What is Zen?

It can be said that Japanese culture has become intrinsically linked with Zen. First introduced to Japan around the 7th century, Zen ideology spread rapidly throughout the 12th century, a time known as the Kamakura period. Zen generally refers to a meditation practice derived from Buddhism, and its influences can be found throughout daily life in Japan.

Zen is not tied to the past or the future - it is found in the present. It is also a concept extremely difficult to explain without actually experiencing it. One might describe it as a practical way of Buddhism. There are no texts, rules, or any ideal figure to look up to or pray towards. Instead, one reaches the state of Buddha by concentrating on oneself. This concept of “concentrating on oneself” refers to the emptying of oneself and discovering the true self that exists within.


Zen principles can be found at the core of many Japanese cultural arts, one being tea ceremony. and gardening - practices which are considered just as effective as Buddhist meditation is in guiding you through philosophical basics. Here is a brief introduction to these practices.

Tea Ceremony

Shishiodoshi adds a calming sound to the garden. ©TOKI

Shishiodoshi adds a calming sound to the garden. ©TOKI

It is said that tea and zen are absolutely inseparable. The tea ceremony, known as sadō (茶道, literally the way of tea), developed in tandem with Zen Buddhism. The form of the ceremony itself emphasizes awareness, tranquility, and the interrelationship between host and guest. Through sadō, you will inevitably experience some of the fundamental aspects of Zen and Eastern aesthetic principles. As expressed in the phrase "cha zen ichi mi" (茶禅一味), meaning "tea and Zen share the same taste," the traditional Japanese tea ceremony was influenced by Zen principles, and conversely, several aspects of the tea ceremony have been incorporated into Zen.

Many cultures around the world have their own unique types of tea breaks or coffee siestas, some of which emphasize strong flavors, confectionery indulgences and lively conversation with friends and colleagues. However, the Japanese tea ceremony is characterized by ceremonial rules and a refined approach, imbues in its participants a delightful sense of tranquility. Instead of lively conversations, expect minimalist banter limited to the topic of utensils used during the ceremony.

In sadō, you will most likely experience Zen by paying attention to all the beautiful but sometimes overlooked aspects of life. Noticing the austere dance between light and shadow in the tea room. Focusing on the sound of the water and charcoal fire. Inhaling the fresh aroma of the tea. It becomes more than just the simple act of enjoying a hot beverage. The Japanese tea ceremony becomes meditative - a place where you practice honing your senses and can experience living in the moment.


Zen is an inseparable part of the aesthetics behind Japanese gardens. Both artistic landscape gardens with seasonal colors and plants and dry landscape gardens (karesansui, 枯山水) found inside temple grounds are crafted to serve as a relaxing space for meditation. Without any background knowledge in Zen, Buddhism or Japanese history, visitors may view a stone garden without much of a deeper much meaning in the landscape before them. Nevertheless, even the untrained eye can feel a sort of calmness and serenity radiating from the garden and the simple arrangement of stones.

Part of one of Japan's most famous dry landscape gardens, located in Ryoanji. ©TOKI

Part of one of Japan's most famous dry landscape gardens, located in Ryoanji. ©TOKI

Japanese gardens are generally made in a traditional style that features miniature idealized landscapes, often organized in a highly abstract and stylized way. Zen gardens in particular were created to aid with meditation. These gardens are typically made of rock and sand, with strategically placed stones featured on small plots of land. This style purports to invoke a feeling of largeness in a small space and as such is considered an ideal environment for meditation and contemplation.

Ultimately, Japanese landscape architects aim to reflect the intimate essence of nature, not mimic its actual appearance, and create spaces that can act as gateways to exploring the true meaning of life. Also inextricably linked to sadō, gazing at a Zen garden during a tea ceremony helps the participants calm their restless minds and settle their thoughts in the unique moment they are experiencing.



Kyoto's Ginkakuji, The Silver Pavilion. @Laitr Keiows

Wabi-sabi is a core aesthetic of Zen. While many cultures seek beauty in symmetry, perfection, lavish decorations, and bright and "fresh" colors, it is quite the opposite in Japan. Instead, it is asymmetry, simplicity, imperfection, rusticity and naturalness that are of great value. All of these fall under the umbrella concept of the Zen aesthetic, known as Wabi-sabi, which sees beauty in things that are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

The development of wabi-sabi can be seen clearly in the example of the two structure built by the Ashikaga family during the Muromachi period (14-16th century). The third shogunate Yoshimitsu built the world known Kinkakuji (kin means gold), a structure decorated entirely with gold. Its beauty is unquestionable, and it has become an iconic image of Kyoto. Later in the Muromachi period, the 8th shogunate Yoshimasa built the structure Ginkakuji (gin means silver), which is actually not decorated with silver as the name suggests. Ginkakuji may not have the global recognition of Kinkakuji, but it is the beloved Ginkakuji that stands as a symbolic example of wabi-sabi, and also established the base of traditional Japanese architecture that continues today.  

Zen brings to light the small details of life that we tend to overlook. Why not escape the overwhelmingly busy world of today, and experience the wonders of Zen?