Zen and the Art of Dry Gardens

The Kyoto temple of Ryoan-ji has the best-known example of a karesansui rock garden. 

Visitors to Kyoto do have their favorite sights within Japan’s ancient capital, but they tend to like rather similar things. The top spot could be the tiny confectionery grandeur of the Golden Pavilion. It might be the uncluttered simplicity of the Silver Pavilion. Or it may be the grand temple of Kiyomizu-dera perched atop its stilted platform. However, not so universally high would be Kyoto’s most famous garden, which tends to produce very divisive opinions. Many tourists are completely captivated by the ineffable serenity and air of geometric mystery that hangs over the place. But large numbers of visitors find it an underwhelming assembly of stones and gravel or might even find themselves wondering if they are not in fact witnessing some very elaborate con trick. The garden is that of the temple of Ryoan-ji, and it is the best-known example of a karesansui garden.

Karesansui (“dry mountain stream”) refers to a style of Japanese gardening that is founded on Zen Buddhist principles and uses rocks, sand and gravel to express nature and the universe. These Japanese rock gardens, which are also known as Zen gardens, are devoid of water but are not devoid of greenery: moss, pruned bushes and trees do appear, but, as at Ryoanji, the rocks and stones tend to be the dominant elements. The aim is to create stylized landscapes in miniature, using such features as carefully raked gravel to suggest the ripples in water. Unlike Japanese strolling gardens, whose landscapes unfold as you make your way around them, karesansui gardens are meant for quiet contemplation, usually while sitting from a single viewpoint outside the garden.

Ryoan-ji’s garden is generally regarded as the finest surviving example of karesansui. The temple was originally an aristocrat’s villa and became a Zen temple in 1450, but it is not clear when its famous garden was built or who designed it. The garden consists of a rectangular plot surrounded by low earthen walls, clearly flaking with age, and it consists of fifteen rocks of different sizes, which are carefully composed in five groups: one group of five, two groups of three and two groups of two rocks. Surrounding the rocks is an extensive bed of white river gravel, which is carefully raked into linear patterns each day by the temple monks. No vegetation appears in the garden except for a little moss surrounding some of the rocks.

The Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji) in Kyoto features an area of raked gravel that includes the shape of a truncated cone, resembling Mount Fuji.

The dry garden is meant to be viewed from the veranda of the hojo, which is the former residence of the chief monk of the temple. However, the rocks are placed so that the entire composition cannot actually be seen from that point. Indeed, an interesting feature of Ryoan-ji’s garden is that from whatever perspective at least one of the fifteen rocks will always be hidden from the viewer—unless of course you happen to have a drone handy. But tradition has it that after attaining enlightenment, the edified person can see the fifteenth rock.

As noted above, some visitors to the Ryoan-ji garden leave the place decidedly unenlightened. But for certain individuals, the simultaneously fluid yet frozen garden landscape inevitably makes one contemplate certain deeper questions, such as ones regarding the intimate essence of nature, the meaning of insubstantial human existence, and how on earth the monks manage to rake that gravel without getting their footprints all over the place.

Karesansui gardens are closely associated with Zen, but their history in Japan goes back much earlier than that type of Buddhism. Rock gardens have been in existence in the country since at least the Heian period (794–1185), when they were described in Sakuteiki (“Records of Garden Making”), which was written in the mid- to late-eleventh century and is most likely the oldest existing text on garden planning in the world. Those early gardens were copied from Chinese gardens of the Song dynasty, in which rocks were used to symbolize the mountain home of the Eight Immortals. In one passage in Sakuteiki, the author refers to employing karesansui, a dry landscape, in gardens that lack lakes or streams.

Karesansui techniques were applied in the approach to the Meimei-an teahouse in Matsue, the tea ceremony having been heavily influenced by Zen. 

It was not until the end of the twelfth century that Zen became introduced to Japan. That form of Buddhism was quick to achieve wide popularity, especially among samurai, the gritty warriors who firmly believed that a bit of self-discipline never did anybody any harm and warmed to its principles. As Zen temples spread, so did their associated gardens, but at first, as with the earlier Heian gardens, they tended to take after contemporary Chinese models.

Things began to change in the Muromachi period (1336–1573). Even though for much of that turbulent period, half of Japan seemed to be at war with the other half, it was also a time of remarkable artistic innovation. And the pared-down, less-is-more aesthetics of Zen played a key role in the development of Japan’s arts. For gardens, the Muromachi period is often referred to as the golden age of such spaces in Japan. In the Zen temples of Kyoto in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a new type of karesansui garden emerged, one that aimed to facilitate the meditation that is so pivotal a part of Zen. The garden was designed to create an atmosphere of refined taste and beauty, and it was intended to be viewed as a microcosm of the natural world.

For people who do not quite get the hang of what karesansui gardens are all about, one of the most highly regarded foreign writers about Japan, Lafcadio Hearn, who died just over a century ago, offers a few thoughts: “In order to comprehend the beauty of a Japanese garden, it is necessary to understand—or at least to learn to understand—the beauty of stones. Not of stones quarried by the hand of man, but of stones shaped by nature only. Until you can feel, and keenly feel, that stones have character, that stones have tones and values, the whole artistic meaning of a Japanese garden cannot be revealed to you.”

David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.

First posted to TJJ ONLINE June 2018, updated October 2021

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