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 The Zen of Japanese Rock Gardens

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PostSubject: The Zen of Japanese Rock Gardens   Mon Mar 26, 2012 10:05 am



Japanese rock gardens (“Karesansui”), sometimes known as “Zen gardens” thanks to the influence of Zen Buddhism, are a unique expression of Japanese culture and garden design as they utilize gravel to represent water along with other elements to create unique miniature landscapes.

Understanding the Thinking Behind Japanese Rock Gardens
To understand the thinking that goes into the design of Japanese rock gardens, its important to have a basic understanding of Zen Buddhism as Japanese rock gardens are often found at Zen Buddhist temples of meditation. Specifically, Zen Buddhism is a distinct form of Buddhism that emerged from China and places a great amount of emphasis on self-realization through seated meditation. Hence, Japanese rock gardens tend to be laid out in such a way as to be best appreciated from one vantage point – usually a seated position where one is intended to sit and meditate.

Moreover, the act of raking a Japanese rock garden’s gravel representation of water into patterns to represent waves is done for more than just aesthetic reasons. In fact, Zen priests will patiently rake the gravel in order to sharpen their concentration for meditation. In addition, the raking itself is considered to be a form of creative expression as the gravel can be raked in such a way as to create any number of patterns that are limited only to what the human mind can imagine (and of course, the type of rake used).

Within this gravel representation of water, other elements such as stones are often used to represent natural scenery such as islands or mountains and sometimes even boats or people. However, “setting stones” (known in Japanese as ishi wo taten koto) is an art form in and of itself as there are complex sets of rules that determine the placement of every stone within a Japanese rock garden. For example: If a stone is leaning, it must have a supporting stone and if a stone has an unattractive side, it should placed in such a way as to emphasize its attractive face and draw attention away from the unattractive side.

In addition to stones and stone groupings, Japanese rock gardens will use moss to represent land or forested land while shrubs and trees will be carefully sculpted in order to recreate actual landscapes or landscape scenes from Japanese or Chinese ink paintings.



Moreover, Japanese rock gardens may also use a technique known as “borrowed scenery” or shakkei. Specifically, the designer of the garden will take into account and incorporate existing scenery such as any hills or mountains behind the garden to create the illusion of a much bigger garden space that extends into the distance.

Famous Japanese Rock Gardens
The most famous and among the simplest of all Japanese rock gardens is located at the Ryōan-ji temple or “The Temple of the Dragon at Peace” in the imperial city of Kyoto. The Ryōan-ji Japanese rock garden was created some time in the early 1500s and consists of a walled enclosure measuring 30 meters by 10 meters. Within this space, there are no trees – just a sea of raked white pebbles surrounding 15 moss covered rocks. However and from no matter what angle a visitors stands, only 14 of the rocks will be visible at one time.

Moreover, scientific analysis of the Ryōan-ji Japanese rock garden has revealed that its design has been precisely structured to align with the architecture of the Zen Buddhist temple that it is a part of. Hence, the Ryōan-ji garden is considered to be a masterpiece of Japanese rock garden ingenuity and has influenced countless other gardens in Japan and around the world



Ryoan-ji

Another renowned Japanese rock garden is Daitoku-ji, which is also located in a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Like Ryōan-ji, the Daitoku-ji Japanese rock garden consists of a large rectangular space that is also mostly covered with raked gravel and surrounded by a ground moat that is set with both rocks and a symbolic stream. In addition, the garden and the temple complex itself are both noted for their intentional replication of both Chinese and Japanese landscape paintings.



Daitoku-ji




Portland Japanese Garden


Finally, renowned Japanese rock gardens are not just confined to Japan as the Portland Japanese Garden, considered one of the best Japanese gardens outside of Japan, has two excellent examples. Specifically, two of the Portland Japanese Garden’s sub gardens, the Sand and Stone Garden and the Flat Garden, contain seas of carefully raked sand surrounding weathered boulders.

To learn more about Japanese rock gardens and other Japanese, check out this Bowdoin College website about Japanese gardens in and around Kyoto. The site not only contains plenty of pictures but diagrams as well to help you get a feel for the design of Japanese gardens in general.

cr.

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