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Right: Zen Garden in a Rinzai (Linchi) temple in Kyoto

About Zen Gardens

Probably Zen's most attractive aspect (aside from the meaning of life) is the famous 'Zen Gardens'.  Over 500 years before the development of "Modern Art", monks were saying things with metaphor in the temple dirt.  In Japanese, they are call KareSanSui (), Dry-Mountain-Water.

Like most Buddhist tools and teachings, the gardens can be used on many different levels.  All of them are valid if you can use them.  Here are a few with examples, starting from the most superficial going to the deepest.

The mind is very flexible if we practice flexibility.  This ability to think flexibly is useful in ordinary life and in the pursuit of Zen.

What do you see in the garden? 

Some people see hills with their peaks poking above the clouds. 
Some people see tigers crossing a river. 
Some people see islands rising from the sea.
Some see a lake or heaven itself. 
Some people see only rocks. 

What do you see in the garden?


Modern life is full of distractions.  Our minds weren't built to absorb all the information coming at us.  Even when these temples were built, the outside city life was busy and full of entertaining distractions.  At breakfast, we think of work.  At work we think of going home; while going home we plan our weekend.  How much time do we spend right now, right where we are? 

Visiting a garden with a few rocks in it gives our mind just enough information to feel comfortable.  Here we can train our mind to stop jumping about from one unrelated subject to another.    In this way, it is similar to the breath counting meditation.  Calming the mind, like calming water, allows the dirt to settle, and the water to clear.


Here are two images of the same, rather old, garden.  You can see the viewing rooms where politicians, samurai and the wealthy were served tea while they appreciated the gardens, hundreds of years ago.  Today, shoeless domestic and foreign tour groups shuffle by regularly, with several minutes available to reflect.  It is a representation of the Buddhist cosmos' 8 seas and 9 mountains.  The large stone in the middle represents the centre of the universe. 

Click the image on the right to add it to your desktop.


Why is our thought deluded?  Why can't we perceive reality correctly?  One reason is that we are usually limited to a single, subjective view.  Our deluded perception constantly deceives us into making bad decisions.  Those wise performers, Penn & Teller often explain to the audience how easily people are fooled by magicians. But delusions aren't limited to the stage.  At Ryuan-ji (above) 15 stones are arranged so that from any point, only 14 are visible.  So how many stones are there?  How many times are we fooled by appearances?  Like the stones, in real situation, we can't see everything all the time.  Through meditation, we can deepen our perception, clear our mind, and see past daily dramas and ordinary "logic" though to the deeper wisdom of Zen.

If you want to see this garden a little more often, click the image above right.


Some gardens have specific meanings.  This one is describing the twin forces of Yin and Yang.  The two rocks with waves of rocks around them represent yin (left) and yang (right).

Yin and yang are ancient Chinese concepts that describe the natural forces that cause change in our environment.  This can be likened to the traditional Buddhist concept of 'niyamas' (natural forces that connect and change our world).

When Buddhism arrived in China it was absorbed without any need to remove traditional Chinese ideas like Yin and Yang.  This is completely in line with the Buddha's teachings, since he anticipated the dharma would need to change as it spread to meet the needs and customs of the new, different customs.  This is happening again today as Buddhism grows in the West.

Click for larger image


This garden, literally named the  Eastern-Water Drop-Pot (),explains the Law of Cause and Effect and the value of a clear heart.  "Even drops of water can make an ocean; dust particles a mountain." 

So our apparently insignificant actions become causes for great effects.  The garden is completely enclosed by raised paths and rooves, but the garden itself has no roof.  This allows the rain to drop into the "pot".  There may be a reference here to the Buddha's words: "Drop by drop is the water pot filled.  Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good."

Further, the rocks represent a frog jumping into the pond.  It is said the effect of the jump is a wave that goes out and, if strong enough, the wave will come back to push the frog out of the water again.  This is used as a metaphor for our intentional actions.  If we act strongly, with a heart that bears no selfish desires or anger, our actions create far more powerful effects that will eventually return to support us.

The garden itself is an example of this idea.  Although it is the smallest Zen Temple Garden in Japan, its deep meaning and sincerity of purpose make it very powerful.

Click on the top, right image of it to make it into a desktop wallpaper.


All things have an ultimate nature.  A real existence that ordinary people's minds are unprepared to see.  For example, when ordinary people see something, they immediately classify and label that thing.  They are unable to make sense of reality without this process.  This conceptualization process is based on our subjective experiences and always causes gross distortions.  

Let's say you knew a creature that had just arrived on earth.  The creature doesn't understand male and female, so you explain the differences including that, on average, women are shorter than men.  The creature can't make subtle distinctions like generally and on average, so every time is sees a short person is assumes it's a woman.  From an enlightened master's point of view, we are as stupid as the creature, constantly making incorrect assumptions about the world because of our limited system of thought. 

Here's the connection:
It is as if we look at the rock, but only see the rings around the rock.  Knowing where the rings are is useful information.  The rings tell us a lot about the rock's size shape and location, but it is very far from seeing the rock directly.  Similarly, ordinary perception is useful in day to day life, but is a poor second to seeing reality directly.



Like Gardens?
Here are a couple of videos of Japanese fountains from the RyuAn Temple.  Unfortunately, I had no tripod that day, so they're a little shaky.  Nothing very deep to say about them, but they look nice if you're into Japanese gardens.  Just click on the black boxes with your mouse.



To make your own Zen Garden, click here.

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