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The Meditative Gardens of Zen Buddhism, Part 1 of 2

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Japanese rock gardens were first created more than 1,000 years ago, and Zen gardens appeared in the 14th century when they were first installed on the grounds of temples. Their abstract, minimal design was mean to inspire meditation. Professor Michel Baridon summarizes the impact of Zen gardens as follows: “Nature, if you made it expressive by reducing it to its abstract forms, could transmit the most profound thoughts by its simple presence.”

Zen gardens are modeled on seven basic principles, although each may emphasize different ones in its design. The seven principles are austerity, simplicity, naturalness, asymmetry, mystery (or subtlety), magic (or unconventionality), and stillness. In expressing these principles, the selection and placement of stones is the most important element. The Sakuteiki, the oldest book on Japanese garden design, offers this advice on stone setting: “When setting stones, first bring a number of different stones, both large and small, to the garden site and temporarily set them out on the ground. Compare the various qualities of the stones and, keeping the overall garden plan in mind, pull the stones into place one by one.” Stone arrangements are meant to evoke deities, landscapes, and aesthetic drama. For example, Sansonseki or the “Three Deities stones” evokes the Buddhist trinity. The Sakuteiki names many stones along with their function such as “Wave-dividing Stone,” “Yin/Yang stone,” “Mount Shumisen Stone,” and “Water Crossing Stone.”

The most famous and finest example of kare-sansui or “dry landscape” garden is Ryōan-ji, which is located in Kyoto at the Shinjitai Temple or The Temple of the Dragon at Peace. It was the first purely abstract Zen garden and it was built in the 15th century. Visitors can see that it features a total 15 stones divided into five groups and surrounded by white gravel, but not all of the stones can be seen at once, creating an incomplete image. Monks rake the gravel into its traditional pattern every day. The gravel changes throughout the day moved by the wind or other forces, representing impermanence.

The largest and one of the most beautiful Zen gardens in Japan is Banryutei rock garden at Kongobuji Temple in Koyasan. This garden was built in 1984 and reflects the essence of Zen. The rocks placed in the white gravel represent a pair of dragons, flying together through a sea of clouds. These dragons are charged with protecting the temple.
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