Zen Garden

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Nature is an important element for the Zen Buddhist as it is said to aid with meditation that can achieve enlightenment. The ultimate place for this mediation is a Zen garden. These gardens are a Buddhist art expression that focuses on nature. However, the garden is almost entirely made of stone and gravel, with almost no plant life at all. In this essay I will discuss a brief history of the role of nature in Buddhism, explain why the stones and gravel in the Zen Garden are so important and describe, in detail, the finest Zen Garden example that is Ryoanji Dry Garden in Japan. I have personally visited Ryoanji three times.

Introduced to Japan in the mid-sixth century, Buddhism advanced various attitudes towards the natural world. The ideals of many Buddhists evinced a religiously based concern for nature. Buddhists in China and then Japan had long debated weather non sentient beings such as trees and rocks could actually attain Buddha-hood. Saicho (766-822) the founder of Tendai school, was one of the first to voice his opinion in an affirmative way, he declared that “trees and rocks have Buddha-nature” (Masao, 1989: 186). Later, Ryogen (912-985) a member of the Tendai School claimed that plants, trees and rocks desire Enlightenment, discipline themselves and attain Buddha-hood. Buddhist temples aesthetically enhanced the environment. These temples were surrounded by nature and were often built in forests and on the sides of mountains. Rock gardens, vegetable gardens as well as cherry and plum orchards were common features involved in the setting of temples. These features helped to improve the local environment and aid as a means of meditation through the natural beauty on a spiritual level in search of Nirvana which means to “put out the flame” in this world and escape to the otherworld. Zen Buddhist in Particular saw enlightenment as an experience to be had through nature. Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, declared that “the ocean speaks and mountains have tongues – that is the everyday speech of Buddha… If you can speak and hear such words you will be one who truly comprehends the entire universe.” (Shaner 1989:114). The Zen Buddhists believed that nature could help them achieve a status of mindfulness in order to ultimately achieve enlightenment. They began to create the ultimate garden for meditation, known as the Zen Garden or “Dry Garden”. Both by creating and meditating in these gardens aided to the understanding of the Buddhist religion. Karesansui, or the “dry-landscape” style of Japanese gardens have been in existence for centuries, but the Zen Buddhists developed a smaller, more compact garden style that focussed on observing it from a distance as opposed to walking through it; “There was a shift back to an emphasis on looking rather than using. These gardens were used specifically as aids to a deeper understanding of Zen concepts…these gardens were not an end in themselves…but a trigger to contemplation and meditation” (Davidson 1983: 22). In these Zen Gardens large natural stones, in particular, are arranged in ways that allude to the spiritual problems and solutions of the Zen faith. In fact, with in the walls of the gardens there are really only two or three elements used, stones, gravel or sand, and sometimes unintentionally moss. Both the stones and gravel are arranged to create “simple abstractions of nature” (Kincaid 1966:65). In order for the Buddhists to meditate and achieve enlightenment the garden “relies on understatement, simplicity, suggestion and implication…leaving room for the imagination by providing a starting point” (Davidson 1983:23). The Buddhists believe that the stones are more than just inanimate objects, they are thought to have a soul and are considered to be the realistic part of the garden; “We treat natural stones as materials which have vital factors. That is because we feel life and soul in the natural stones which are frequently used as an...
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