History of the Japanese Zen Garden

The Japanese Zen Garden

The Japanese rock garden, or Zen garden as it is sometimes called, is one of the most interesting Eastern architectural features that have made it over the oceans to other parts of the world. The Zen garden can now be found all across the globe in a variety of forms. It has evolved some since the original design, but many parts of the Japanese rock garden have remained the same.

To understand why this fascinating decoration has become so popular in other parts of the world, you first have to understand the history behind the Zen garden as well as the philosophy driving it.

History: The Heian Period

The Zen garden has existed in Japan since the Heian Period, which is the fifth major period after the year A.D. This is the last period of classic Japan, existing between the years of 794 to 1185.

Archaeologists and historians have found evidence of the Zen garden described in gardening manuals and record-keeping documents of that period. It was primarily the Zen gardens of the Song Dynasty that served as the model for more modern Japanese rock gardens, and it was originally a religious site with the groups of rocks supposed to symbolize Mount Penglai, which was the home of the immortals in Chinese mythology.

The record-keeping was very detailed when it came to how these rock garden should be designed. In fact, the Sakuteiki – or gardening manual – was very specific about all of the features of the Japanese rock garden. One of the major factors was that it had to be placed on a dry landscape where there were no lakes or trees nearby. The rocks were placed upright to symbolize mountains or they were laid out in such a way as to resemble lower hills and ravines.

Of course, the Song Dynasty gardens were not the only Zen gardens being built. They were just the originals that everything else was based upon. The author of the Sakuteiki, Tachibana no Toshitsuna, wrote of other styles of rock gardens including those that actually were built on streams or ponds and various styles like the great river style, the marsh style, the ocean style and the mountain river style.

One factor became common throughout the Heian Period and that was the use white rocks or gravel. This rock garden design was used around shrines and temples and was a symbol of purity to the Shinto religion.

Much like today, the Japanese rock garden would be used in the coming centuries as a place of prayer and meditation. More modern designs of the Zen garden features white sand that symbolizes water with ripples drawn into it in order to present a better meditative experience.

History: The Muromachi Period

Between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, there came a period of great artistic endeavors and enlightenment known as the Renaissance in Europe. The Muromachi Period of Japan happened around the same time and paralleled the Renaissance movement in many ways.

The Muromachi Period saw the beginnings of many well-known rituals and Japanese culture such as the Japanese tea ceremony in the more modern incarnations of the Zen garden.

Zen Buddhism was only introduced to Japan shortly before the beginning of the Muromachi Period, which most historians mark as the years 1336–1573, and the religion quickly became the favorite among samurais and the warlords of the time because of how much it emphasized discipline.

The 14th-century was when the Japanese rock garden started to take shape as a meditation spot. Prior Zen temples and the gardens within them were the same for a long time but the practice of Zen Buddhism started to change all that. Stone became representative of nature and petrified landscapes were meant to demonstrate the unchanging of that nature.

The first recorded garden that was indicative of the transition to the new style was the Saihō-ji. Buddhist monk Musō Kokushi created a Zen monastery from a Buddhist temple, building some of the rock gardens in the more modern style.

For example, the lower part of the monastery was designed in the traditional style of the Heian Period while the upper sections represented a more modern take on the Zen garden. Muso Kokushi would go on to build another such garden at the Temple of the Celestial Dragon and it was gardens like these that demonstrate the changing of the Zen garden from the Heian Period to the Muromachi Period.

The most famous of all of the Zen gardens ever created in Japan is one that was built in the latter half of the 1400s and was called Ryōan-ji. This 344 m² garden is rectangular shaped with five groups of stones with fifteen in total that are surrounded by white sand and are raked daily by the monks to this day. The garden can be best seen from the veranda surrounding the residence of the abbot of the monastery.

The Zen garden can be linked with the achievements in Japanese landscape painting and with a classical art style in Japan where landscapes showed very minimal views of nature with lots of white space. The Zen garden has had a major impact upon religion, art, writing and much more within the Japanese culture.

History: The Modern Age

By the 1800s, known as the Edo Period in Japan, the Zen garden had somewhat fallen out of fashion. The promenade garden became the most popular style of Japanese gardens, but one place where the Japanese rock garden continued to thrive was at Zen temples.

Often, the Zen garden was built in locations where water was not a practical building tool. But by then, the Zen garden was starting to move past the borders of Japan and China and into other parts of the world. By the mid-twentieth century, Japanese rock gardens were even starting to appear in the New World and are quite popular today in many parts of North America.

One of the modern events in Japan happened during the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth. In 1880, a fire destroyed Kyoto’s Tōfuku-ji temple which was one of the oldest temples in the city.

Many years went by, but finally in 1940, the temple elders began to rebuild and architect Shigemori Mirei created the Zen gardens that exist there today. He created four different Zen gardens. One of the gardens faces each side of the temple, and it is truly a walk through history to see the four gardens as they are all from different periods, including a modern rock garden with vertical rocks that is supposed to symbolize Mount Horai.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Zen gardens became quite stylish in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and in the United States. Japanese rock gardens can now be found all over the world and each country adds its own unique styling to the Japanese rock garden so that it continues to evolve.

Even in Japan, the more modern form of Zen garden continues to be used in business and in residential landscaping, a tribute to the long history of Zen gardens in China and Japan.

Zen Garden Design

One of the most important aspects of Zen garden design is the selection of the rocks that are used. In fact, the selection and the placement of the rocks are considered the most important part of the entire design process.

The Sakuteiki describe the process of creating a Zen garden as “ishi wo tateru koto,” or ‘the act of setting stones upright’. The Sakuteiki laid out some very specific rules as to the placement of the stones with the warning that if the instructions were not followed to the letter that the owner of the garden would suffer some sort of misfortune.

The selection of the stones starts with understanding that in Japan, everything has a soul. In Japanese culture, even inanimate objects that most of the world considers non-entities are considered to have a soul and that includes rocks. Japanese gardening also identifies various types of rocks which makes them easier to select when making a traditional Japanese rock garden. For example, rocks may be low vertical, tall vertical, reclining, arching or even flat.

Ancient instruction manuals on creating Zen gardens also differentiate between the types of rocks that should be used to represent mountains and the types that are used for the shore or to represent rivers or bodies of water. Some gardens feature strangely shaped rocks that may resemble animals or other symbols as the centerpiece to the garden. The goal of all these instructions is to create harmony within the composition of the garden.

Some of the rules that are laid out in the Sakuteiki include instructions to ensure that rocks always have the best side showing no matter which angle is required and that there should always be more horizontal stones than vertical ones. There is also an emphasis on balance. For example, if stones are placed in a pattern where they are considered to be fleeing, then there must also be stones that are chasing them. Another example is leaning stones. If you have leaning stones within your garden, then you must also have stones to support the leaning ones.

As previously mentioned, the rock garden design has evolved a great deal since the Sakuteiki. For example, modern Zen gardens often incorporate random “nameless” rocks in order to create spontaneity within the garden. Sand and gravel is used in Zen gardens as well, often raked into a pattern to mimic the ripples in water. Often, creating these patterns takes hours or days and Buddhist monks spend a great deal of time creating the perfect Zen garden.

Zen Garden Philosophy & Symbolism

The symbolism is one of the most integral parts of the Japanese rock garden. Although in other parts of the world, Zen gardens may be created for aesthetic purposes without a great deal of emphasis upon symbolism, the practice still exists within those gardens created in locations connected with Zen Buddhism or other religions. One of the major symbols in Japanese rock garden creation is the mountain. Rocks often symbolize mountains, and in particular the home of the Eight Immortals in Buddhist mythology – the mountain called Horai.

The Zen garden was also involved in spreading political or philosophical messages. This was present mainly in the earliest Zen gardens created and in fact, these political messages were recorded in the Sakuteiki.

For example, the composition and arrangement of rocks may symbolize messages such as subjects being obedient to their Emperor and the importance of counselors and support staff to the Empire.

Other Zen gardens have messages that are more philosophical in nature such as symbolizing the journey of life and rising above challenges. There are ven Zen gardens symbolizing mathematical constants and a variety of other concepts.

However, the most important symbology for the Zen garden comes in the form of how it relates to the Zen Buddhist religion. That was the original way that the garden started to become popular, with samurai following the Zen Buddhist religion because of their respect for the self-discipline that it inspired.

The Zen garden started to spread from that point and although modern practitioners and designers may not follow the same design rules, they may still be perpetuating such symbology by mimicking the design of Zen gardens in the past.


No matter what your reasoning is for building a Zen garden, the fact is that it can be one of the most aesthetically pleasing and unique features of a modern landscape. Building your own Zen garden does not require understanding the symbology behind it or building it to the exact specifications outlined by the Sakuteiki. Zen gardens today can be an expression of your love for Japanese culture or peaceful meditation, or can symbolize anything you like.

The Zen garden is your own personal creation and you can build it exactly the way that you want; to fit your personal style.

This article was last revised on 02/28/2020.

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