Japanese Water Gardens in Japanese Culture


Japan went through a number of cultural transformations with the transfer of Chinese Chan, or Zen in Japanese, Buddhism to Japan. In addition to the transfer of religious tenets and culture, bonsai came from Japan's larger neighbor as did the practice of water gardening. Since its introduction in the 8th century, water gardening has held strong cultural significance in the Japanese culture.


The first of the three major periods of Japanese water gardening was the Heian period. The Heian period lasted from 785 to 1184. During this period, a guide book for future Buddhist water gardeners was written by Sakuteiki. This book instructed gardeners to try to re-create the idea of the Buddhist Pure Lands, sometimes translated as "paradise" in English, on Earth. The period after the Heian period moved toward more austere Zen designs in which sand sometimes symbolized water, rocks sometimes symbolized mountains, and flowers became symbolic of forests. This Zen period of design gave way in the 15th and 16th centuries to the chado style of design based around the meditative aspects of the tea ceremony.


The initial period of water gardens were symbolic of the peaceful tranquility and beauty in the Pure Lands of the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The water represented the ocean of samsara, or cyclical life, from which all sentient being would eventually seek escape. Zen designs included sand or small pebbles symbolizing water and rocks symbolizing islands or mountain ranges. The water elements were often raked to mimic the waves of earlier water based gardens. Later chado period gardens that tied tea with the water garden worked to express the connection of humans to the natural environment.


The lotus has often played a key role in Japanese water gardens. The lotus has a complex symbolism in Buddhism. It rises from the muck and mud to bloom with exquisite beauty. In that respect, it is symbolic of human life moving from unenlightened to enlightenment. Other water lilies similar to lotus were used in smaller gardens.

Association With Tea

Beginning in the 15th and 16th century, the water garden began to be closely associated with the chado tea ceremony. The water garden was designed to remind participants in the tea ceremony of Buddhist tenets and certain secret Buddhist teachings and principles. The water gardens were designed to work hand in hand with the process of the tea ceremony to accomplish this goal.

Modern Resurrection

In modern times, the existence of texts detailing the design and specifications of the elements of water gardens from previous ages has resulted in the creation of many historically accurate water garden recreations. Although to a westerner the sand and rock gardens may not initially appear to be water gardens, the Buddhist principle of emptiness results in a view that they are in ultimate reality water gardens because they contain elements and movements symbolic of water. Earlier Heian period gardens are also commonly recreated with fine attention to historic detail.

Keywords: Japanese cultural symbolism, Buddhist symbolism, Japanese history

About this Author

Although he grew up in Latin America, Mr. Ma is a writer based in Denver. He has been writing since 1987 and has written for NPR, AP, Boeing, Ford New Holland, Microsoft, RAHCO International, Umax Data Systems and other manufacturers in Taiwan. He studied creative writing at Mankato State University in Minnesota. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, English and reads Spanish.