This post is part of our ongoing series featuring the works of Professor LeBoeuf 's students in her Introduction to Religions of Asia course at Whittier College!
Originated in Japan, the Zen rock garden redefines the definition of a garden. It isn't a place to find rows of lush trees, a pond filled with beautiful fish, or lawns of grass, flowers, or produce. Instead there’s sand, gravel, and sparse scattering of moss. Some may say that there isn’t much to look at with its dull hue. However, this unique landscaping style has come to be has fundamental philosophy is behind its creation. This style of Japanese garden depicts the core of Buddhism. The garden echoes the Buddhist teaching about the never-ending cycle of death and rebirth, samsara. On the psychological level, it shows one to recognize the meaning of life and see the beauty of nature.
It was until the 11th century, in the Heian period, where dry rocky landscapes were built as a part of mainstream gardens. They were called "ishitate-so", meaning "monks who arrange rocks." It wasn't until the Muromachi period (14th to 16th century) that the Zen rock garden was fully developed. A great Zen monk, Muso Soseki, was said to be the father of Zen landscaping. He is known for creating some of the oldest rock gardens and brought popularity to this landscaping technique.
Garden makers stripped nature bare to the bone and created Zen gardens mainly out of rocks and sand. This revealed the true substance of life and nature. Sometimes small evergreen bushes were added but it wasn't used to outshine the core aspect of the garden, the sand and rocks. This doesn’t mean that Zen gardens rejected the tradition of pond gardens of the earlier days. Zen rock gardens are basically pond gardens without water. Zen monks draw wavy patterns in the sand with a rake as a way to mimic the movements of streams. All the rocks in the garden also represent elements found in regular Japanese gardens like islands, mountains, trees, bridges and even animals.
Muso Soseki wrote a poem summing up the idea of the imitation of water and land in Zen gardens in, "Ode to the Dry Landscape" saying, “Without a speck of dust being raised, the mountains tower up; without a single drop falling, the streams plunge into the valley.”
Traditionally, Zen rock gardens are meant to be sacred places for Zen monks to perform daily meditation, and are not meant for recreational use. The Japanese word "niwa" means "garden", but in the past it used to mean, “a ritual space”. To attain enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, one must undergo long periods of sitting meditation as well as physical work. At the rock garden, Zen monks contemplate upon nature and search for freedom of the mind. The true purpose behind the sand raking isn't to create something pleasing, but to train their own thought.
Zen is a branch of Buddhism. The main activity of being a Zen Buddhist to study oneself and regain oneself in their original nature. This is sometimes referred to as Buddha nature. In Zen Buddhism, everyone is born with Buddha nature. However, as we age we become attached to earthly attachments, desires, and experiences to things we have encountered. To find our inner Buddha nature doesn't mean to forget everything and leave it all behind, but it means to see things with an open mind and ready to accept life that isn't controlled by ego, desires, prejudice or selfish obsession. Without finding our Buddha nature our activities will always be affected by our preconceived judgements and ideas of the world. We take in what the world shows us and don’t bother to find the true understandings of things. By stripping a garden to its bare bones, Zen monks create a image of life in its rawest state of being. Which helps one be reminded of their personal nature and connect to the world.
In a Zen rock garden, the rocks represents mountains or trees or animals and the sand represents water, rivers, and streams. Yet, they are just rocks and sand. This shows how we can manipulate nature and give meanings to things around us. This reflects how humans manipulate nature and assign meanings to things around us and as a result of that, fool ourselves into becoming obsessed with those empty values. For example, diamonds are something lots of people adore and long to own. Many are more than willing to pay high prices for a tiny piece of this gemstone. The diamond is supposed to represent luxury, beauty and love. Sometimes, it can become a reason for envy, greed and superficial happiness. But in reality, it’s just a shiny rock. Contemplating upon the bareness and simplicity of a Zen rock garden, one may learn how to perceive the true substance of nature and see things beyond their meaningless appearances, and as a result, can find the true nature within themselves.
Eliott Bishop Bergerson is a first year student at Whittier College. He is currently majoring in Physics with a emphasis in Astronomy and minoring in Political Science. He also plays water polo for Whittier College as their goalie and has been playing water polo for 10 years. H
e's been raised in the Catholic faith, but loves learning about other cultures and their faith, and also their food.