Zen Garden Designs

Zen gardens are very unique landscaping designs that are also known as “Japanese Rock Gardens.” The word “Zen” means “dry” and the Japanese word for this type of garden is karesansui, meaning dry landscape. Consisting almost exclusively of stones and sand, this type of garden became very popular in Japan during the Shogun era (1185-1573AD), when feudal lords sought to landscape their estates in emulation of Buddhist temples. Monks frequently used such gardens to represent complex Universal truths in simple forms, and they frequently used them as places of meditation to calm and clear their minds.

Although American popular culture commonly refers to anything that looks Japanese or Eastern as a “Zen garden,” a true karesansui never contains water. Instead, it uses gravel and sand to symbolize water. Usually the gravel is white or near white in coloration, although this is not a hard-fast rule in landscaping. The reason that sand and gravel are used as water substitutes is because they can be intricately sculpted in ways that water cannot. Using only a rake, a landscaper can depict ripples, sea waves, rushing rivers, or still, quiet lakes. Every so often, the gardener will alter these patterns to reflect the Buddhism belief that the only thing constant in the Universe is change itself. Even those things that appear to be the most fixed of forms are slowly being altered by unseen forces all around us. In many Buddhist temples even to this day, monks remind themselves of this truth by raking the sand in their Zen gardens while they meditate, seeking a still mind in the perfection of linear form, and creative insight in curved patterns of motion that wrap harmoniously around alternating forms.


In most Zen gardens, rocks take the place of vegetation. This is another aspect of their design that makes these landscapes highly unique. Stones carefully placed in the sand create focal points in the endless fluidity that surrounds them, allowing an infinite variety of wave forms to accent their structure and positioning. Buddhist monks, long before Einstein, understood the relationship between matter and energy. The interplay of sand and stone directly reflects this relativistic relationship with a set of simple, natural symbols that are easy to work with and peaceful to behold. The relationship between light sand and dark stone is another important symbolic element, and directly correlates to the concepts of yin and yang. It must be emphasized that black is NOT a symbol of evil in the Eastern World, but instead represents the receptive elements of the mind. In a similar way, white has nothing at all to do with our moral concept of good. It symbolizes the mind’s ability to express itself through intentional action. The careful placement of darker stones in lighter sand (or vice versa) is therefore never intended to represent a clash of opposites. Instead, it is meant to represent the dual nature of the mind as it perceives reality through contemplation, then acts upon it through intention.

One famous Japanese text even goes so far as to state that the most important element of Zen gardening is the placement of stones. The text goes on to say that rocks should always be positioned where the most attractive side faces the viewer. It also states emphatically that there should be a greater number of horizontal stones (or “chasing stones” as they are called in Japan) than there are vertical stones (called “running stones” in the text). Again, this helps emphasize the rising force of intent coming up from the depths of the mind. Intent is mystery in Buddhism, but its effects are clearly evidenced by action.

The philosophical function of rocks is complimented on the practical level practical level by decoratively arranging them to represent objects that are commonly found in Nature. Ancient Japanese texts on the subject recommend creating such features as mountains, lakes, seashores, rivers, and cliffs out of rocks of varying sizes. The only vegetation typically found in an authentic Zen garden is moss, which is trained to grow over rocks in emulation of forests growing along river banks, lakeshores, and mountainsides covered in forests. Very small shrubs are used at times to frame a Zen garden, but only as a perimeter element, and seldom, if ever, as a central one.

If you are interested in any upscale landscaping services, Exterior Worlds has been providing the residential services and garden design services discussed above for the Houston and the surrounding areas including memorial villages (Piney Point Village, Bunker Hill Village, Hunter Creek Village), Tanglewood, River Oaks, West University and the greater Houston (Hou), area since 1987. Contact us at 713-827-2255