"Your magazine is provocative, but honest.  It serves as a corrective to the 'romanticized-exotic' view of Japanese gardens.

Drew Hanson, Bokaku-an Teahouse, New Jersey

  Japanese Garden Myths

The Zen Garden Myth

The so-called "Japanese Zen Garden" is a myth.  It is a late 20th Century WESTERN creation that has nothing to do with the Japanese Garden Tradition.  While some Westerners may be enamored with the idea of a so-called "Zen Garden" that links Zen Buddhism with the Japanese dry garden aesthetic, it is a patently false idea.  Some Buddhism experts even dismiss the Western concept of Zen Gardens, claiming that Zen principles are about what's within you, not the environment that surrounds you.

Photos of Japanese monks meditating on dry gardens are staged events.  In Japan, monks meditate while facing a wall, not while facing a garden.  The correct Japanese name for what Westerners call "Zen Gardens" is karesansui.  A good English translation of this word is "dry garden."  The Japanese dry garden aesthetic is by no means unique to the gardens found adjacent to Zen temples.  Dry gardens can be found outside homes, restaurants, and inns.  Likewise, the gardens around Zen temples come in many different styles, and dry gardens are just one of them.

A person with critical thinking skills should have no trouble deducing that the Zen Garden is a myth.  It is a misguided moniker for an ordinary style of landscaping in Japan.  It is a "tourist term" used by Westerners who visit temples and think that they are looking at something profound.  In reality, however, the use of the term generally reflects ignorance, rather than knowledge, of the Japanese garden tradition.

It's time to put the Zen Garden term to bed.  For more information on this myth, please consider subscribing to THE JOURNAL OF JAPANESE GARDENING which publishes regular articles similar to the ones posted below:


RESPECTED BOOK DISMISSES ZEN GARDENS   Wybe Kuitert's 1988 book, "Themes, Scenes..." has been called "ground-breaking" due to its exposure of the Zen garden myth.

VIEWPOINTS   We asked some Japanese garden experts the following question: "What do you think about the term, "Zen Garden?"  Here's what they had to say.

KUITERT BOOK REISSUED   This is a book review of the new version of "Themes, Scenes..."  Japanese garden experts are delighted about this formerly out-of-print book because it brings the truth about so-called Zen gardens back to bookstore shelves.

IT'S NOT NEW  This is a book review of Joseph Cali's 2004 book, "The New Zen Garden."  Well packaged, with attractive photos and diagrams, this book is ultimately built upon a framework of myth and ignorance.  It could have been a contender.

THE MEDITATION MYTH   It it inaccurate to say that the Japanese garden - as it exists in Japan - has any traditional relationship with the topic of meditation.  This article talks about this widespread misconception and explains why the dry garden aesthetic is simply a design tool that can be used in many situations. 


Book jacket pictured above: "Reading Zen in the Rocks: The Japanese Dry Landscape Garden," by Francois Berthier.