Zen brushwork is abstract, suggestive, and two-dimensional. Zen gardening is concrete, direct, and three-dimensional. The best-known Zen garden is at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto. It is formed by rocks, moss, and sand. The arrangement of the rocks is carefully planned, but their placement seems perfectly natural—they are right where they should be. Since the garden incorporates borrowed scenery from outside the wall, it is difficult to determine what is man-made versus what is nature itself. Even the wall is an organic part of the garden—the natural, variegated weathering of the brown stone adds immeasurably to the beauty of the scene. Hundreds of interpretations of the garden are possible, especially since the garden takes on a different character in each season.
The rock garden at Ryoan-ji is considered masculine. Across town is its feminine counterpart garden, called “Lion Cubs Crossing a Path,” at Shoden-ji. In contrast to steadfast rocks and creeping moss, this garden is formed out of three clusters of plants, satsuki azalea bushes, placed in a seven-five-three pattern. The bushes bloom spectacularly in May. The sand and surrounding wall is pure white, like a maiden’s skin. The use of borrowed scenery is even better than at Ryoan-ji. Majestic Mount Hiei appears in the distance. Although Hiei is miles away it is an intimate part of the garden. In short, the Ryoan-ji Zen garden is hard, the Shoden-ji Zen garden is soft.
The aim of Zen art is to bring out the innate, natural beauty of a subject or object with little or no embellishment. Here again, “Simple is best.”