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Classical zen gardens were created at temples of Zen Buddhism in Kyoto, Japan during the Muromachi Period. They were intended to imitate the intimate essence of nature, not its actual appearance, and to serve an aid to meditation about the true meaning of life.
The most famous of all zen gardens in Kyoto is Ryoan-ji, built in the late 15th century where for the first time the zen garden became purely abstract. The garden is a rectangle of 340 square meters.
Zen Buddhism was introduced into Japan at the end of the 12th century, and quickly achieved a wide following, particularly among the Samurai class and war lords, who admired its doctrine of self-discipline. The gardens of the early zen temples in Japan resembled Chinese gardens of the time, with lakes and islands. But in Kyoto in the 14th and 15th century, a new kind of garden appeared at the important zen temples. These zen gardens were designed to stimulate meditation. "Nature, if you made it expressive by reducing it to its abstract forms, could transmit the most profound thoughts by its simple presence", Michel Baridon wrote. "The compositions of stone, already common China, became in Japan, veritable petrified landscapes, which seemed suspended in time, as in a certain moments of Noh theater, which dates to the same period."
The first garden to begin the transition to the new style is considered by many experts to be Saiho-ji, "The Temple of the Perfumes of the West," popularly known as Koke-dera, the Moss Garden, in the western part of Kyoto. The Buddhist monk and zen master Muso Kokushi transformed a Buddhist temple into a zen monastery in 1334, and built the gardens.Some classical zen gardens, like Daisen-in, have symbolism that can be easily read; it is a metaphorical journey on the river of life. Others, like Ryoan-ji, resist easy interpretation. Many different theories have been put forward about what the garden is supposed to represent, from islands in a stream to swimming baby tigers to the peaks of mountains rising above the clouds to theories about secrets of geometry or of the rules of equilibrium of odd numbers.
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