Gardens, Zen Style

Even though today started off cloudy, it cleared up by late morning and turned out to be a beautiful sunny day. So, I walked all the way back up to the general area of Kinkakuji temple, but this time, my destination was Ryoanji temple, home of what is probably the most famous dry rock garden in Kyoto. It is small and simple: only 15 rocks total, some moss and white gravel; it it believed to have been created around 1500 by a Zen monk.

Zen gardens are, of course, one of the most well-known examples of Zen culture and art–the tea ceremony is another, as is ikebana–flower arranging. The gardens are designed to look natural, but that appearance is very particularly and carefully arranged. One of the main points they seek to convey is the sacred in the midst of the ordinary, which then also serves to point to the Buddha nature inherent in all things, visible to those with eyes to see it. Here is what Robert Ellwood says: “To point toward that hidden Buddha-nature, art and life should be simple, graceful, and apparently spontaneous….These [Zen] gardens are not exactly nature, but like an abstract representation of the essence of nature, and therefore like a window to the Buddha-nature behind it.” Isn’t that lovely? So, when you contemplate the “dry garden” of Ryoanji, the rocks can represent mountains, the raked sand water–waves of which flow up to the sides of the rocks, and the moss can be seen as forests. Again Ellwood: “Meditating on them–and they were meant to be objects of contemplation–we penetrate in mind and heart to the essence of nature, and finally fid the buddha-nature at its core. Too much clutter gets in the way of this focus, which is why the Zen arts all present things as they are, but with as little fuss as possible: a few sure lines in a painting…a scattering of rocks and green in a garden.” There is certainly something very calming and very penetrating about this simple aesthetic that does help melt away distraction and clutter, enabling us to get to the heart of what matters, the heart of what is. Zen gardens are great spaces to breath, to rest, to watch and to listen.

In keeping with the Zen theme, I went from Ryoanji to another Zen complex today–and by “Zen complex” that is exactly what I mean: nestled in the middle of quiet little outlying streets is Myoshin-ji, a walled-off mini-city of 47 subtemples. You walk through the main gate, and it is like you are in a different world. It dates from 1342, and belongs to the Rinzai school of Zen. [Ryoanji is also a Rinzai Zen temple, and dates from 1450.] Not very many of the temples are open to the public, but one of them that is, is particularly stunning. It is Taizo-in temple, and it also has several beautiful gardens. First, when you walk through its gate, you pass through two small dry rock gardens on either side of you–one author said they represent yin and yang. One has more vertical rocks, the rocks in the opposite garden are more horizontal. Then, you continue on around the path to another beautiful rock garden, next to a waterfall and a pond. It was wonderful to sit here and watch the koi swim under the lotus leaves.

Let me explain the two other pictures. The one is from Ryoanji–it is the “Tsukubi,” the stone washbasin, carved with a Japanese inscription. It reads: “I learn only to be contented”–another important Zen idea.

The last one is a company logo that is ubiquitous all over Kyoto–I saw it in Tokyo, too. Apparently, it is the logo of a shipping company–clever, right? Every time I see it, I think of John, who, in his teaching about spiritual formation talks about the difference between “monkey grace” and “cat grace.” Think about it: the helpless babies are carried to safety by their mothers in both cases, but the little monkey has to hang on herself, while the kitten just hangs there while her mother does all the work. It has been a nice visual reminder of him while I am here.

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