What are Zen gardens?

Unlike a typical ornamental garden that grows flowers and lush greenery or features fountains and waterfalls, a Zen garden is sparse and features only sand, stones, gravel, and every once in a while, a few pieces of moss and bamboo for fencing. If there should be plants, they are few and well-chosen. The Japanese styled garden attempts to keep the garden design as minimalist as possible so that even the smallest features stand out in the garden.

The Zen Buddhist monks created Zen gardens in the sixth century to aid in their meditation and in teaching and understanding Zen concepts and principles. Although the design of the gardens has undergone refinements, the basic structure remains the same.

The Zen gardens we see today started to make an appearance outside Japanese Buddhist temples around the 11th century. Their main purpose is to provide the monks with a harmonious and peaceful place to walk while contemplating the teachings of Buddha.

Elements of a Zen Garden


Stones are the structural basis of the zen garden. They are also used for bridges or as stepping pads on pathways. Symbolically, they represent islands. Based on their characteristic shape, they could represent any one of the five elements.

  • Kikyaku are reclining stones which represent the earth. They are placed in the foreground as root stone to anchor harmony to the garden.
  • Taido stones are vertical and tall stones which symbolize high trees and are therefore placed in a garden to represent the wood element. They are put at the back of rock groupings as a backdrop.
  • Reisho stones are vertical stones that represent metal and are therefore considered steady and strong. They are often set up with Taido stones.
  • Shigyo stones, because their shapes arch or branch out, represent the fire element and are placed in a Zen garden next to other shapes.
  • Shintal is flat horizontal rocks, which represent water. They harmonize rock groupings in a garden.


River-polished cobble-like pebbles (as small as peas to as large as potatoes) are used to create fields as a base for art or to outline pathways.


Sand and white fine gravels, which cover the greater area of ground, are used to represent water. They are raked to create a rippled or flowing effect.

Gates and bamboo fences

A gate that defines the garden symbolizes the idea of the garden as a restricted place of peace and quiet separated from the outside world.

Bamboos are used to build fences with simple picket designs or intricate or elaborate patterns. They serve as a functional enclosure as well as a vital part of the garden’s overall design.

Basin and lanterns

A water basin is used for ritual washing. A naturally hollowed rock may be used for this purpose, or a container may be carved from metal, ceramic, or stone.

Lanterns symbolize enlightenment. Tradition dictates that gardens be kept minimalist, so every piece has to have a purpose.


Bridges are incorporated into a Zen garden design to symbolize a person’s journey between worlds or dimensions. A reflective walk across a bridge may mean moving from the world of humans into the wider world of all beings and forms.


Cherry trees, well-loved for their delicate pink flowers in spring, are a favourite feature tree. Also often found are different pines and plum trees, texture plants (nandina, bamboo, hostas), and shade-loving bloomers (camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons).

Buddha statue

Statues of Buddha are both garden art and essential elements of spirituality. Carved from stone or sculpted with ceramic or metal, a figure of Buddha is usually placed in areas of contemplation and meditation.

You may want to create your own Zen garden. There are downloadable plans online. You may also get ideas from visiting Asian gardens.

Or you may start really small. There are mini Zen garden sets available in online shops. They come in 12-inch x 7-inch wood frames and are suitable for your home coffee table or office desk. They even come with miniature rakes, so you could create your own meditative patterns in the sand.

Have fun however you plan to get started on creating your own Zen garden!


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