On the surface, the Zen cairn is an organized stack of rocks. The human influence is undeniable; finding rocks arranged in this manner in nature would be rare. However, their meaning goes far beyond what is seen on the surface.

And so it is true of all meaningful symbols and imagery. Just as with many spiritual teachings, the words and symbols are pointers to something that defies definition or explanation. However, their value lies in inspiring us along the path and connecting us with the Source of all forms. The following are amongst some of the popular imagery:

The Lotus Flower

The lotus is a beautiful flower that blooms because of the mud in which it is mired – not in spite of it. This makes it an ideal and revered symbol for Enlightenment. Lotus jewelry can be worn as a gentle reminder of this message.

Koi Fish

Just as fish do not fear drowning in water, humans should not fear drowning even in an ocean of suffering. Instead, allow challenges to lead you toward the truth of Buddha Nature.

The Endless Knot

Endless knot imagery depicts a line or flow that has no beginning and no end. This makes it an ideal symbol of infinite Buddha nature as well as a depiction of the world of form. Dependent arising and linear time are woven within The Eternal. The forces of duality may be in opposition, but they are also united in harmony in the universe.


Tea Kettle

Tea is the favored drink in eastern countries and Buddhist cultures. Tea is ideally sipped slowly and mindfully, not rushed through. The process of making tea can also be an ideal opportunity for mindfulness and focusing on the present moment.


The pagoda is a striking tiered structure, with each tier’s roof sloping upward at the edges. The design originated in India and came to the East as the Buddha’s teachings spread and grew in popularity. They can be used as tombs or “stupas,” places of meditation that help anchor mindful contemplation.


Zen cairns are small stacks of natural stones that get smaller with each stone toward the top of the structure. They can be made out in nature or created in a garden. Smaller cairns can function as a meditation tool that can be carried with you or kept on a desk. Cairns symbolize positive direction and the safe, natural movement of the bodhisattva on their path toward Enlightenment.

While symbols are forms arising out of the empty, eternal space that is Buddha Nature, they are also elegant and inspiring pointers to it. Connect with the imagery that speaks to you and allow it to assist you along your path toward higher consciousness.