The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Zen garden elements symbolize harmony, insight, wellbeing

3 min read

Iliana Loaiza / The Blue and Gray Press


Staff Writer

The Zen garden is a hidden gem located directly off of campus walk, on the way to the amphitheatre between Trinkle and Mason. Recently completed in 2018 and gaining the name Little Sun, the Zen garden has since become a great addition to UMW.

The man responsible for bringing the Zen garden to fruition, Dr. Dan Hirshberg, professor of religion, explained how it started.

“I initiated and coordinated its approval and installation (2015-18) and remain primarily responsible for its upkeep, especially raking the gravel. I had a few requests for the design (karesansui or dry rock garden with a triad of stones, dry waterfall on the corner), but it was brought to fruition by Bob Chilton and Todd Stewart of Gardens Unlimited, who generously expanded it well beyond the original plan pro bono,” said Hirshberg.

“They believed in the project from the beginning and, as local contractors and artists, were selflessly motivated to make it a very special offering for our community.”

Hirshberg explained the origin of the name Little Sun.

“It was devised by Todd Stewart, one of the garden’s primary designers and installers, since the space is tucked away in what had been a shady, relatively forgotten corner of campus, which has been illuminated by the garden. Also, the kanji signify a term of affection.”

Since the completion of the Zen garden, it has become a lovely hidden spot for students to relax and enjoy nature to its fullest. According to Hirshberg, there was a specific motivation behind its design. The primary rock triad consisting of two 4-ton stones and a 2-ton stone signifies ‘the force above’, earth and humanity.

“These are the three realms in which harmony must be established and maintained according to classical Chinese religions such as Confucianism and Daoism; the aesthetic setting of these three stones in the garden symbolizes that harmonious relationship. Additionally, the bells symbolize insight and awakening and the ‘turtle island’ with the Japanese lantern symbolizes longevity or even immortality, so we could say wellbeing and safety as well,” said Hirshberg.

The Zen garden has many meanings in Western Asian culture, so to be able to experience something usually only found abroad right here at UMW is special.

According to Hirshberg, while visiting the Zen garden, there are a few things to keep in mind.  

“First and foremost to remain on the paths and not enter the gravel area,” said Hirshberg.
“People are welcome to sit on the table and stools up on the platform as well as the three, flat-topped boulders in the mulch area. It is a contemplative space that is open to anyone and everyone who seeks a place to relax. Also, visitors are welcome to help maintain the space by picking up any litter and likewise collecting sticks, nuts and detritus from the trees (except from the gravel area).”

While the Zen garden is out in the open, it is still a place that needs to be respected like everything else. A very interesting aspect of the Zen garden is the gravel area where designs are made to represent many different things.

“Gravel symbolizes water in Japanese gardens, so the gravel area is a microcosm of a vast ocean with three islands, and the raked lines are rivulets and waves,” said Hirshberg. “My current raking pattern of concentric circles symbolizes the karmic impact of a single stone that sends ripples across the ocean of the universe. It also signifies ‘the moon in water,’ a classical Buddhist idiom for the illusory nature of the apparent world.”

The gravel area is an intriguing aspect of the garden that makes it feel complete and fully peaceful. Maintenance of the Zen garden is handled by the members of the Zen garden club.