Japanese Zen Gardens – A Brief History

Japanese Zen Garden

Winter is over.  The cycle of rebirths, never ceasing, becomes more evident to the human senses at this time of year, as the warmth of spring slowly washes over our landscapes, bringing plants and wildlife back to life.  As conducive as winter moods are to meditation, with their natural tendency to make us introspective, we at Ziji, love this time of year.  When it comes to soaking in a sense of tranquility, nothing beats sitting in a Zen garden, breathing in the fresh air to the sound of birds chirping.

Zen gardens evolved, as one might expect, out of the Buddhist philosophy of Zen.  However, the name itself was coined as recently as 1935, by the American author Loraine Kuck, in her book “100 Gardens of Kyoto”.  In Japanese, Zen gardens are called “karesansui”, which would translate into “Dry Mountain and Water Garden”.  This name is very telling of the meaning and purpose of these gardens.

Their origins are said to date back to medieval Japan, around which time Zen Buddhist monks started to build simple garden landscapes within their monasteries.  The purpose was to produce an environment that transmitted a deep sense of tranquility, so as to help them in their quest to achieve enlightenment.

The snag was that the monks, having vowed to reject material wealth and lead a life of poverty, did not have the means to create lavish gardens.  This scarcity of resources led to a clever concept of design whereby they reproduced a landscape that imitated nature, by making good use of what was bountiful all around them – rocks, pebbles and sand.

Based on all this, it could be said that the ethos of a Zen garden can be crystallized in four terms – tranquility, imitation of nature, simplicity and creativity.  It is these notions that make them so appealing, both from a gardening perspective as well as the point of view of the experience they offer.  So how does one go about creating their Zen garden?

First, a word on size.  There are no guidelines as to how big or small a garden should be, to incorporate the principles of Zen.  In fact, some gardens could fit on the palm of one’s hand.  On the other end of the scale, if a garden is large, perhaps too large for the scale of the project one has in mind, it is not unheard of to transform just a section of it into a corner of tranquility.  The ultimate aim is to create a space, however big or small, that imitates nature, while radiating a sense of peace and serenity.

There are three components which are the staples of every “dry garden”.  These are stones, sand (or fine gravel), and pebbles.  The stones, which vary in size from somewhat bigger than a pebble to large boulders, symbolize islands.  They are also often used to create pathways through a garden, by functioning as stepping stones.

Sand is used to simulate water structures.  These could vary in scale from small areas representing a pond, or a miniature lake, to oceans between islands (boulders).  Traditionally, the sand is raked to generate the impression that waves are running through the water, or to recreate a rippling effect in a pond.  However in many cases, garden owners go beyond this application of raking to create artistic designs, unrelated to any geographical feature, in the sand.

Pebbles serve mainly to outline sections, or patches, of a garden, thereby stressing the purpose and significance of what they enclose.  For example, a section of sand or fine gravel may be enclosed with pebbles to emphasize its representation of a pond or a lake.  They may also be employed on their own to  create an area that acts, perhaps, as a base for a sculpture or a piece of art.

Beyond these components, the options for embellishing a Zen garden are limited only by one’s imagination.  It is traditional to incorporate statues that have some association with nature, such as the animals one is likely to encounter in a garden, or objects related to Buddhism including, most often, a likeness of the Buddha or perhaps even a wandering monk.  Buddhist sculptures help to stress the origin and heritage of the garden.  At Ziji we have a beautiful collection of outdoor statues.

For more ideas, visit our Zen garden section at Ziji.com.  We have a variety of embellishments that can help you put your own mark on your garden, including lanterns which can be used for effect or to highlight specific spots you’d like to draw attention to; prayer flags for a touch of color and a Tibetan feel for your Buddhist sanctuary; or wind chimes for that magical feel every time a breeze wafts through your garden.

We wish you all a productive spring full of serenity and health.

Buddhist Calligraphy Masters Short Video

Buddhist Calligraphy Masters Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Tai Situ Rinpoche, and Maezumi Roshi create calligraphies for exhibitions and fundraising over the years. Video compiled by Shambhala Art International.

Celtic Piggy Maze

Even on paper, this exercise has a calm, grounding effect.

Help the stressed out piggy do a walking meditation through the Celtic labyrinth to the peaceful place inside.

Piggy Maze

Ikebana Basics: A Comparison of Styles

Here EileenKay, Sogetsu instructor in Boulder, CO, discusses the differences in two styles of ikebana flower arranging — classic and free-style — in the Sogetsu tradition.

For this demonstration, Eileen used the Storm Suiban and the black Nageire vase, available on Ziji.com.

ikebana container storm suibanikebana vase nagiere cylinder

Tonglen: The Practice of Giving and Taking

Tonglen, literally “giving and taking,” is a Tibetan practice for cultivating compassion, the Mahayana path of the bodhisattva. The great master Atisha brought Tibetans this practice from India in the 11th century. Tonglen reverses the pattern of self-cherishing that is the knot of our personal suffering. Using breathing as the basis, tonglen opens our hearts to those things we would rather avoid and encourages us to share what we would rather keep for ourselves. The practice shows that there are no real boundaries between living beings—we are all interdependent.

We begin tonglen by taking our seats in meditation with good posture, very simply and naturally. We ask, why would we want to do this practice? Fundamentally it is vast and choiceless. We recognize that the purpose of our human life is huge, to grow larger hearts and open minds, and we celebrate that we can do this in this moment. We are ready for transformation. Glimpsing this motivation begins the practice.

Then we become aware of our breathing, in and out, and establish the flow of the practice. On the in-breath, we breathe in thinking, “heavy, thick, hot,” and on the out-breath, we breathe out thinking, “light, bright, cool.” At first it seems only like words, but it is good to develop a literal sense of this. My teacher, the Vidyadhara Trungpa Rinpoche, suggested that we think of ourselves as air-conditioners. We breathe in the stale, smoky, fetid air of the room around us, and we breathe out fresh, clean, cool air. We gradually purify the room. When we breathe, we are breathing with every pore of our bodies, in with “heavy, thick, hot,” and out with “light, bright, cool.” Do this for roughly one-third of the 20-minute session, or until the texture is established.

Next, we breathe with a continuing sense of the texture we have established.  But now we open our thoughts and emotions to all of our personal material. It is good to start with those who spontaneously arouse our compassion. Who do we know who is sick or in emotional turmoil? We begin with that person’s face before us, and breathe in their heavy, thick and hot suffering, sharing with them our own light, bright and cool energy. Be quite tangible with the texture. Whatever suffering you see in them, breathe it in; whatever sanity and kindness you see in yourself, you breathe it out to them. When we are ready, extend beyond our loved ones to more difficult people. Who do we see as threatening, or as problematic in our lives? We allow their faces to come to us, and then breathe in their suffering and extend out to them our sanity and kindness. We are practicing embracing what we would normally avoid, and sharing what we would normally hoard. Do this part of the practice for seven to ten minutes.

We conclude the practice by extending it out beyond our familiar world. One way to do this is to move geographically. We begin in our immediate neighborhood, with the family next door with the two babies, the college student on the other side who takes terrible care of her lawn, to the elderly woman across the street who recently lost her husband. We move to those people we encounter on our daily routines—our coworkers and our boss; the grocery checker and stock boy; the employees at the cleaners, the gas station, the video store. Then we extend through our community, to the hospital, the shelter, the jail, the nursing home, including everyone suffering there. And we extend to our state, region, country and world, our minds going to the painful situations there described in the newspaper—the wars, famines, epidemics. We also include the CEO’s, the political leaders, and the people of privilege. We extend this practice until the twenty-minute session is over.  Then we conclude with a simple session of meditation again.

 by Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown, in Commit to Sit: Tools for Cultivating a Meditation Practice, from Tricycle. Edited by Joan Duncan Oliver (Hay House, 2009).

Family Meditation: The Art of Abiding Peacefully Together

As parents we teach our children to care for their bodies by brushing their teeth, eating right and getting enough sleep, but we aren’t quite as clear when it comes to teaching them how to maintain their mental health.

Extensive research confirms that just a few minutes of sitting meditation each day calms the mind, body and spirit. When family members have a peaceful place inside themselves, they naturally become happier and more positive, getting along better with each other and those in their world. For both children and adults, everyday obstacles become more workable and natural harmony is easily regained. This article presents some guidelines for developing a family meditation practice.

Before Meditation

Lord of the DanceIf there’s time, yoga stretches are a pleasant way to relax and energize both body and mind before meditation. It’s also a great way to get riled-up kids to calm down a bit before you try sitting meditation. The ‘Eagle’ posture is great for stretching between the shoulder blades where it gets tight during sitting, the ‘Triangle’ is good for stretching your sides, and ‘Lord of the Dance’ (shown right) opens hip joints and stretches leg muscles.

You can set the mood for family meditation sessions by getting into the habit of making a nice cup of herbal tea, coffee or hot chocolate for everyone. Bring it into your meditation area to enjoy together after the session ends when everyone’s feeling peaceful, and before you all have to dash off in ten different directions! These little touches help turn your sessions into something warm and wonderful that everyone looks forward to.

Getting Started

Incense piggy

To help create a peaceful ambiance, you might want to light a candle, representing clear thinking, and incense, representing patience. (If your children are old enough you might invite them to help you.)




Everyone should sit in a semi-circle in the sacred space you’ve set up. Toddlers and children under age 7 should have their very own cushion and just try to sit quietly — that in itself is a huge accomplishment! A little squirming is allowed. And, being less conceptual creatures who are already very much in the present moment, they will naturally soak up the peace in the atmosphere.

Piggy postures
Sit on a pillow like Geronimo or Buddha: cross-legged, with your back straight but not rigid, and your feet on the floor so that your hips are higher than your knees. Having good posture is important for creating an uplifted state of mind. For contrast, have everyone slouch heavily. Notice how restricted breathing and a slumped torso can actually make you feel heavy and depressed.
Meditating piggyNow take your posture again, with good head and shoulders. Gaze softly down at the ground about six feet ahead (for adults) and two or three feet ahead (for children). Your eyes are open but relaxed, so that you can remain fully present in the here and now. Keep your gaze unfocused. Take your seat with the regal posture of a king or queen. Feel the strength of the solid earth beneath you, the vastness of the big sky above you, and your own heart, body and mind bridging them together, joining heaven and earth.


Piggy gong

Ring the Gong to Start

Ring the gong once to begin your meditation session. Place the striker on the floor, and listen to the sound reverberate out. It’s nice if your children take turns ringing the gong to start, and a parent can time the session and ring the gong to end. (We’ve found that when children are in charge of ending the session, they often become obsessed with watching the clock!)
Settling In

These instructions are for older children, teenagers and adults.

Piggy shhWhen we first sit down, it’s a good idea to just settle in for a minute, before we begin practicing the technique. It helps to take the time to feel who we are at that particular moment in time.



Ziji roadrunner.jpgThe natural speed with which we operate is such that when we first stop,we spin around and around in our thoughts – very much like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. He runs so fast his head goes b-o-o-i-i-ng-ng-ng,back and forth for several seconds after he stops. That’s us when we first sit down. B-o-o-i-i-ng-ng-ng.


So we need to take the time to settle down and become present with ourselves and see who we are at that particular moment. Maybe we’re in a rotten mood, maybe we’re depressed. Maybe we’re in an exceptionally good mood, or we might be scattered, running around in circles of thought. Or, we could be feeling nothing — just flat. It doesn’t matter, we just need to take stock and acknowledge our state of mind as we begin. This allows us to have some idea of what to work toward in our session.

If we’re tired and grumpy, we shouldn’t expect to have perfect form and discipline in working with our thoughts, which may be fuzzier than usual. But if we got enough rest, had an excellent breakfast and the sun is shining that day, we might be able to go further and deeper with our meditation.

State Your Plan

Ahh piggyIt’s important to begin with a clearly-stated plan, so that we don’t end up spacing out the whole five or ten minutes, wandering in our thoughts. We can say to ourselves something like, “Just for the next few minutes I’m going to train my mind to my breath. The other 1,425 minutes in my day I can follow my thoughts on any interesting, exciting, happy, stressed out or horrifying trail they want to wander along. But for just this short time I’m going to let go of my thoughts and be fully present here in this room with my breath.”
How Long Should We Meditate?

Two dogs meditatingSitting for one minute is perfect for young children and toddlers. Five, ten or fifteen minutes is good for a mature daily family practice, and if you can stick with that you’ll be very happy with the results. On weekends when you have more time and if your children are older, it might be nice to sit for twenty minutes. The longer you sit, the more settled you all become.

Once you’ve become comfortable with sitting meditation, you can figure out what works best for you. It’s a very personal thing.


Following the Breath

River of thoughtsIt’s the nature of mind to flow on and on like a river, with one thought following another, just as one breath follows another. We are not out to stop that flow. We simply want to gently bring our attention away from our thoughts of the past and the future, the this and the that, directly into the fresh and spacious present moment. Therefore, the breath — which joins our spirit and body, which is alive, always fresh and happening right here, right now — is the perfect place to put our attention.

We gently bring our attention to our natural breathing rhythm. We feel the air going in and out of our nose, our chest rising and falling. We pay more attention to the out-breath than the in-breath. We just go out with the expansive quality of our out-breath and, ahhhh… let go of our thoughts. Then we rest our mind in that space for a moment before breathing back in.

Bird in sky

Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”




Building the ‘Letting Go’ Muscle

HorseAs Sakyong Mipham says in his book Ruling Your World, trying to let go of your thoughts over and over again, is a bit like bringing your meandering horse back to the trail every time he wanders off. You have to be gentle about it, but determined, too.


Thinking piggy
If you try too hard to pay attention to your breath, your mind will take off into a maze of intense thoughts and emotions. It may be minutes before you’re consciously present on the cushion again. Yet, if you relax too much, you’ll end up wandering off or even falling asleep. The best approach is ‘not too tight, not too loose.’ Every time you notice you’re thinking, just gently bring your attention back to the breath, again and again.

It’s important not to judge your thoughts. They are not inherently good or bad — in the end, they’re just thoughts. You don’t necessarily act on them. They’re just thoughts. Let them go. As soon as you realize, “oh, I’m thinking …” — whether you’re replaying an upsetting conversation, remembering what happened at work yesterday, planning what needs to be done tomorrow, or thinking about anything from dinner to global warming to world peace — whatever it is, you can gently acknowledge that it’s just a thought, not nearly as weighty as it may seem. Just let it go, whatever it is, and bring your attention back to the present.

Ring the Gong to End

Ring the gong once to end, encouraging everyone to stay quiet and still until the sound has completely dissipated. Rest in the peaceful moment you’ve created.

Take a moment to enjoy your coffee, tea or hot chocolate together before everyone has to get going and the speed slowly begins to build all over again.

Looking back over the years, these post-meditation moments were some of the most intimate and sweet times my husband and I have shared with our children. Perhaps that’s the best reason of all to hang in there despite all the obstacles!

The Five Main Points of Family Meditation

  • Everyone sits in a semi-circle. Toddlers and children under age 7 should have their own cushion and just try to sit quietly — that in itself is a huge accomplishment! A little squirming is allowed.
  • Parents and children ages 8 and older should sit cross-legged on a cushion with back straight but not rigid, gazing softly down at the ground about six feet ahead (for adults) and two or three feet ahead (for children). Your eyes are open and relaxed; your gaze is unfocused.
  • Ring a gong, a bell, or even a metal lid (struck with a wooden spoon) to start.
  • Breathe naturally, without strain. Feel the cool air coming in and the warmed up air going out. Feel your chest rise and fall. If it helps to concentrate on something, count your breaths — one in, two out, three in… Older children may find this helpful, too. Watch your thoughts and feelings settle down as you sit still. Every time you start thinking, thinking, thinking, remember to let go of your thoughts, no matter how important they might seem. Come back to the sensation of the air going in and out, in and out.
  • Ring the gong to end. Don’t move yet. Wait until you can’t hear the gong anymore and relax into the silence.
Piggy friends
Adapted from Family Meditation talks given at Shambhala Mountain Center, in northern Colorado. Kerry Lee Maclean is the author of The Family Meditation BookPeaceful Piggy MeditationPeaceful Piggy Yoga and Pigs Over Shambhala.

Ikebana Demonstration – Sogetsu School, Classic Style

Ikebana demonstration of a classic-style arrangement in the Sogetsu tradition. Arrangement by Eileen Kay, Sogetsu instructor in Boulder, CO.

ikebana container storm suibanFor this demonstration, Eileen used the Storm Suiban ikebana container available on Ziji.com.

Product details: Japanese ceramic; 12.5″ x 7″

Ikebana: A Contemplative Practice

by Alexandra Shenpen, Instructor, Sogetsu School & Kalapa Ikebana

Alexandra Shenpen Ikebana instructionOriginating during the reign of Prince Shotoku of Japan in the 7th century, ikebana (kado) has a long history of development as an ephemeral and contemplative art form bringing humans and nature together in uplifted and harmonious expression.

The word “ikebana” is formed from two parts — ikeru, meaning to give life, and hana, plant materials. Ikebana hence conveys that the act of placing plant materials in water gives further life to them, and that the way in which they are placed can express their vitality and presence. One definition of “flower” in Japanese refers to a graceful presence which creates atmosphere. The experience of a flower goes beyond culture and beyond thought. Ikebana is now appreciated as an international art form.

Another term in less common usage, “kado” refers to the “Way of Flowers”, not generally discussed apart from the art itself, but inferred in Japanese culture. For many hundreds of years in the east, the arts have been understood to be a “way” of uncovering and developing the sensibilities unique to human beings. There are many such do’s — the way of tea, the brush, the sword, and so forth. These “ways” are paths to restoring and deepening one’s capacity for fully awakening to the truth and harmony inherent in life itself.

Early Taoist masters were scientists, who used observation of nature to discover the principles of life in our universe. Early Buddhist masters taught the way of meditation as a path to realizing the truth of things as they are. Zen masters engaged the non-conceptuality of the senses, arts and daily life in their approach to meditation. The contemplative art of flowers (ohana) is a meditation in action, where open and full attention of the heart (mind), eyes and hands is involved. The refined instincts of the felt sense are developed by listening to the qualities of the materials through practice and training in traditional forms, unique to each of the many schools of ikebana in today’s society.

Kado is an opportunity to renew the communication between nature and human, through the creation of a new life — that of the arrangement itself. The moment of encountering the branches, flowers, and open space is never to be repeated and cannot be kept frozen in time. One cannot ever truly recreate an arrangement, and the forms themselves are considered a means of eventually going beyond the forms, both of the art and of oneself. Through the practice of ikebana, one’s perception of the world transforms into such freshness as the eyes of the heart/mind (kokoro) open over and over again. This awakens delight in ourselves and other people!

Such a simple thing — to walk, to notice growing things, to cut a branch, greenery, flowers, select a vase, then sit down with a clean bowl of water, lay down a cloth for trimmings, and begin to look at what is there. It is said that this ancient art-form began in exactly this way. In a small Japanese temple by a pond, the nephew of Prince Shotoku placed offerings of flowers and branches within the palace grounds. The first formal school of ikebana (the Ikenobo school created in the 15th century) is attributed to the descendants of this individual, who were moved by his “way” with plant materials.

There is so much to see in a branch, a flower. We could look longer, use less, notice the space around things, and bring our attention back to this moment. Cut off — one leaf, like taking a word out of a poem, and experience how the whole ikebana piece has changed. Can’t put it back. Impermanence. Beauty. Poignant. Awake. Here. Now. Changing. Like the seasons. Letting go of this leaf, or that flower, becomes a vehicle for life itself, an unusual kind of beauty which can rub the heart raw with tenderness, and give birth to vividness. Pine branches stretch across the water, fragrant needles reflecting. Tiny white buds of plum dot slender nubby branches. Supple stems of tender green hint at emerging yellow petals. The sun reaches the water. No end to falling in love with the beauty that is already here.

How to Make a Bowl of Matcha

Introduction to matcha (Japanese powdered tea) and how to make a great bowl of matcha. Demonstration by Michael Ricci, Urasenke Tea Instructor, Boulder, CO.

Ikebana Demonstration – Sogetsu School, Nageire Free-style

Ikebana demonstration of a free-style ikebana arrangement in the Sogetsu tradition. Arrangement by Eileen Kay, Sogetsu instructor in Boulder, CO.

ikebana vase nagiere cylinderFor this demonstration, Eileen used the Nageire Cylinder Ikebana Vase available on Ziji.com.

Product details: Ceramic; 11.75″ high x 3.5″ diameter. Available in black and white.