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How to make an indoor Zen Garden at home

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Dry Garden in Ryoanji (Kyoto, Japan)

Dry Garden in Ryoanji (Kyoto, Japan)

What is a Zen Garden?

When you think of gardens you immediately think of plants, however a traditional Zen Garden usually does not contain plants, or at the very least has minimal plants that are meaningful to the creator of the Zen Garden.

A Zen Garden generally doesn’t conform to a standard design and can come in any shape and size; often one person’s Zen Garden will bear no resemblance to someone else’s Garden, they are unique and personal. They can be built to fill a whole back yard, or even be made in a matchbox.

The intention of this article is to teach you how to build a Zen Garden - the instructions are specifically for building an indoor Zen Garden but you can apply the same techniques for an outdoor Zen Garden

Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra)

Buddha in Sarnath Museum (Dhammajak Mutra)

What is the purpose of a Zen Garden?

A Zen Garden portrays inner peace and tranquility; to achieve these qualities often requires an openness that is unexpected, but somehow profound. A definition of a Zen Garden describes it as a dry garden that does not use water. It is a symbolic representation of landscapes and uses stones, sand, moss and sometimes pruned trees to replicate nature in its purest form.

Raked (or unraked) sand is used to represent water in all its forms, ranging from seas and oceans, to rivers and streams. The act of raking to create wave patterns is a difficult one and is a meditative exercise that teaches patience and assists in concentration. Stones are used to represent mountains, islands and even creatures and humans at time. Moss is a representation of trees or grasses that cover the lands.

The symbolism is used to form a sense of being one with nature and the universe; trying to understand the beauty inherent in the land while meditating teaches different people different things, but mostly it is an exercise in understanding both the external influences on our lives as well as the internal struggles we go through. Finding a link between the two and finding some commonalities that will allow you to be at peace with yourself and surroundings is the ultimate goal of a Zen Garden and is part of Zen Buddhism. 

How do I make an indoor Zen Garden?

Location – the first thing you should do is to find a quiet place within your home where you can construct your Zen Garden and spend time contemplating the Garden, your inner turmoil and nature. The area should be clean and clutter free, and in the quietest part of your home.

Frame – there really isn’t a defined way to build a frame. You can use anything that will serve the purpose, whether it is a cut-out box, a match box or a frame built out of mahogany. While many Zen Garden’s are built in a square, you should build the frame in a shape that is pleasing to you. In the video I feature, the Zen Garden is created using a standard picture frame.

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Sand – as the sand forms the core of the Zen Garden you want a minimum of 1 inch depth; two inches would be better and gives you more scope when raking. You should use pure white sand and can find this at most craft stores.

Stones – you can use any natural items that have a calming aspect to them. Look around your garden, or take a walk down the beach to find items that appeal to you and seem to calm you when you look at them. These items can include weathered stones, old wood and bark and in circumstances plants. The items you find should be soft – there should be no ragged edges or sharp points; you are trying to blend with nature and create a calming feel. Bear in mind that as the Zen Garden is based in sand most plants will not have sufficient nourishment to survive. Place these items in the sand; try to make the placement flow – this will take some time to do, and that is part of the Zen process; finding a pattern (or randomness) that somehow is pleasing and graceful is an important part of a Zen Garden.

Rake the sand represents water in its many forms; begin to rake the sand in long curving motions, creating patterns that are synonymous with water, but more importantly feel right to you. Focus as you do this and let your worried and problems flow through you into the sand.  You can use your hands to do this or buy a small rake. There is no set pattern; you can make the patterns symmetrical or random, they just have to please you and allow you to remove your excess negative energies. The process is one of relaxation, contemplation and thoughtfulness and can take minutes or hours; there is nothing wrong with repeating and redoing your work.

Reinvent – once you’ve created your first Zen Garden don’t just leave it as a static Garden. Constantly visit it and add or remove items as you see fit. The Zen Garden can often parallel your emotions, and you’ll find yourself arranging the objects, and raking the sand in different ways depending on your mood. Spend time looking at the finished work and think how it makes you feel and why you selected the patterns that are in your completed Zen Garden. A Zen Garden should reflect the randomness of nature and the ever changing feel and beauty of it, in turn this represents the changing of our inner feelings and challenges.


Conclusion – why should I build a Zen Garden?

You don’t have to be a practicing Buddhists to enjoy building and learning from a Zen Garden. As a parent you often allow your child to have quiet time, but never have quiet time for yourself. Having time to contemplate your worries and balance them with nature and life is important, and building a Zen Garden is a great way to focus your thoughts and feelings and de-stress just a little bit.

So now you know how to build a Zen Garden; if you do build one, please let me know and send me a photograph of them and I’ll feature them on this page – let me know what it means to you and why you constructed it the way you did.


recommend1 on April 07, 2011:

I especially noted in the few 'famous' zen gardens that I have visited - made by masters of that art - that it was never possible to see all of the garden from any viewing point. For instance a special stone would have two quite different 'faces' when viewed from one or the other end of the viwing points and the transition would be obstructed by some other element. This is an easy way to add to the depth of the work.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on April 05, 2011:

Oh, I love zen gardens, and have always had fun with their indoor zen equivalents. Fabulous Hub!

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