Zen and the art of gardening

Garden spaces

Gardening. A known stress-reliever. Marry it with philosophy and you have a sure winner. We are talking about Zen gardens – the West’s latest means for shedding the tensions that’s modern living’s unpalatable concomitant.
 
But, what’s a Zen garden? Conjuring visions of serene, green trees? Well, Zen gardens are far removed from conventional gardens in that they don’t accommodate water.
They’re dry landscape gardens with gravel or sand symbolising seas, oceans, rivers or lakes. The gravel is raked to remind you of waves or ripples. Stones and shaped shrubs (karikomi) are arranged on the gravel to represent mountains. Moss is sometimes used to depict forest cover. 

Not new for Japanese

Is this a novelty? Not to the Japanese. The Japanese Rock Gardens, karesansui gardens, are abstract creations representing landscapes that need to be visualised by the mind’s eye. These dry gardens, unique to Japan, date back to roughly the 14th century. 

Ryoan-ji’s famed garden

A famous Japanese rock garden specimen is at Ryoan-ji, Kyoto. Measuring 30x10 metres, the garden is bereft of trees. There are only 15 irregularly shaped rocks, surrounded by white pebbles and artfully arranged on a white gravel bed such that only 14 rocks are visible at a time, irrespective of the angle they are viewed from.

It signifies our inability to see things in their entire perspective, a partial perception. This scope for a philosophical deciphering of a Zen garden’s elements is its very essence. 

Traditionally, a Zen garden’s purpose is to develop our ability to see more than what’s before us. Plus, varying wave patterns are drawn on the white sand bed every day with a specially-crafted rake. 

The very act of raking is designed to enhance concentration and peace of mind. The gardener indulges in meditative reflection as he rakes the circular patterns onto the sand.
These provide peace to the viewer too. The pattern, being never permanently etched in, provides opportunity for each fresh raking to impart tranquillity anew. Contemplation in a Zen garden’s serene silence is ideal for opening up the mind, deepening perception and clearing up the clutter that encourages rapid flitting of thoughts from one worldly hassle to another. Obviously, a meditation haven is no playground for pets and kids to scamper around.

Practical advantage

Zen gardens have practical advantages too. Permitting only bonsais or pruned shrubs, they are most appropriate for land-scarce Japan. Westerners prefer the dry garden for maintenance-convenience. Tempted to create a Zen garden of your own? Then, clear some space in your existing garden and place a wooden form over a black, plastic sheet spread over the area to discourage weed growth. 

Cleanliness is indispensable for a Zen garden. Fill the form with sand at least two inches deep. It symbolises the empty mind. The rocks you’ll bury in the sand indicate the world’s permanence as against the mind’s flexibility. 

Place rocks in odd numbers, with more horizontal and fewer vertical ones, in a triangle, ensuring the best sides of the rocks are visible.

You can also use mossy logs or other natural things. But, rid the garden of clutter, vegetative material and debris. Next, rake the sand in long, circular strokes to simulate ripples. You can change the pattern any number of times. You can also enhance the serene ambience through subtle lighting arrangements.

Hard-pressed for space? Don’t despair. You can still have a Zen garden, a miniature one that can sit on your desktop. Ready kits are favoured in the West.

Place pebbles or stones on white sand in a small, wooden container and rake the ripples. Placing a Buddha figurine too can help. But, refrain from crowding your Zen garden with too many elements.

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