The Japanese rock garden is known by a few names: dry-landscape style, Zen garden, flat garden style, and Kare-Sansui (which means “empty landscape”). It is one of the most well known of the Japanese garden designs, and although it is elegant in its simplicity, it is probably the most difficult one to design correctly.
The Japanese Zen garden first appeared as a new garden art form during the Zen Buddhist period – approximately in the 6th century A.D. In contrast to the large Hill and Pond gardens, the dry landscape gardens flourished in the smaller areas of Zen temples and monasteries. The monks of these temples used the garden as a place of meditation and contemplation, which these gardens are ideally suited for.
Before you even attempt to create one of these Zen gardens, you must understand the purpose for which they are built. These dry gardens are literally works of art. In fact, other than to rake the sand or gravel each morning, these gardens are never entered or “used” like a normal garden would be. Instead a raised platform or veranda is situated next to the landscape specifically for viewing purposes.
The stark simpleness of the landscape is what makes this garden so unique. The sand/gravel used within the area represents water, the rocks placed within represent islands. Careful placement of the rocks and the design of the area itself is very important. In fact, Japan actually has what is called “Rock Masters” who can be hired to come and place the rocks within the garden. This should give you some indication on how important it is to carefully plan out what is needed for this garden.
To appreciate this garden, you must understand the symbolism behind it. “Buddhists believe that the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth can only be broken when a person gains enlightenment.” One of the ways to enlightenment is through meditation and a heightened sense of awareness. By ridding oneself of the human conditions of greed, passion, and other such human failings, a person will be able to better see and understand the things that really matter.
Therefore, this dry landscape Japanese garden design provides the perfect place to sit and gaze in quiet contemplation with no distractions. Rarely are any plants found in such a garden design. A monastery in Kyoto called the Ryoan-ji contains only mosses which grow in and around the rocks.
To build this type of garden you will need a flat area and preferably one that is small in size. The Zen garden is not suited for large, expansive areas. It is meant to be viewed from a close range and usually from one point only.