The Landscape Guide

Buddhist gardens, landscape architecture and the environment

 Asian gardens design and history overview - Sacred Gardens

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Companion Page on Tom Turner's  Asian gardens: history, beliefs and design 3000 BCE to 2000 CE London:Routledge 2010  ISBN: 978-0-415-49687-2

The Dragon Garden for the Druk White Lotus School's Buddhist garden in Shey, Ladakh

Though it is a secular school, the garden of the Druk White Lotus School in Ladakh is being developed under the influence of Buddhist garden design ideas. See:

The influence of Buddhism on garden design

Buddhism is the world religion with the strongest connection to gardens. It  originated in the foothills of the Himalayas (c600 BC): see entries on Kapilavastu and Lumbini. It is therefore understandable that mountains came to be associated with gods. Deities have a place in Buddhism but there is no creator god. Mount Sumeru (Mount Meru in Hinduism, sometimes identified with Mount Kailash) was believed to be at the centre of the world. Buddha spoke to his followers in the Deer Park of Isipatana (Sarnath) and groves of trees became an important aspect of Buddhist sacred space.

Zen garden design

The Zen garden is the best-known type of Buddhist garden. But the fame of Zen gardens is out of all proportion to their numerical significance. Zen ideas influenced the Japanese from the 12th century onwards, inspired by Chan Buddhism and Chan gardens in China. The term 'Zen garden' was devised in the 1930s and does not have an agreed or satisfactory definition. Zen ideas are often associated with what Wikipedia calls 'The Japanese rock garden (枯山水 karesansui) or "dry landscape" garden, often called a zen garden'. A wiser approach would be to associate Zen gardens with Zen design principles. They include the Zen principles of:  Austerity, koko;  Simplicity, kanso;  Naturalness, shizen;  Subtlety, yugen; Imperfection and asymmetry, wabi-sabi; Tranquillity, seijaku. 

Pure Land Buddhism

The Pure Land Sutras, written in India during the 2nd century A.D. say that men can attain rebirth in the Pure Land of the West (or 'Western Paradise') from where they can proceed to nirvana. The Sutras contain a description of a perfect garden - see extracts below. This is a tennet of Amanda Buddhism (also known as Ananda and Amida Buddhism and a predecessor of Zen Buddhism). [Buddhism reached China in the 1st century AD - see note on Chinese Gardens]

The Lotus Sutra was given by the Buddha toward the end of his life. It was recorded as the "SÅ«tra on the White Lotus of the Sublime Dharma." The White Lotus Society has its origins in thirteenth century China. When it was banned, in the period of the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty, it became a secret society.

The Buddhist term vihara (literally 'pleasure garden of a monastic precinct') came to denote the monastic dormitory and hall. A chaitya is any sacred place (tree, spring, lake etc.). A stupa was originally a burial place but many stupas do not contain relics and the term is now used for any Buddhist shrine with a circular mound form. A building containing a stupa is called a 'chaitya hall'. Stupas are frequently placed on hills and the upward journey symbolises the journey to heaven. One of the greatest stupas is at Borobodur (or Barabudur) in Java: 'The stupa is in a long, fertile valley, again on top of a small hill, nestling against a protective backdrop of mountains. The whole field is thus the nave of the chaitya; the hill the stupa's pedestal; and heaven above its arched ceiling. As the mist rises from the foothills of the valley, this enormous monument reveals its volatile silhouhette, light as the rising crest of a wave... Waiting for [the pilgrim] above are the square terraces representing this world, and the circular terraces representing the world of God... Treading the right path to the Mountain of God, he knows that he is heading for the Supreme Truth'. (Nelson I Wu, p 19). Small stupas also use square bases with circular structures above.

Though originally an Indian religion, Buddhism almost disappeared from India after the thirteenth century, except in the Himalayan region. The depredations of Turkic, Afghan and Arab invaders contributed to its demise but in many respects it was also absorbed into Hinduism. Buddhism flourished in China until 1949 and continues to flourish in many south and east Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, Japan, Burma, Cambodia and Thailand.

Pure Land Buddhism and garden design

The Pure Land sect teaches that repeating the Buddha's name, and worshiping him, will make entry to paradise more likely. The making of Buddhist gardens in Japan was inspired by Pure Land Buddhism, imported from China. The Mandala, showing Buddha with a temple and a garden inspired the making of gardens with equivalent symbolism. Mandala is a sanskrit word meaning circle, polygon and community. It is used by Buddhists as a symbol of a person in the world, and the universe, as an aid to meditation. The mandala shows a palace with four gates facing the four corners of the earth. A lotus blossom is at the center. It has four petals and rests on a bed of jewels. The gates are guarded by doorkeepers. See for example Joruriji.

Chan and Zen Buddhism and garden design

'Zen' is a Japanese version of the Chinese word 'Ch'an', meaning meditation, and describes the Meditation School of Buddhism which reached China, from India, c 520 CE and was then introduced to Japan, from China, in 1191 CE. It was carried by a monk (Esai) who had been sent on a mission to China and returned to found monasteries in Japan (the Renzai sect). Esai also introduced the tea ceremony to Japan, because tea was regarded as an aid to meditation. In the sixteenth century, the tea ceremony led to the development of stroll gardens in Japan. Zen Buddhism was also taught through archery, so that the bowman could hit a target 'without aiming'. Satori ('enlightenment') should come suddenly and spontaneously, without conscious striving. Likewise with happiness: it comes from the pursuit of another goal, not from its own pursuit. Making a fine garden can contribute to enlightenment and contentment. It requires skill, artistic judgement, understanding of nature - and constant practice. Thus gardening can be a religious activity. See for example Ryoanji

Buddhist gardens in the UK

The Land of Bliss, Pure Land or Western Paradise

[Extracts from the LARGER SUKHAVATI-VYUHA, or Sukhavativyuha Sutra or The Sutra on the Buddha of Eternal Life]

15. 'And, O Ananda, the world called Sukhavati belonging to that Bhagavat Amitabha is prosperous, rich, good to live in, fertile, lovely, and filled with many gods and men. Then, O Ananda, in that world there are neither hells, nor the animals nor the realm of departed spirits, nor bodies of fighting spirits, nor untimely births. And there do not appear in this world such gems as are known in the world Sukhavati.

#16. 'Now, O Ananda, that world Sukhavati is fragrant with several sweet-smelling scents, rich in manifold flowers and fruits. adorned with gem trees, and frequented by tribes of manifold sweet-voiced birds, which have been made by the Tathagata on purpose. And, O Ananda, those gem trees are of several colors, of many colors, and of many hundred thousand colors. There are gem trees there of golden-color, and made of gold. There are those of silver-color, and made of silver. There are those of beryl-color, and made of beryl. There are those of crystal-color, and made of crystal. There are those of coral-color, and made of coral. There are those of red pearl-color, and made of red pearls. There are those of diamond-color, and made of diamonds.

'There are some trees of two gems, that is, gold and silver. There are some of three gems, that is, gold, silver, and beryl. There are some of four gems, that is, gold, silver, beryl, and crystal. There are some of five gems, that is, gold, silver, beryl, crystal, and coral. There are some of six gems, that is, gold, silver, beryl, crystal, coral, and red pearls. There are some of seven gems, that is, gold, silver, beryl, crystal, coral, red pearls, and diamonds as the seventh.

'And there, O Ananda, of the trees made of gold, the flowers, leaves, small branches, branches, trunks, and roots are made of gold, and the fruits are made of silver. Of trees made of silver, the flowers, leaves, small branches, branches, trunks, and roots are made of silver only, and the fruits are made of beryl. Of trees made of beryl, the flowers, leaves, small branches, branches, trunks, and roots are made of beryl, and the fruits are made of crystal. Of trees made of crystal, the flowers, leaves, small branches, branches, trunks, and roots are made of crystal only, and the fruits are made of coral. Of trees made of coral, the flowers, leaves, small branches, branches, trunks, and roots are made of coral only, and the fruits are made of red pearls. Of trees made of red pearls, the flowers, leaves, small branches, branches, trunks, and roots are made of red pearls only, and the fruits are made of diamonds. Of trees made of diamonds, the flowers, leaves, small branches, branches, trunks, and roots are made of diamonds only, and the fruits are made of gold.

'Of some trees, O Ananda, the roots are made of gold, the trunks of silver, the branches of beryl, the small branches of crystal, the leaves of coral, the flowers of red pearls, and the fruits of diamonds. Of some trees, O Ananda, the roots are made of silver, the trunks of beryl, the branches of crystal, the small branches of coral, the leaves of red pearls, the flowers of diamonds, and the fruits of gold. Of some trees, O Ananda, the roots are made of beryl, the trunks of crystal, the branches of coral, the small branches of red pearls, the leaves of diamonds, the flowers of gold, and the fruits of silver. Of some trees, O Ananda, the roots are made of crystal, the trunks of coral, the branches of red pearls, the small branches of diamonds, the leaves of gold, the flowers of silver, and the fruits of beryl. Of some trees, O Ananda, the roots are made of coral, the trunks of red pearls, the branches of diamonds, the small branches of gold, the leaves of silver, the flowers of beryl, and the fruits of crystal. Of some trees, O Ananda, the roots are made of red pearls, the trunks of diamonds, the branches of gold, the small branches of silver, the leaves of beryl, the flowers of crystal, and the fruits of coral. Of some trees, O Ananda, the roots are made of diamonds, the trunks of gold, the branches of silver, the small branches of beryl, the leaves of crystal, the flowers of coral, and the fruits of red pearls. Of some trees, O Ananda, the roots are made of the seven gems, the trunks of the seven gems, the branches of the seven gems, the small branches of the seven gems, the leaves of the seven gems, the flowers of the seven gems, and the fruits of the seven gems. And, O Ananda, the roots, trunks, branches, small branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits of all those trees are pleasant to touch, and fragrant. And, when those trees are moved by the wind, a sweet and delightful sound proceeds from them, never tiring, and never disagreeable to hear. That Buddha country, O Ananda, is always on every side surrounded by such trees made of the seven gems, by masses of Kadali trees, and rows of palm-trees made of the seven gems, and entirely surrounded with golden nets, and wholly covered with lotus flowers, made of all kinds of gems.

'There are lotus flowers there, half a yojana in circumference. There are others, one yojana in circumference; and others, two, three, four, or five yojanas in circumference; nay, there are some, as much as ten yojanas in circumference. And from each gem-lotus there proceed thirty-six hundred thousand kotis of rays of light. And from each ray of light there proceed thirty-six hundred thousand kotis of Buddhas, with bodies of golden color, possessed of the thirty-two marks of great men, who go and teach the Dharma to beings in the immeasurable and innumerable worlds in the eastern quarter. Thus also in the southern, western, and northern quarters, above and below, in the cardinal and intermediate points, they go their way to the immeasurable and innumerable worlds and teach the Dharma to beings in the whole world.

#17. 'And again, O Ananda, there are no black mountains anywhere in that Buddha country, nor anywhere jewel mountains, nor anywhere Sumerus, kings of mountains, nor anywhere Chakravadas, great Chakravadas, kings of mountains. And that Buddha country is level on every side, lovely, like the palm of the hand, with districts full of jewels and treasures of every kind.'

After this, the blessed Ananda spoke thus to the Bhagavat: 'But in that case, O Bhagavat, where do the gods consisting of the companies of the four Maharajas who dwell on the side of the Sumeru, and where do the Triyastrimsa gods who dwell on the top of the Sumeru, find their place?'

Bhagavat said: 'What do you think, O Ananda, where do these other beings find their place, who in this world dwell above the king of mountains, Sumeru, namely, the Yamadevas, Tushitas, Nirmanaratis, Paranirmitavasavartins, Brahmakayikas, Brahmapurohitas, Mahabrahmans, as far as the Akanishthas?'

Ananda replied: 'O Bhagavat the result of works and the outcome of works are inconceivable.'

Bhagavat said: 'Here, you see, the result of works and the outcome of works are inconceivable. But to the blessed Buddhas the position of Buddhas is not inconceivable, while to thee the holy and miraculous power of virtuous beings, whose stock of merit has become ripened, seems inconceivable.'

Ananda said: 'I had no doubt on this, no difference of opinion, or hesitation; on the contrary, I ask only the Tathagata about this matter in order to destroy the doubts, the differences of opinion, and the hesitations of future beings.'

Bhagavat said: 'All right, Ananda, this is what you ought to do.

#18. ' In that world Sukhavati, O Ananda, there flow different kinds of rivers; there are great rivers there, one yojana in breadth; there are rivers up to twenty, thirty, forty, fifty yojanas in breadth, and up to twelve yojanas in depth. All these rivers are delightful, carrying water of different sweet odor, carrying bunches of flowers adorned with various gems, resounding with sweet voices. And, O Ananda, there proceeds from an instrument which consists of hundred thousand kotis of parts, which embodies heavenly music and is played by clever people, the same delightful sound which proceeds from those great rivers, the sound which is deep, unknown, incomprehensible, clear, pleasant to the ear, touching the heart, beloved, sweet, delightful, never tiring, never disagreeable, pleasant to hear, as if it always said, "Non-eternal, peaceful, unreal." Such a sound comes to be heard by these beings.

'And again, O Ananda, the borders of those great rivers on both sides are filled with jewel trees of various scents, from which bunches of flowers, leaves, and branches of all kinds hang down. And if the beings, who are on the borders of those rivers, wish to enjoy sport full of heavenly delights, the water rises to the ankle only after they have stepped into the rivers, if they wish it to be so; or if they wish it, the water rises to their knees, to their hips, to their sides, and to their ears. And heavenly pleasures arise. Again, if the beings then wish the water to be cold, it is cold; if they wish it to be hot, it is hot; if they wish it to be hot and cold, it is hot and cold, according to their pleasure.

'And those great rivers flow along, full of water scented with the best perfumes of the Uragasara sandal-wood, of Tagaras, dark, fragrant sandal-wood trees, Agarus, and heavenly Tamalapattras; covered with flowers of the white waterlilies, and heavenly Utpalas, Padmas, Kumudas, and Pundarikas; full of delightful sounds of peacocks, sparrows, kunalas, cuckoos, sarikas, parrots, ducks, geese, herons, cranes, swans and others; with small islands inhabited by flocks of birds, created by the Tathagata; adorned with fields, full of metals; with fords on which it is easy to drink, free from mud, and covered with gold dust. And when these beings there desire, thinking what kind of wishes should be fulfilled for them, then exactly such wishes are fulfilled for them according to the Dharma.

'And, O Ananda, the sound which rises from that water is delightful, and the whole Buddha country is aroused by it. And if beings, who stand on the borders of the river, wish that the sound should not come within their ear-shot, then it does not come within their ear-shot, even if they are possessed of the heavenly ear. And whatever sound a man wishes to hear, exactly that delightful sound he hears, as for instance, the sound "Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, the perfections, the stages, the powers, perfections, freedom from attachment, consciousness; emptiness, unconditioned, free from desire, not made, not born, without origin, not being, and cessation; peace; great love, great pity, great rejoicing, and great forgiveness; resignation to consequences which have not yet arisen, and attainment of the royal stage.

'And having heard these sounds, everybody feels the highest delight and pleasure accompanied by retirement, passionlessness, quiet, cessation, law, and a stock of merit leading to the perfect knowledge.

'And O Ananda, there is nowhere in that Sukhavati world any sound of sin, obstacle, misfortune, distress, and destruction; there is nowhere any sound of pain, even the sound of perceiving what is neither pain nor pleasure is not there, O Ananda, how much less the sound of pain. For that reason, O Ananda, that world is called Sukhavati, in brief, but not in full. For, O Ananda, the whole kalpa would come to an end, while the different causes of the pleasure of the world Sukhavati are being praised, and even then the end of those causes of happiness could not be reached.

Environmental Ethics and Buddhist Gardens Kindle eBook from Amazon

Buddhist Gardens Kindle eBook from Amazon

The five sacred colours, in Buddhist symbolism, are blue, white, red, green, and yellow. They can symbolise emotions, parts of the body and the elements: Space, Air, Water, Fire, Earth

His Holiness Dagchen Rinpoche's hand holds a vajra drawing lines that close the Hevajra Mandala, after the empowerment, Tharlam Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Boudha, Kathmandu, Nepal. (image courtesy wonderlane)

Buddha birthplace Lumbini, Maya Devi Temple

Plan of Gautama Buddha's birthplace at Lumbini, in Nepal

Buddhist mandala set into the paving in Nepal

Buddhism is the world faith with the strongest link to gardens. The Buddha was born in a garden, gave his first sermon in a garden, spent the summer monsoons in gardens - and died in a garden. His followers have loved and lived in gardens. (image courtesy imagenious)


A sacred Bo Tree (Ficus religiosa) growing in a sacred garden in Sri Lanka (image courtesy Jaliyaj)