The primary structure of a Japanese garden is determined by the architecture that contain it; that is, the framework of enduring elements such as buildings, verandas and terraces, paths, tsukiyama (artificial hills), and stone compositions. It is ideal to set in small areas or places without enough light or ventilation required for a traditional garden.
There is a wide range of Zen thought in the Japanese garden. Here are some key elements as examples:
Gates (torii), fences, straw ropes, and cloth banners acted as signs to demarcate paces.
Bridges(hashi), passing over the bridge was analogous to passing from one world to the next. As Zen influence came into the forefront, bridges took on the more Taoist meaning of passing from the world of man into the world of nature, a move from this plane to a higher one
Water (Mizu) Buddhism always considered water the most apt metaphor for human existence, springing up, gathering strength in its downhill race to disappear calmly into the sea (reborn again as rain). In ponds in the garden, it creates "negative" space in the garden where nothing else resides.
Plantings. Although Zen actually decreased the plant palette when it arrived, still there are a few Zen ideas in the plantings. Large bamboo are often found in temple gardens as the canes are a perfect example of the principle of mushin or "empty heart" (the empty heart provides strength through flexibility). Plums are a recurrent Zen theme, flowering without leaf, often while snow is still on the ground (symbolizing resilience and rebirth). Pine is known as mutsu, a sound-alike for the word for 'waiting', so it is set in the garden as a symbol of strength and patience
Shrines were more of a mental construct than physical emplacements, a place that existed in the mind instead of a place that could be seen. The shrine is a setting of spirit. It is also a place where humans and spirit meet.
Sand or gravel represents water. Raked or not raked, that symbolizes sea, ocean, rivers or lakes.
The act of raking the gravel into a pattern recalling waves or rippling water has an aesthetic function. Zen priests practice this raking also to help their concentration. Achieving perfection of lines is not easy. Rakes are according to the patterns of ridges as desired and limited to some of the stone objects situated within the gravel area. Nonetheless often the patterns are not static. Developing variations in patterns is a creative and inspiring challenge.
Stones are the major elements of design in Japanese garden. They are considered more important than trees to the Japanese, perhaps due to the strong desire for eternity and stones represent the eternal elements in nature. In Japanese garden design, stones are used in combination with other stones, or sand to imply a natural scene or to create an abstract design. The shapes of natural stones have been divided into five categories called five natural stones. The Japanese used the characters of wood, fire, earth, metal and water to represent stone elements, and are applied to five classes of stone shapes:
- Taido: wood. Tall vertical. Implies high trees. Also called body stones, placed in the back of a grouping.
- Reisho: metal. Low vertical. Implies the steady and firmness of metal. Often grouped with tall verticals. It is sometimes called soul stones.
- Shigyo: fire. Arching. Branches that shape like fire. These types of branches called stone atmosphere and peeing stones. Often placed in the front and to one side of other shapes.
- Shintai: water. Flat or horizontal. Called level base stones or mind and body stone. Usually used for harmonization in rock groupings.
- Kikyaku: earth. Reclining. Often known as root or prostrate stones. Usually placed in the foreground to create a harmony appearance.
The message in Zen Garden is that every divided area remains representative of the whole of nature; the fence helps us to recognize the division and the garden should remind us of the whole. The gates in fences are very much like the bridge in deep meaning; the phrase "to go through the gate" is a metaphor for becoming a monk.
Transition between one state of existence and the next.