The Zen Garden Way of Healing

The Buddhist Channel, 22 June 2023

Kyoto, Japan – 14th century Japan. Zen Buddhist monks begin their morning by sweeping the grounds of their daily Zazen practice site. The rakes were used to push aside dried leaves, twigs, sands and small gravels. As their master have taught, every rake was an opportunity for awakening. And so they plough on mindfully.

Sometimes, their playful side takes over. Soon they notice that raking the sands or gravel create patterns. It reminds them of the flow of water or the movement of the wind. Then another playful episode takes over. Someone was arranging and stacking up stones and rocks on the sand. These structures remind them of landscapes around them, such as mountains, rivers or islands. Soon creating these elements of nature became a mindful exercise. From concentration, mindfulness and a focus on the present moment, they created an exercise of meditation. By doing so, the monks achieved a state of calmness and clarity, and gain insight into the nature of reality.

Zen gardens have a long history and symbolism in Zen Buddhism. The aim of their designs was to create a serene and harmonious space for meditation and contemplation, by evoking a sense of profound calm, balance and harmony.

Today, Zen gardens are still used for their original purpose of providing a peaceful and meditative space, but they can also be found in a variety of other settings, such as public parks, private homes and even office buildings. They are often appreciated for their aesthetic beauty and as a way to bring a sense of calm and tranquillity to a space.

Building a Zen garden offers many benefits as they are cherished as an oasis of therapeutic relief. It is a useful way to watch our actions in the process of creating something with some things. From using whatever elements of nature provided, and with mindfulness carefully applied, a sacred space is born. Here  are the meditational steps for building one.

1. Start with a Mind Infused with Serene Ambience
Zen gardens encapsulate simplicity and minimalism in their design. They typically consist of carefully raked gravel or sand, interspersed with precisely placed rocks, moss, and sparse vegetation. This intentional simplicity serves to create a visually soothing environment that encourages a clear state of mind. The absence of unnecessary clutter or distractions allows individuals to detach from the external noise and find refuge in the present moment. As such, even before starting on a plan to set up such a garden, practice to clear oneself of cluttered and noisy thoughts. This can be done via mindful contemplation. In Buddhist meditation this is called the practice of calming the mind through just observing the in and out of the breath, or Zazen. This exercise, when done correctly and consistently, leads to “samadhi”, a state of deep mental settling where your mind becomes very calm and peaceful. It is like having your thoughts and worries take a break, and you feel a sense of pure joy and contentment.

2. Mindful Raking
With a clear mind as the starting point, decide on the space where your Zen garden will be created. The process begins with raking the sand and gravel. One of the most important benefits of a Zen garden is stress relief. By raking sand and arranging the stones, you start immediately to relax. Repetitive movements help to focus on the present and forget the past and the future. The simple and minimalist design of a Zen garden also reduces visual clutter and noise, which can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. Which leads to….

3. Focus and Concentration
As one work on the garden with mindfulness, such as the attention applied on the movement of each rake, the stacking of stones or arrangement of rocks, focus and concentration will noticeably improve. By observing the details and patterns in the garden, you can train your attention span and enhance your cognitive abilities. Working on the Zen garden can also serve as a reminder to stay focused on your goals and priorities, and to avoid distractions that may hinder your progress.

4. Turning the act of raking into an art of meditation
The act of continuous raking the gravel or sand becomes a meditative exercise, guiding one towards a state of focused awareness. As you engage in this rhythmic and repetitive task, the mind gradually settles, calming the internal chatter and fostering mental clarity. By stimulating a meditative state, Zen gardens enable practitioners to access deep relaxation and rejuvenation. This is the core of Zen philosophy, the practice of mindfulness and meditation. Zen gardens embody these principles by offering a dedicated space for contemplation and introspection.

5. Stimulating Sensory Engagement
Zen gardens appeal not only to the visual senses but also to other faculties, creating a multisensory experience that contributes to their healing effect. The gentle sound of water trickling through a stone fountain, the delicate fragrance of moss and vegetation, and the tactile sensation of carefully placed rocks invite individuals to immerse themselves fully in the present moment. This sensory engagement stimulates a heightened state of awareness, helping to alleviate stress and anxiety while promoting a sense of connectedness with nature.

6. Nature Symbolism and Philosophical Insights
Zen gardens often incorporate symbolic elements that convey profound philosophical concepts. The arrangement of rocks, for instance, may symbolize mountains, islands, or animals, evoking a sense of the natural world and its inherent tranquillity. The careful consideration and placement of each element encourage contemplation of the impermanence and interconnectedness of life. These subtle yet potent symbols offer a gentle reminder of the universal truths that transcend everyday challenges, cultivating a mind-set of acceptance, resilience, and inner peace.

Your Moment of Healing, Serene Ambience
Zen gardens offer a profound and transformative experience, serving as a balm for the weary body and a refuge for the overwhelmed mind. By embodying the principles of simplicity, mindfulness, and connection with nature, these enchanting spaces provide respite from the relentless demands of modern life. Through their serene ambience, meditative qualities, and symbolic elements, Zen gardens facilitate healing for the mind and body, allowing individuals to connect with oneself and nature, and find peace and harmony within.

All images were taken at Tenryuji and Hase-dera temples in Kyoto and Kamakura, Japan. Courtesy of the Buddhist Channel (C) 2023.
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