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Zen Garden Facts

By Ma Wen Jie ; Updated September 21, 2017
Water plants can be a part of a Zen garden.

Although Zen gardens are associated with dry gardens in the West, there are many aspects to garden design around Zen temples. Zen design incorporates simplicity, symbolism and design to create an environment well-suited to meditation and contemplation.

Cultural Basis

Gardens are a part of many Japanese Zen monasteries. Although Zen gardens are associated with dry gardens, especially rock gardens, in the West, gardens in Zen temples incorporate water, living plants, rock and other dry elements in harmony with the principles of Zen Buddhism.

Dry Gardens

Dry Zen gardens use pebbles or sand raked into patterns around larger objects such as stones. The pebbles or sand often represent water, and the larger objects represent islands or land masses. Dry gardens are generally objects for viewing and meditation and are rarely entered. The Ryoan-ji garden in Kyoto is a dry garden that was first constructed in the year 1480.

Water Gardens

Gardens around Zen temples in Japan often incorporate water in the form of pools or pots for growing lotus or water lilies. Placement and positioning is key, with the Zen aesthetic of simplicity. Water, whether present in physical form or represented by the positioning of pebbles in a dry garden, is an important symbol in Zen philosophy.


In addition to basic simplicity in Zen gardens, the principle of wabi is important in the implementation of a garden. One way to think of wabi is as a refined sense of melancholy and loneliness. For example, leaving a lotus in place after it has died so that its dried stems and seed pod stick up above the ice in a frozen pond is a reminder of the concept of impermanence and the transitory nature of beauty.


Another concept that is important in Zen garden design is meigakure. By applying meigakure, a part of the whole overview of the garden is hidden, preventing a person from seeing the overall layout and view of the garden. This creates a sense of mystery and discovery. One example of this principle is shielding the destination at the end of a path from the path's start, thus creating a place to be discovered.


About the 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.