To understand the enigmatic design of Zen gardens, we should first learn about the practice of Zen as it exists in Japanese monasteries. In a monastery, the practice of Zen is threefold: The student practices zazen (seated meditation), samu (work meditation), and chanting. These practices all serve to unify the body and the mind in a state of intense concentration called samadhi, as well as to support the entire monastic community through the individual’s dedicated and hard work. It is often believed that samadhi is cultivated only during seated meditation. It is, however, just as important to realize this state while cooking, gardening, or scrubbing the toilet as it is during seated practice. In the planning and maintenance of your own Zen garden, you can bring yourself fully into this state of samadhi and therefore be fully present, giving the best of yourself to your garden. If you practice being completely present in your task, you are practicing Zen. But how exactly do you do it in a practical, everyday way?
You practice Zen when you let go of your thoughts and simply follow your breath. In the context of Zen gardening, it may mean consciously removing weeds from your garden one by one, noticing the colors and texture of the weed you are pulling, and observing how the breeze makes them sway from side to side, all the while watching your breath and giving your full attention to this activity. Although this is fundamentally a simple task, it can be quite challenging to do in our world, where we are constantly bombarded with stimuli and digital distractions. But don’t be discouraged. The purpose of this meditation is not to “succeed” in clearing your mind. Rather, it is to bring your focus back to the breath, again and again, and to give yourself fully to the moment by offering it your full attention. Your best effort in that moment, your commitment to bringing your attention repeatedly back to the breath and to the activity, whether you are sleepy or angry or distracted—that is the right way to practice Zen and to bring to your garden creation, nurturing, and tending in turn.
When you train your mind in this way, you can more fully appreciate life as it is rather than how you think it should be. Even having small expectations (like those regarding how your garden should turn out) can keep you from enjoying your garden as it actually is. When you practice Zen, you practice having a clear focus, so your mind is fully present in each moment of your life. You can release those thoughts and memories that hurt you or that keep you from fully being yourself. In this state, neither trauma from your past nor fear of the future colors the present. You live each moment perfectly: spontaneously, joyfully, and embodying who you truly are at your core rather than who you were conditioned to be. This immaculate quality of mind can be accessed any time simply by bringing your full attention to the present moment. If you refine your mind in such a way, creativity will flow from you consistently and naturally, resulting in an even more harmonious and authentic garden.
After centuries of intriguing the public, Zen gardens continue to mystify and fascinate their viewers. In Japan, the most famous rock gardens still attract hundreds of visitors daily. Some consisting almost exclusively of rocks, these gardens have not changed in appearance, even after almost a millennium. In fact, you can visit more than one thousand traditional Zen gardens without leaving the city of Kyoto.
Fascination with Zen gardens now extends far beyond the borders of the Japanese islands. More than 300 public Japanese gardens, many featuring Zen layouts, can be found in North America alone. As Zen gardens have emerged all over the world and grown in popularity, their identities have changed, especially in the West. These gardens no longer serve primarily to aid monks in their difficult Zen training, but they continue to evoke a sense of curiosity in their viewers that can be satisfied only through contemplation.
In an increasingly fast-paced world, with more and more of our lives spent in front of screens, the need for quiet reflection and time spent in nature is even more essential. The expectation of constant productivity often demands constant activity, leaving little time for self-care, reflection, and contemplation. When time is sparse and the outdoors seems too far out of reach, Zen gardens can offer you the serenity and tranquility you need to recharge. The garden expects nothing from you; it simply offers you a serene environment in which to explore your self , to simply be .
By partaking in Zen gardening, you mindfully immerse yourself in a craft that despite being hundreds of years old is still relevant today. Zen gardens appeal to the eye of the trained artist just as much as they do to that of the nature lover. Like Shigemori, you can pay tribute to an ancient practice while incorporating contemporary elements into your garden design. The Zen gardens’ more recent aesthetic influences from the West break from the stringent traditional design rules of the past and free you to fully explore your creative potential. With fewer rules to adhere to, you have more room to play.