Zen and Meditation Gardens: Glimpses of Heaven on Earth
THC Editorial Team July 21, 2021
- What Is a Meditation Garden?
- The Origins of Meditation Gardens
- Elements of a Meditation Garden
- What Are the Potential Benefits of Meditation Gardens?
- Some Final Thoughts
The garden is a spiritual place where the mind dwells.1
What Is a Meditation Garden?
Shunmyo Masuno, a Zen Buddhist priest and a leading Japanese garden designer, shares that “the garden is a spiritual place where the mind dwells.”1 Meditation gardens, or Zen gardens, are consciously designed environments intended to provide a welcoming, quiet, and calm retreat from the chaotic modern world. These intimate, meditative spaces offer their users a place outside the noise and clutter of daily routines to unwind, reflect, and more naturally access their senses, intuition, and inner being.
Unlike a regular garden, which often includes play structures, brightly colored flowers, or vegetable beds, a meditation garden typically highlights soothing water features, winding paths, symbolic statues, and lush greenery while incorporating straight lines and minimalist design.1 However, many types of gardens, including botanical gardens, can be a suitable place for someone to meditate.
Meditation gardens vary greatly depending on their size and scale. Large gardens may feature more elaborate designs with trees, water elements, bridges, and wildlife. In contrast, a small garden might contain only a winding path, a few polished rocks, a seating area such as a bench, baritone wind chimes, and sand in a small tray.
Meditation gardens are a part of various cultures and are found in different regions of the world. For example, Japanese Zen gardens bear some similarities to traditional Iranian gardens. Zen gardens reflect Shinto ideas about harmony and respect for nature, and Iranian gardens are considered “the symbol of heaven on earth,”2 invoking wonder and peacefulness. These gardens are believed to have therapeutic and healing properties.3
Overall, the goal of such gardens is to offer a meditative space, an opportunity to pause, to find a sense of balance, to reduce emotional and physical stress, and to increase focus, relax, and cultivate a sense of peace. They aim to create places where meditators can experience a deep, mindful connection to their consciousness.1
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Photo by Thor Alvis on Unsplash.
The Origins of Meditation Gardens
The exact origins of meditation are debated, but it has been part of Eastern societies for thousands of years as a spiritual practice.4
Meditation gardens, however, appear to have originated in 6th-century Japan during the reign of Empress Suiko as a component of Mahayana Buddhism. This sect of Buddhism focused primarily on mindfulness rather than the meticulous study of scriptures or ritual worship.5 These initial gardens typically featured an island within a pond—the pond represented the ocean; and the island, Mount Horai of Chinese mythology (where elixirs of immortality were developed).1
Persians have cultivated formal gardens since the Achaemenid times (500–300 BC) and developed elaborate gardens according to the mandala design during the Sassanian era (AD 226–641). The Iranian gardens were further refined after the introduction and influence of Islam from the 600s.6
With much of the attention on effective meditation, Zen gardens were a sanctuary to help people calm, declutter, and focus their minds. Using features such as sand, rocks, pebbles, and sometimes native plants, flowing water, or bridges, these gardens evoke feelings of peace, tranquility, and calmness. In one common practice within meditation gardens, people rake the sand in swirling patterns to relax or concentrate on the texture of the lines as a focus exercise.7
Elements of a Meditation Garden
As a meditative space, the key elements of a meditation garden are simplicity and removing distractions. That usually means no cell phones, tablets, or televisions. Research shows that the natural sounds of the meditation garden itself and the absence of man-made noises positively affect well-being by lowering stress levels, decreasing pain, and improving mood.8
Harmonious asymmetry is an element often expressed in Japanese Zen gardens. “Related to the concept of incompleteness, or fukanzen, asymmetry suggests movement and effects an understanding of the beauty of the organic irregularity of the natural world.”1 In contrast, Persian gardens are known for their geometric and aesthetic symmetry and balance.3