Many people have the stereotype that Zen Gardens were designed for meditation purpose. I also used to think that Japanese gardens were created mostly for meditation before I joined the internship and did some research. So what is the real meaning of “the meditation gardens” and the connection with meditation?
Actually there is no garden where people do meditation. The meditation itself always take place inside the temples, but not on the veranda or gardens. First, let’s start with short history.
During Kamakura era (1185-1336) the second large wave of Chinese influence reached the shores of Japan. The shoguns welcomed the arrival of Chinese Zen Buddhism (the name of Zen is derived from the Sanskrit ‘dhayn’, meaning meditation). Meditation is neither concentration nor contemplation, two activities which rely on the mind, on thought. Meditation means passing beyond the limits of mind ‘mu-shin’ (‘no mind’). But no mind implies mindless; mu-shin is accompanied by full awareness – enlightenment.
It is not the case, however, that Zen temples and their gardens led Zen adepts, through contemplation of their art and architecture, to enlightenment. Garden architects and their creations were profoundly influenced by the enlightenment and psychological insights gained through meditation. In short we can say that Zen gardens were developed not for meditation, but through meditation for contemplation! It might be the right way to call them”Contemplation gardens”. In contemplation gardens, a veranda is a place to sit and view the garden, not to do meditation.
Most Zen gardens are compact, usually built immediately adjacent to the temple abbot’s residence (hojo), and often contained within walls. These gardens are termed karesansui (literally “dry mountain water”) because they incorporate few plantings and use beds of gravel and groupings of stones to represent water.
One of the best known is the garden at Ryoanji, Kyoto. The garden is designed to be viewed from the engawa (veranda) of the abbot’s quarters.
The 15 stones are placed so that from any seated position on the veranda, only 14 stones are visible. Apart from little patches of moss around the stones, this garden has no plants.
Sources: Japanese Gardens, Gunter Nitschke; Traditional Japanese Architecture, Mira Locher.
Pictures: Garden at Ryoanji, Kyoto.
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