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The Zen Garden Interpreted

by Rachelle Allen-Sherwood

It is very hard to explain why this Zen garden affects you. Suddenly you feel a great peace and feel completely happy just to be sitting there… All your mind wants to do is to be there and take in tiny details like the shapes of the rocks and little patches of purple in the dark green of the moss.”  — Visitor’s response to the Zen rock garden at The Three Wheels Temple in London

Japanese Dry Landscape Gardens, also known as Zen Rock Gardens, are a physical expression of Zen ideas about Emptiness or the Void.  The earliest such gardens were created in Buddhist temple precincts as places for reflection on religious teaching. Associated with stillness and meditation, Zen gardens may be designed not so much to be moved through as to be contemplated like a picture.

Wang Renfu ink landscape (early 20th Century)

Zen gardens were originally inspired by Chinese poetry and ink landscape paintings of the 9th and 10th centuries, with their characteristics of desolation,  melancholy  and minimalism.

The first dry landscape garden was created in the 14th century by the Zen monk and garden maker Muso Soseki. The most famous example is in Kyoto at Ryoan-ji, “Temple of the Peaceful Dragon”. Ryoan-ji was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. Arid and enigmatic, the garden might have been designed 500 years ago but its timeless appeal continues to attract thousands of visitors every year.

The Zen garden at Ryoan-ji, Kyoto

 It’s a mystery how a few dozen rocks, a scattering of gravel and dabs of clay can convey anything like the vastness of the universe or help to invoke a contemplative state.

And yet the simple act of standing a stone upright can be spiritually and aesthetically powerful. One thinks, for example, of the dolmens of Stonehenge or Carmac.  Lafcadio Hearn, an international writer who became a naturalized citizen of Japan, wrote “Until you can feel that stones have character, that the stones have tones, values, the whole artistic meaning of a Japanese garden cannot be revealed to you.”

But artistic meaning in Zen garden design is more than just bringing the key elements together. There are no plants or flowers in Zen gardens, only open space and strategically placed rocks of various sizes, set in beds of white gravel that has been raked into straight or wavy lines.

The purpose of these dry landscapes is to distil the essence of an authentic landscape, to convey an impression of a genuine landscape in miniature. The ideal is a garden that, according to Hearn, is both “a picture and a poem”, creating “not merely an impression of beauty – but a mood in the soul”.

The Royal Horticultural Society Garden at Wisley

It’s the deep thought behind the design, the careful placement of all the elements, and the attention to detail in execution that count. And once the garden has been created, it’s all about daily dedication to maintenance: at Three Wheels Temple, for example, it takes three to five hours to pick the gravel clean, rake it flat and then rake it again into patterns.

 Not every garden that is Zen in style represents an attempt to convey mystery or evoke the serenity of Ryoan-ji.

Rooftop garden above the Brunei Gallery, SOAS London

At the Royal Horticultural Society Garden at Wisley in Surrey, for example, a Zen-themed  garden serves as a backdrop for a display of potted Bonsai trees on black steel plinths. The focus is less the dry landscape setting and more the display of plants.

Another garden, on the rooftop of the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, is a serene space with a compact, contemporary Zen-themed design. The peaceful surroundings are a pleasant surprise in the heart of London. But the angular rocks and their sharply symmetrical placement appear to divide rather than unify the space, and someone looking for more of a sense of depth, mystery or spaciousness might be left wanting.

The Zen garden at Three Wheels Temple, London

By contrast, the garden at Three Wheels Temple in London was designed after extensive research into Zen gardens in Kyoto, including Ryoan-ji.  Professor John White,  a retired art historian, author and poet, worked with Reverend Professor Kemmyo Taira Sato to create a complete and compact universe within a small and intimate space.

All the materials, from thatch reeds to gravel,  originated in the UK. Reverend Sato and Professor White spent a year “rock hunting” on cliffs and in rivers all over the UK, and sourced the twelve main rocks from locations as far away as Cumbria and Aberdeenshire.

Rev. Professor Kemmyo Taira Sato

It took another full year to create the garden. The work was carried out with a nod towards traditional methods — a master gardener from Kyoto was brought in to supervise — but Professor White’s uniquely British vision  brought an extra layer of meaning to the garden: the rocks were set out according to the Fibonacci Sequence.  The result is not an imitation, but rather an anglicised interpretation, of the Japanese model.

An ancient Japanese master described Zen gardens as “Paintings painted without brushes, sutras (Buddhist teachings) written without characters.”

Both tourists and Buddhist practitioners are attracted to the distinctive atmosphere and design of these dry landscape gardens. And just as Zen Buddhism in its 800-year history has deeply impacted both Chinese and Japanese society, in its own way the Zen garden has also influenced the thoughts and working methods of many artists, working in many genres, in both East and West.


Rachelle Allen-Sherwood is an artist and Zen practitioner.

Born and raised in Japan and now living in England, Rachelle has studied under Master Gudo Wafu Nishijima in Tokyo since the mid 1980s. Her main focus in visual art is spatiality. She works primarily with Sumi and Chinese ink to create art inspired by Japanese calligraphy and ancient architectural structures such as Japanese dry rock gardens and pre-historic Indian mounds. The work of modern architects such as Louis Kahn, Kengo Kuma and Peter Zumthor are also a strong influence. She also admires the way artists like Bill Viola, Jackson Pollock, Isamu Noguchi, John Cage and Ad Reinhardt create work which transcends the limitations of the frame and enters directly into the viewer’s space.

Find more about Rachelle on her website:

Read The Zen Inspiration also by Rachelle Allen-Sherwood

Three Wheels Temple is a Shin Buddhist Temple founded in 1994.  The quotation at the beginning of this article appears in “A Zen Garden in London” on the web site of the Religious Education and Environment Programme

This article was brought to Glow Magazine by Cynthia Barlow Marrs

Cynthia Barlow Marrs SGFA draws and paints and writes about artists from her home-based studio in Windsor. She is a Council Member of the Society of Graphic Fine Art. Please visit her on her website  Cynthia’s next solo exhibition is “The Portable Forest” at Ripley Arts Centre in Bromley, Kent from 26th June to 20th July 2012. Her next group exhibition is “Paper Works” at R K Burt Gallery in Southwark, London from 3rd June to 13th July 2012.

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