even plants are expressed through gravel, deliberately placed rocks, and—thanks to rain and spores on the wind—the occasional patch of moss. From all this, plus some extremely meticulous raking, a scene comes alive for those willing to sit and look on patiently.

Zen and the Art of the Japanese Rock Garden

The “Bonsai” Japanese Rock Garden

Today, the Japanese “Zen garden” might be more familiar as a run-of-the-mill desk toy, but thanks to new technology, you can purchase a mini Japanese garden with specific types of moss and authentic volcanic rock (no, really!) from Mt. Fuji. These tiny Japanese rock gardens also capture an essential part of the Japanese garden-viewing experience: seasonal changes! Each miniature garden comes with two types of freeze-dried moss which change as time passes. Unlike the houseplant experiments of your past, this moss requires no watering. In fact, this lack of water is part of the approximately yearlong change from rich green to autumnal gold. Japanese gardens are generally designed with the changing seasons in mind; as leaves fall from an ornamental tree, the visitor will be treated to the view of a rock, water feature, or a striking plant previously hidden in the background.

Where Rock and Zen Meet

So, is a Japanese Zen garden actually different from a Japanese rock garden? (And, the newcomer may ask, how might a Japanese tea garden fit into this picture?) To keep it short, karesansui—the aforementioned “dry” garden—predates any mention of a Japanese “Zen garden.” In fact, the historical record does not link rock gardens to Zen Buddhism until Western writers projected principles of Zen Buddhism onto karesansui. In their books, these writers renamed the Japanese rock garden “Japanese Zen gardens.”

That said, the Zen garden of the Western imagination can be an excellent vehicle Zen teachings. Many Japanese rock gardens were originally created by Zen monks, and many to this day are maintained by monks at Zen Buddhist monasteries and temples. Also, “Japanese” rock gardens and Zen Buddhism both actually originate in China. The common geographical and cultural roots (and routes) of the religion and garden style may mean that a rock garden by its Zen name smells just the same.

Returning To Our Title...

What makes this particular type of Japanese garden special? First, the materials: where most gardens tend to focus on living plants, the Japanese rock garden is, as its name suggests, mostly rock. Despite the occasional moss or tiny plant, they are austere, particularly when compared to the lush, meandering “strolling” Japanese tea garden one passes through on the way to a tea house. 

We haven’t talked about the raking, and this is where we return to the religious, spiritual, and/or philosophical significance of this particular type of Japanese garden. A planted tree needs tending, but after a number of years, it survives primarily on its natural tree resilience. An open-air yard of meticulously-raked gravel, on the other hand, will need a “reset” at least every ten days. In the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, every moment is an opportunity for meditation. Raking gravel (or, as in the case of the miniature garden, white sand) is an excellent means of learning and teaching. According to Rev. Daiko Matsuyama, Deputy Head Priest of the 700-year-old Taizo-in Temple, “there is a teaching in Zen that says struggling in movement has a trillion times more value than struggling in sitting in silence. If we just sit, it is nothing.” Raking is not just meditative to listen to or gaze upon: it is meditative to do. Perhaps this is why a karesansui kit is so often found on office desks. If you do purchase the kit now available at Bokksu, just be sure that the garden is not placed in direct sunlight. 

Most North American Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, can be traced back to Soto, a sect of Zen Buddhism more forgiving in its practice than the Rinzai sect is, and which emphasizes meditation. This may be why, to the North American, the Japanese Zen garden looks like an excellent landscape upon which to gaze while contemplating the nature of life in its many forms. They aren’t wrong: with water, mountain, and flora abstracted and miniaturized, the visitor to a Japanese rock garden has to really be present to actually be at a garden of any kind. 

Last, and perhaps most special, is the simple imagination this Japanese garden requires. One can imagine surf on the shore or ripples in a pond, and beneath that water, perhaps there swim koi. Perhaps it is too murky to see much at all. It’s all in the eye—and mind—of the garden’s beholder.

Author Bio

Emi Noguchi is a fiction writer, blogger, and freelance writing instructor, and co-founder of MFA App Review. After studying standard Japanese at Columbia University, she picked up Kansai-ben while living in Osaka and some Awa-ben in her paternal hometown in Tokushima. Emi is a 2020 recipient of the John Weston Award and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. You can read her work in Essay Daily, The Spectacle, and Fairy Tale Review. Emi is currently writing a novel about diasporic illnesses, art-making, and traditional Japanese puppetry.