Japanese rock gardens got the western name, "Zen Garden," because of the tranquil nature of the garden, which encourage meditation and a Zen-like atmosphere. Zen, which is a school of Buddhism, is interpreted by many westerners to mean a state of introspection and enlightenment achieved by deep meditation.
This type of Zen garden is designed in such a way that the raked gravel resembles water. To create the look of water flowing, small rocks, pebbles, and sand are used.
Often in the dry Zen garden, you will see one large rock that is the predominant feature. This rock is representative of the mountains that tower over the countryside. With this type of garden, it is believed that the stillness of the “water”, being the gravel, is the peace and tranquility of the mind.
The Ryoan-ji Temple garden is considered to be one of the most notable examples of the "dry-landscape" style.
The Ryōan-ji garden is famous for its simplicity. The longer you sit, the more the garden fascinates. The fifteen rocks are placed so that, when looking at the garden from any angle (other than from above), only fourteen of the boulders are visible at one time. It is traditionally said that only through attaining enlightenment would one be able to view the fifteenth boulder.
Some believe that the garden represents the common theme of a tiger carrying cubs across a pond or of islands in a sea, while others claim that the garden represents an abstract concept like infinity.
Because the garden's meaning has not been made explicit, it is up to each viewer to find the meaning for him/herself. To make this easier, a visit in the early morning is recommended when crowds are usually smaller than later during the day.
Here is a close-up of one of the rocks and the beautiful swirls of sand surrounding it.
Scholars continue to debate the the purpose of the garden and its significance. Many explanations are given for the rock arrangement and minimal decoration. Probably all that can be safely said is that the garden is highly influenced by the ideals of the tea ceremony, in which honesty, rusticity, and understatement are held in esteem. The ideals of wabi (honesty and understatement) resonated well with the Zen branch of Buddhism, leading to gardens like Ryōan-ji.
"What's so special about the garden at Ryoanji?" I asked him ....
"The spaces between the rocks," he replied, with his mouth full of toothpaste.
Probably more has been written about Ryōan-ji's fifteen rocks than all the other rocks in Japanese gardens combined. The raked sand does resemble water lapping at the base of mystical islands. Whatever its significance, the garden has inspired and continues to inspire designs to the present day.
Here is British artist David Hockney's rendition of the Ryoan-ji Temple garden:
David Hockney (b. 1937). Walking In The Zen Garden At Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto, 1983