15 Shades of Grey in Zen Temples

Relax, your PC hasn’t gone analog.  This is not static display, but raked gravel in a zen temple, also known as a Japanese rock garden.


I learned more about zen garden this trip.  But that’s because I was in Kyoto, and almost every turn and corner, there was a temple/shrine.  And almost every temple/shrine would have a zen garden, the only differences were the size and the design of the garden.

I remembered the first time I visited a zen garden; I was as excited as a hibernating bear.  It was many shades of grey, except for the occasional patches of moss.  I love vibrant colours, so staring at a grey landscape was not exactly mood-lifting.  Oddly enough, after a few more visits to similar grey gardens, they started to grow on me.


Zen garden is a stylised landscape of carefully composed rocks, moss, pruned shrubs (I think that’s where the bonsai was born), amid a sea of gravel.  A landscape could symbolize mountains, seas, flow of great rivers, and even represent philosophies of life.

This is no easy maintenance garden.  While the garden appears minimalist, there is a lot of effort to make it look minimalist.

The rocks are carefully selected and arranged.  There are rocks which are “flat”, “low vertical”, “high vertical”, “reclining”, “arching”; rocks that resemble animals or unusually not like rock.  And they are rules for arrangement.  Break the rules and the owner of the garden will have misfortune.  So stressful!  I think there is a manual just for rock arrangement..probably, “Rock Arrangement For Dummies”.

Shrubs are constantly pruned, to maintain the height and shape.  Not a single branch nor leaf is out of place.  When I took a look at my own reflection, I wept that my less-than-immaculate mane could not compete with a stunted plant.  Even with strong mousse hold.

I believe the Japanese must have invented the moss trimmer.  And they must have been used in zen gardens.  And the patch of moss is pristine.  No weed could survive on the mossy knolls – it would be yanked out by the monks who maintain the garden.

The gravel represents the “water”, and in famous zen temples, the gravel are raked daily.  They are raked in circles or waves to represent the ripple or flow of the water.  The raking of the gravel is a form of meditation; one has got to be totally immersed in the work of raking, or they won’t look like what they are in some of these highly-acclaimed gardens.  So, even if a mosquito buzzes near your ear or suck the blood from your ear lobes, you got to just..Keep Calm and Get On Raking.



Etiquette of appreciating a Japanese rock garden: sit on the viewing gallery, normally a veranda outside a hojo.  No shoes allowed so you’d either be bare-footed or with your socks on. Walk gently; don’t aspire to be a baby elephant across the wooden flooring.  Speak in hushed tone.  No negotiating business deals when everyone else is absorbed staring out silently, at the sea of gravel, studded with rocks and moss.  And, the single biggest no-no is, don’t jump onto the gravel.  You could be hanged and quartered by the monks for doing that.


Daisen-In is one of the well-known zen gardens.  I wasn’t allowed to take the photos in there.  There are a number of grand rock gardens within this garden; chief among them “The Ocean” i.e. the 2 big mounds of gravel.


Ryoan-ji is one of the most prominent zen gardens, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage.  The highlight of this garden are the 15 rocks sitting on the gravel.  And the interesting activity is to try to count all 15 rocks within position of viewing.  Not possible.  The placement of the 15 rocks are intended that no 15 rocks can be viewed all together at the same time.  The Buddhist philosophy of “completeness” is linked to 15.  But in this imperfect world, we don’t get “completeness”.  Therefore, at any point of location, one can see only up to the max, 14 rocks.  1 will be hidden from view.  Quite profound!

Another famous zen garden is the Tofuku-ji.  These 4 photos are the south garden of the Hojo (main building of the Tofuku-ji).  This vertical piece of gravel-covered land consists of vertical/horizontal rocks that represent islands, and 5 moss-covered mounds that tell of sacred mountains in Japan.  The acutely visibly circular rings in the gravel are the “great seas”.

Work of master gravel-rakers
These rocks have names.


Astronomy also has a role to play in the design of the Northern Garden in Tofuku-ji.  These cylinders represent the constellation of stars of The Great Bear.


And finally a garden where grey is not the dominant colour!  Moss are grown in square tiles in the left photo.  The picture on the right has azalea shrubs that are pruned and trimmed into squares.  They look like big checkerboards.

Since raking the gravel is a form of meditation, I’ve looked up a zen garden starter kit.  Found this on the website officeplayground.com.  Might be fun to start raking..



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