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.

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

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.