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Zen and the Beauty of Japanese Gardening

As Buddhism spread to Japan in the sixth century, the Chinese practice of Zen blended easily with the ancient Japanese Shinto religion of nature. Shrines of natural beauty associated with the mountains, forests and the sea were already held to be places where the powers of kami, or the forces of nature, were most concentrated. When combined with the Buddhist practice of Zen meditation, the creation of gardens became an especially symbolic means of achieving self-knowledge and Enlightenment.

Zen Meditation

Unlike Western gardens that are designed for excitement and sensory stimulation, Zen gardening involves the creation of places where meditation and contemplation are both encouraged and enabled. They are soothing and reflective spaces that emphasize quietness and tranquillity. Buddha’s own search for the meaning of life and ultimate achievement of Enlightenment whilst seated under a tree are mirrored in the guiding principles of Zen gardening. Still practised today by Buddhist monks in Japan, gardening tasks are required to be performed with love and in mindfulness. Beauty is achieved through an aesthetic of simplicity and utility.

Growth of Symbolism

Zen gardens are created through the use of features in a symbolic way to portray natural scenes embodying balance and harmony. The design of every element, whether rock, sand, gravel, water, plant, or ornament, is carefully considered as a means of visually showing the place of ordinary people in the natural order of the earth. The importance of this symbolism lies behind the unique essence of Zen gardens, although its roots reach back to the earlier period of Japanese history when Shinto was the prevailing religion.

Myths and legends reveal the extent to which the symbolism woven into Zen gardening had already been part of the fabric of daily Japanese life long before the introduction of Buddhism. The islands, fertile mountains and clear, flowing streams of Japan play significant roles in many fables and are central to the religious beliefs of Shintoism.


  • Visit the historic gardens of Kyoto for a virtual tour and history.
  • Find out more at the Japanese Garden Database
  • The book Japanese Touch for your Garden is described as “quite simply the best guidebook for the amateur of the Japanese garden who wishes to try out the concepts at home.”

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