The elements used in Asian garden designs are the same elements used in Western gardens. These elements are arranged very differently, however, and they are often much smaller in size. The West longs for the sublime, the monumental, and the larger than life. In the East, serenity and the quiet contemplation of simple beauty is preferred, so gardens here are built to calm the mind rather than impress the imagination.
Water is always a part of an Eastern style garden. Even in a very traditional Zen garden, which uses only rocks and sand, the etchings in the sand are actually symbols of waves of water. Most Eastern gardens, however, use water itself as a major element. Waterfalls, streams, and ponds appear in both Japanese and Chinese garden forms.
The intent of Asian garden design is to release the mind of all sense of self, so that the True Self can be experienced without thought through intuition alone. This state of mind is known as consciousness awareness, or Nirvana. Water symbolizes this desirably state of pure Being freed from the limitations and suffering of individual form.
One thing you will so often notice if you look at Asian garden designs is that water is always flowing, and that it is often flowing from multiple forms that we in the West often separate. Whereas we may build a stream, a fountain, or a pond independently of one another, gardens in the east will have a waterfall that flows into a stream that feeds into a pond that flows over rocks into another stream.
Why is this?
The issue is the different emphasis that different cultures place on the importance of form. We think of form as being essential to individual consciousness.
In Asia, attachment to form is the enemy of true consciousness, the negation of the truly wide awake state that water in all its aspects represents. Imagine a mind free from the brain that becomes part of a greater mind. It can still think, but it is no longer thinking alone.
In Asian garden design water flows in a manner that encourages your mind to become just that, and to let go of all the thoughts and mental pictures that try to tell you who you are.
Rocks, trees, and vegetation are also important parts of a Japanese or Chinese garden. You often see a great deal more aquatic vegetation than you do in many Western gardens. Lily pads and water dwelling grasses are often planted by gardeners in the East. This is a deliberate symbol of organic life emerging out of pure Being, and ultimately returning to pure Being.
Rocks and sculptures are used to represent a universe of inorganic forms that support organic life. You will notice that Asian garden design uses rocks, steps, and even sculptures to uplift the living elements of the garden. Just as life lives on planets, and trees and animals live on hills, an Easter garden will use structures to create living environments for plants, butterflies, birds, and even wildlife.
Most gardens in the East designs feature more diminutive forms that those to which we in the West are accustomed. Even if a garden is large in size, the elements themselves are carefully proportioned so as not to overwhelm the mind’s eye. An object that is too large can trigger fantasy and inner dialogue with an image too big to fit within the imagination.
This is counterproductive to the quest for Nirvana, the formless wide awake state, and is considered by Eastern people a form of egotism best avoided in Asian garden design.