Fathoms deep, white-hot rock has been emerging for millennia, cooling over and over until it hits the air. Soon battered rocks grow into islands. Tectonic plates shift, and mountains erupt from plains. Wind and water shape valleys 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. 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. All this, plus some extremely meticulous raking, make a scene, viewed seated in one location, come alive.
So, is a Japanese Zen garden really that 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—is a style of Japanese garden which predates any mention of a Japanese “Zen garden.” In fact, the historical record does not link Zen Buddhism to any such landscaping until Western writers, projecting principles of Zen Buddhism onto karesansui, began referring to the Japanese rock garden as “Japanese Zen gardens.”
That said, the Zen garden of the Western imagination a.k.a. Karesansui a.k.a. The Japanese rock garden 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. Both “Japanese” rock gardens and Zen Buddhism actually originate in China. Their common geographical and cultural roots (and routes) may mean this is all just a difference in semantics. While we’re on the topic of the “Japanese” rock garden abroad, it’s worth noting that in the western United States, you can find many a Japanese garden, where you stand a fair chance of seeing a real-life Japanese Zen garden!
But now we return to what makes this particular type of Japanese garden special. First, it’s in 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 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. While a planted tree needs tending, after a number of years, it survives primarily on its natural tree resillience. 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, in which every moment is an opportunity for meditation, a constant need for careful, repetitive upkeep 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.
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.