The Beauty and Meaning of Zen Gardens
Morikami Museum Portico
An Ancient Story
There is an ancient Zen story where a student asks, "How do I enter the Way of Zen?" The teacher replies, "Can you hear the flow of the distant stream?" The student sits very quietly, indeed, can hear the stream down in the valley on the other side of the hill. "Yes," he says quietly.
"Enter from there," the teacher instructs.
"And if I had not been able to hear the stream?" the student asks. And the teacher answers, "Then I would have told you to enter from there."
We can do Zen meditation whether or not we hear the distant valley stream. We can do Zen meditation anywhere—I used to do my daily meditation on a subway in New York City during morning rush hour. The mind is non-local, and we can concentrate and clear it wherever we are.
But when we relax and open our minds in the midst of quiet, unobtrusive beauty, our senses open wide. The mind is sharp and clear, and at the same time, the body is relaxed and sensitive. This awakens a great deal of healing power, and also artistic and emotional sensitivity. A deep, healing, spiritual and physical integration is possible.
The meaning of Zen gardens lies in their peculiar beauty, a beauty that calls and allows us to be aware of things in a much more open and sensitive way than we normally can.
Zen Mind in Many Places
The original instructions for Zen meditation, or dhyana, to use the Sanskrit pronunciation of the same word, involved going into a secluded forest and sitting under a tree. Later, small hermitage huts for individuals and larger meditation halls for groups sitting together were developed as quiet places that allow this deep concentration.
Zen, however, is not just for the meditation hall or hut. There, we do zazen, or sitting zen. In the meditation hall, we also do kinhin, or slow walking meditation. We can also walk outdoors in nature. The effect of sitting zen in nature is very different from the effect of sitting zen in a room, even if it is a simple hermitage or an elegant meditation hall. Nature has a rhythm all its own. And when we become aware of that rhythm with the quiet, open mind of Zen, we open to a vastness or harmony that comes nowhere else.
But we can't all go off to visit ancient temples or build rustic hermitages in the mountains. That is why zen gardens developed—to give us the feeling and presence of nature in a relatively small outdoor space.
Zen Grows in Medieval Japan
The dhyan meditation school of North India spread to China, and got called chan, and then to Vietnam, where it was called tien, and Korea, where it was called was soen. When dhyana reached Japan, the pronunciation shifted again, and so it was called Zen. Because the Western world learned of the tradition from Japan, we call it Zen. But Zen, concentrated mind, the mind of Awakening, is the same everywhere.
In medieval Japan, the Samurai warrior class took up the practice of Zen. And for about 300 years, from the 1300s until 1630, there was civil war. The Samurai had to be ready to defend his life with a sword, any moment, day or night. And so Zen mind was combined with sword fighting and self-defense.
In 1630, peace was imposed for 230 years by the Tokugawa. But assassination was still frequent, and the Samurai still had to live in constant danger. And so they had to develop ways of keeping Zen mind without always using their swords. Thus the Zen arts were born. Zen flower arranging, or ikebana; paper-folding, or origami; archery; and the tea ceremony are the most well known. There were many others.
For a man who must always be on guard, even when sitting in a meditation hall, it must be very relaxing to sit in a garden with a wide clear view, feel the breeze, and look at nothing except the patterns of sunlight on mossy stone. Thus the Zen garden was born.
Morikami Early Dry Garden Detail
Elements of the Zen Garden
Before the Zen garden existed in its mature form, the Japanese dry garden, with stones, ornaments, and objects that were reminiscent of distant landscapes and towers, already existed. This combined with the Zen veneration of nature to create the mature form of the Zen garden, a quiet field of medium-sized gravel, raked into a fresh pattern each day, with large stones reminiscent of mountain landscapes.
This haiku reflects my experience sitting in Zen gardens:
on a cloudy afternoon.
I feel my breathing.
Zen GardensClick thumbnail to view full-size
Zen Garden, Zen Mind
After time in the Zen garden, I am very aware of natural flow and harmony. As my heart opens to the flow of nature, I become a more sensitive artist, poet, and photographer.
Can you see the rhythms of nature in these photos?