To a small-town Colorado girl, the Ryoanji Temple Zen rock garden in Kyoto, Japan, was one of the strangest sites I had come across as a high school exchange student – and that’s quite a feat, since my entire trip to Japan had been filled with sights and tastes I had never imagined, let alone experienced. Walking out on the wooden deck, my entire peripheral vision was filled with white gravel, delicately and deliberately raked into perfect lines and concentric circles. And in what seemed to be random locations, tall volcanic rocks and large chunks of granite surrounded by fuzzy green moss jutted out from the gravel, like islands rising from the ocean’s waves.
I wasn’t sure of the etiquette, so I joined the other visitors sitting on their knees staring at the garden. It was silent. And in Japan’s big cities, silence is a rare commodity. It wasn’t just silent in sound, either. It was like the energy in the garden was muted, turned down to such a level that you felt like you were floating in a palpable stillness. It was a life-changing experience for me, and seeking answers to what it was I felt and how the garden facilitated that feeling has since become a lingering pursuit.
In doing research, there are several explanations as to the philosophy of Zen rock garden creation. Some people believe the garden’s lines and rocks represent a tiger carrying her cubs across a pond, or across the sea to the safety of islands. Another theory is that, because at least one rock is hidden from view at every angle, the garden represents infinity. The large rocks have been thought to represent islands, boats, or turtles. Still other historians think the garden expresses geometric theories and the rules of equilibrium of odd numbers. I have my own thoughts.
To me, the Zen garden is a perfect visual representation of meditation. Imagine the lines in the gravel or sand represent your calm mind, just flowing along in meditation. Every once in a while, a thought pops up (the rock) and your mind (the lines) must leave it behind and continue flowing past it. The mind doesn’t get stuck on the thought, just as the lines don’t end at a rock. The lines aren’t straight and the rocks are all different heights and sizes, just as our mind and our thoughts change and flow. We are just observers of the gravel lines and the rock islands.
Until I get my own Zen garden built in the backyard (I don’t think my Basset Hound would cooperate with the intricate lines), I have ways of creating mini-Zen gardens. Stores sell kits, but it’s fun to make your own with materials around the house. First, get a baking or casserole dish, deep enough to hold the garden. Fill it about half-way with sand, fish tank gravel (the bright colors can be distracting, though), or Epsom salts. Then grab a few items to be the rocks. These could be actual rocks, or something more personal like seashells, figurines, crystals, or other knick-knacks. Begin to create your garden – remember this isn’t permanent. It can (and should!) be changed. So rake the sand with a fork into lines or waves. Add your “thoughts”, your rocks, where you feel they should go and then circle your lines around them. When you finish, sit back and let your mind follow the lines. When you come to a rock or other item, take a deep breath, look at the item, and then continue following the lines again.
This is a very calming practice for adults – and for children, too! Kids love making patterns in the sand. It is so visually and tactilely satisfying to start with a smooth surface and create lines and waves. Their “thoughts” could be some of their favorite little toys or smooth rocks. You may find your children humming while they rake, like creating a calming mantra. A portable Zen garden could be part of a relaxation center in your home or classroom, filled with other calming props such as mandala coloring, smooth stones to rub, and glitter filled water bottles. If you are really adventurous, how about making a Zen garden at dinner? Mashed potatoes raked with your fork and peas, carrots, and broccoli “rocks” dot the landscape.