Zen Rock Gardens: You just don’t get it, do ya?


蓼食う虫も好き好き, Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki, literally, there are even bugs that eat knotweed, or, there’s no accounting for taste; to each his own.

“Zen…does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes.  Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”  ~ Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

Ryoanji Temple's World-Infamous Rock Garden

Ryoanji Temple’s World-Infamous Rock Garden

The most famous Zen garden in Japan is found in Kyoto at the 15th-century Ryoanji Temple (龍安寺, Ryōanji), the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, where for the first time the Zen garden became purely abstract.  For some reason, unbeknownst to the writer after recently visiting the temple, Ryoan-ji remains THE über example of Zen gardens— a powerful, yet wholly abstract Zen Buddhist landscape designed to invoke deep meditation.  Hey, did I mention yet just how abstract the rock “garden” actually is?  It encompasses a rectangle of 340 square meters (about the size of tennis court), and within it are (can I insert “randomly here) placed fifteen stones of different sizes, composed in five (quite possibly “random”) groups; one group of five, two groups of three, and two groups of two.  The only vegetation in the garden is some moss around the stones, and the stone groupings are surrounded by white gravel, which is carefully raked each day by the resident monks of the Temple.

Diagram-of-Ryoanji2rockgarden02Ryōan-ji’s rock garden resists easy interpretation, or quite possibly any interpretation.  And in a simple non-abstract phrase, no, I just don’t get it.  Theories differ and are many, and include simple islands in a stream (oaky, I can buy this one), to river-crossing mother and baby tigers (Uhm, sure, I see’em, right there!  Nope, that’s just a rock….), to the peaks of mountains rising above the clouds (plausible), to theories about secrets of geometry or of the rules of equilibrium of odd numbers (which speaks kindly to the math-lete residing within me).  Then there is some very odd and totally abstract (there’s that word again) analyses on-line, with about the only missing explanation being that of “Ancient Aliens” UFO-origin.  However, I prefer the explanation of the garden provided by the historian Gunter Nitschke: “The garden at Ryōan-ji does not symbolize anything, or more precisely, to avoid any misunderstanding, the garden of Ryōan-ji does not symbolize, nor does it have the value of reproducing a natural beauty that one can find in the real or mythical world.  I consider it to be an abstract composition of ‘natural’ objects in space, a composition whose function is to incite meditation.”  That seems just about right.  I certainly just can’t seem to find, no matter how hard I try, a mother tiger helping her babies to cross a stream….

I can assure you what my cat sees....

I can assure you what my cat sees….

Modern scientific analysis shows there's a tree in the garden after all.   Riiiiigggghhhhttttt....

Modern scientific analysis shows there’s a tree in the garden after all. Riiiiigggghhhhttttt….

zen-catsA young monk raking the famous Japanese rock garden of Ryoanji TempleThe Japanese rock garden (枯山水 karesansui, “dry-water landscape”), often called a Zen garden, creates a miniature stylized landscape through carefully composed arrangements of rocks, moss, pruned trees and bushes, and raked gravel or sand.  They originated in medieval Japan and are renowned for their simplicity and serenity.  Zen gardens are usually small, surrounded by a wall, and, in contrast to gardens of the West which are designed to be viewed from within, Zen rock gardens are meant to be seen from outside, usually seated, and best from a single viewpoint, most commonly located on the veranda of the hojo, the abbot’s temple residence.  Zen gardens imitate the intimate essence of nature, not its actual appearance, and serve as an aid to meditation.  White sand and gravel are prominent features of these gardens.  In Shinto, they symbolize purity, while in Zen (Buddhist) gardens they represent water or emptiness and distance.  The very act of raking the gravel into intricate patterns assists Zen priests in their concentration.  Achieving perfection of lines in the present is not easy and requires strict focus; and even if achieved, the garden does not remain static, but requires careful and constant attention, just as many of the more important aspects of our lives do.  Stone arrangements and other miniature elements (shaped shrubs) are used to represent mountains and natural water elements and scenes, islands, rivers and waterfalls.  In some gardens moss is used as a ground cover to create “land” covered by forest.

Not a Zen rock garden

Not a Zen rock garden

The gardens of Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto’s famed “Silver Pavilion,” include a traditional Zen “pond” garden (made of raked gravel, mind you), but includes a perfectly shaped mountain of white gravel, resembling Mount Fuji.  The scene is referred to as ginshanada, literally, “sand of silver and open sea”.

Fuji and the sea of gravel at the Silver Pavilion

Fuji and the sea of gravel at the Silver Pavilion

ZenCrosswordzen-bdayLike the opening quote of this blog, I believe that we, who habitually struggle with the human condition with which we find ourselves confronted, much too often look for “more.”  More meaning, more connection, more complex relationships that maybe just maybe begin to answer the queries that burn within us all.  But, like a Zen Buddha Abbot told us, Zen focuses on “no mind” and not what we in the West assume as “empty mind;” minds cannot be emptied.  However, Zen strives for a mind-state where one accepts cerebral notions, thoughts and imagery, except without judgment, value, or emotion, and devoid of stress or reaction.  In this way, one can develop the eyes necessary to see and the ears necessary to hear truth, which helps us to understand and accept answers of life that could otherwise make us feel very uncomfortable.  In the end, I believe the rock gardens – including that at Ryōan-ji – are simply a physical reflection of the same:  an empty plot, devoid of those things normally associated with western gardens designed to excite our senses, an abstract meaningless void which assists its viewers, in a sense, to loose their minds…to better see and understand the miracles of life, shared by all.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, tranquil bamboo water supply

Ryōan-ji’s tsukubai (蹲踞), the basin provided for ritual washing of the hands and mouth

3 thoughts on “Zen Rock Gardens: You just don’t get it, do ya?

  1. Pingback: Amazing Famous Japanese Zen Gardens – FREE GARDEN IDEAS

Whatta'ya Think?!?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s