What Are Zen Gardens?

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Hi ,

Happy Easter and thanks for visiting my Japanese garden blog. Today I am posting an article on the subject of Zen gardens, an often controversial topic but one that I feel should be addressed. Ask  somebody from Japan and they will not understand the term Zen garden as it is a Western derivation for certain types of Japanese gardens.

Experts frown on the terms use but maybe they should accept that in the minds of many people they exist and they are hugely popular!

Don’t forget you can watch my FREE Japanese gardens video at : www.japzengardens.org/freevideo.htm


You may well be familiar with Japanese gardens but what about a Zen garden? Would you understand that there is a difference between the two or perhaps you think essentially there are so closely related that they are virtually the same thing.

The truth is that the answer is somewhere in the middle although Japanese garden experts would argue strongly against this. Let me attempt to set out the case for Zen gardens which in my view are a close relative of a Japanese style garden. Step back for a moment from what you may know or have heard, and even put Zen Buddhism to the back of your mind.

It is widely accepted that the term ‘Zen garden’ first appeared in a book called ‘100 Gardens Of Kyoto’ written by Loraine Kuck in the 1930’s, the Japanese did not even embrace the term until the 1950’s. They utilise the term to attract tourists both domestic and foreign and it is almost a ‘fad’ rather than a strict garden type to the purists. Temples in gardens attract lots of visitors and this is where the religious meaning comes from. Many years ago it was considered improper for a monk to build or have a garden but today you will see them as guides at gardens with temples.

There is a popular view amongst experts on the subject that there is no such thing as a Zen garden and many believe that it is not even necessary to use either garden term as it is merely labelling rather than a place to be enjoyed under whatever form it takes and the point of view the viewer has.

Whilst respecting these views the reality is that it is an everyday term woven into modern language. In a nutshell the Zen garden can be a garden with a temple, a minimalist garden, a spiritual garden, stone gardens and a garden with spiritual feeling and meaning.

You will probably recognise these descriptions as forms of Japanese ‘dry’ gardens that are not just found at the site of a temple but can be privately owned, in parks, restaurants and even at places like hotels. Perhaps where the name confusion can arise is that these dry gardens can be considered by some people as expressions of Zen philosophy.

Hereby lies the conundrum. In Japan I am almost certain amongst garden designers and builders you would never hear the term ‘Zen gardens’ but outside of Japan it is a common term with different interpretations under the subject umbrella- for example dry gardens, temple gardens and rock gardens are called Zen.

You could say it’s lazy or due to a lack of detailed knowledge which is often the view of the experts, but, they exist and people love them for their visual beauty and spiritual feeling. My view is quite simple.

The more people that visit and appreciate Japanese gardens the better it is and does it really matter what they are called after all to the visitor surely a garden is exactly what the name suggests…a garden!


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