Zen & Shinto Faith Gardens

By Jerry A. Chenault, Urban Regional Extension Agent, Lawrence County


In the past two years, the faith gardens project has focused mainly on "main stream" faiths in this country, such as biblical gardens. However, the project has also included glimpses of Mary's gardens, Labyrinth gardens, and prayer gardens. The project is being further developed to include outreach programs with Shinto, Zen, Islamic, and other faith gardens.

Perhaps there are just as many people in our country unfamiliar with the terms of "Zen" and "Shinto" gardens as there are those who are unfamiliar with biblical gardens. But individuals who frequent botanical gardens have likely seen their influence (if not their establishment) as a feature of those gardens. I personally consider them most beautiful and tranquil. But what makes them so? Let's explore.

Zen gardens are the world's simplest gardens; often like a garden of rocks, yet having water (whether real or implied) as a crucial element. Water may be represented by raked gravel or sand, and large stones depicting islands in their tranquil waterways. Zen gardens are carefully planned spaces of emptiness, almost completely devoid of plants; and sometimes having a carefully screened perimeter of evergreen shrubs and trees. The entire purpose of a Zen garden is to provide a place for reflection on the beauty and tranquility of nature. And even the work in it is supposed to be relished rather than dreaded and rushed, which is a strange concept indeed for modern man.

And what of Shinto gardens? Shinto is the native religion of Japan. Its ancient influences provide great insight into what it means to be Japanese, and it was a rigidly enforced state religion until the 1950s. The major shrines of Japan have often been power bases with close ties to emperors or shoguns. These gardens have great historical significance.

Shintoism has no moral precepts, fixed dogma, sacred scriptures, or sacred icons, and is even devoid of congregational worship. So, what makes this religion a religion? Its followers worship the deities of nature, including rocks, trees, water, the sky, the sun, and the wind.
Since Shinto has no rigid dogma or scriptures, its followers can easily assimilate Shintoism into their Buddhism or even some parts of Christianity. However, these practices may seem strange to those unfamiliar with Japanese culture.

In accordance with the reverence for nature, Shinto gardens are calming and beautiful. That being said, many of us may want to borrow their concepts and create our own Japanese gardens---just a borrowed bit of Shintoism.

A stone lantern may be the first thing that comes to an American mind when designing a Japanese garden. These wonderful elements do help to clarify the garden as Japanese; however, the ornament should be subservient to the garden, and not vice versa. Such items as a lantern or basin should only be used as accents in the garden, so please use sparingly.

Another concept of the Japanese garden is the use of borrowed scenery. Framed by stones, trees, or plants in the garden, the idea is to allow a glimpse of a distant mountain or tranquil scene. This may be tough to do in the city.

Other primary concepts include a meditative winding path (symbolic to the journey of life), water (an essential feature), a bridge, stones and evergreen plantings. Of course, we are only beginning our walk down the path of creating one of these meditative gardens, but then "the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step!"

BBC World Service. (July 12, 2001). Shinto: Nuturing nature. Retrieved January 16, 2007.

Cave, Philip. (1993). Creating Japanese gardens. San Ramon, CA: Ortho Books.

Japan Zone. (2006). Shinto. Retrieved January 16, 2007.

Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens. (2006). Gardens of the Morikami. Retrieved January 16, 2007.

The Helpful Gardener. (2006). Japanese garden design principles. Featured Article. Retrieved January 16, 2007.

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