What is Zen?

Very basically, the word "zen" means to meditate, to observe or to see. Zen teaches that you gain enlightenment and experience realization through meditation and intuition. Of course there could be pages written on what zen is, but I'll just stick to the gardening aspect.

What is a Zen garden?

A zen garden is also called a Japanese rock garden. A zen garden is a place for reflection, meditation and enlightenment. It is a place to regain calm strength to wisely face the obstacles in life. Having place to rejuvenate is the purpose of a zen garden.

The elements and aesthetic qualities of a zen garden are simple and complex at the same time. There are seven principles of a zen garden. These are very important to your design. The tools and materials are simple, but design and placement are important considerations.

Seven Principles

1.Fukinsei: This principle is asymmetry. Asymmetry equals movement. The center is empty as in bonsai and things are not equal on all sides. There is balance and harmony, though.

2. Kanso: This principle is simplicity. Simplicity equals truth and cleanliness; that makes sense for a calming, serene space.

3. Koko: This is basically the idea that things get better with age. Patina on a lantern or moss on a rock and weathered wood are examples of koko. Old equals interesting and wisdom.

4. Yugen: This, in my opinion, is found in some of the best gardens. It is a sense of mystery. Bends, corners, and shadows keep you looking and wondering what's there.

5. Datsuzoku: This principle is one that I think we all strive for whether we know it or not. It is said to mean childlike wonder, fantasy-like or otherwordly. Have you ever been in a garden and said, "This is so magical!"? That is Datsuzoku.

6. Seijaku: This is simply stillness, like a painting.

7.Shizen: This means unpretentious or natural.

So now that we know the aesthetic zen principles, we can put them to use.


As I said before, the tools needed for this project are simple. You will need sand. You need enough sand for your area to be 2 inches deep. Gravel will also work. You will need weed prevention fabric. As for the rocks, you need a minimum of three. If you want to have more, use odd numbers. Even numbers go against principle of fukinsei. If you want to have some small evergreen shrubs or alpines you can add those to the list. Then there is the material you are going to use for the frame to keep your sand in. Use 2 by 4s or railroad ties. Whatever you have that will hold sand in your space will work. Finally you will need a small rake.


This will take some thought. Do you want it angular or flowing? Will there be hills of grass left in the sand to simulate islands in the sea? You will need your place, a place of reflection where you can see most of the design. All of the most beautiful parts should be able to be seen from your place. You should be able to sit and relax. You should not be able to view distractions like, roads, buildings,toys or neighbors. That is unless they make you more peaceful.

Now that you have your shape and your place, you can plan the layout of the rocks, logs, even fountains, using the seven zen principles.

Getting to work

Step 1: Mark out the area and build your frame, or what ever you are using to contain your sand.

Step 2: Lay the weed prevention cloth. This step is very important. The Zen garden needs to be clean, manicured and weed-free. That is where Kanso and Seijaku come in.

Step 3: The sand or gravel goes in now. Make sure you have enough. You want to be able to carve ripples, waves and patterns.

Now that the sand is in and you have your grass hills or maybe even a potted shrub, it's time to add the rocks. The rocks can represent scaled-down mountains. Upright and tall rocks represent heaven, flat rocks represent earth, and diagonal rocks represent humans. That's where the three rocks come in. Five and seven are also asymmetrical numbers that would be pleasant. Even numbers of rocks go against principle Fukinsei. The rocks should be sunk into the ground enough to look as though they have been there always. That is an example of Koko.

There is one last thing you can add to your zen garden if you find a bit more green pleasing and calming. A small oasis of alpines or shrubs surrounded by a fence and gate are also part of a zen garden. The gate represents enlightenment. Gates also represent finding a way out of confinement and out of the darkness.

Shibui is the goal. Using all of the aesthetic principles together creates shibui. It means simple, classic elegant beauty. Think about the principles and the objects you use and you will have a true zen garden.