Saturday, August 1, 2015

Inner and outer meaning in Zen Gardens, part I

Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto

Although the aesthetic of a Zen garden, in its outward appearance, can be imitated and translated in any intelligent gardening environment, the esoteric, or inner, meaning of a Zen garden can't be understood unless firmly placed in the context of the monastery and Dharma Hall which it surrounds. I think it’s very difficult to understand this without personally visiting a classic zen monastery; certainly, my own recent visit to Tenryu-Ji was what triggered this impression. 

The reasons for this are subtle; a Zen garden contains only half a teaching, which is wholly revealed in the relationship between the Zendo, the Dharma Hall—the sitting area where the monks meditate—and the garden itself. The two of them must be taken together, not separately, in order to understand the sublime message conveyed by the juxtaposition of the two environments.

The Dharma Hall is an empty hall, covered by tatami mats. There may be a few paintings decorating the hall, but otherwise, it is simplicity in its essence: a great emptiness which is filled only with the bodies of meditating monks. 

The hall itself, along with the structure that houses it, represents the human body, the structural nature of flesh, blood, bones, and marrow — which are, as it happens, the four principle stages of understanding in Zen practice. The Dharma Hall is empty because it is necessary to empty being — that is, the one’s physical being and all it represents — completely in order for something new to enter. 

This takes a certain kind of activity; but the activity consists (perversely) of not doing anything—that is, sitting zazen. The ideal is a perfect emptiness undisturbed by the intellect, the mind, conceptual thought, and everything else that fills our body (under ordinary circumstances) with a tangible or visualized materiality.

Taken as such, the Dharma Hall ultimately represents physical being, as opposed to the intellect (which it houses) — and the emptiness of the hall symbolizes the emptying of intellect and thought into a nothingness that prepares a person for receiving a new force of Being.

The Zen garden is an opposing, but intimately related, entity. The garden represents nature, life, in all its extraordinary variety; even though it is carefully groomed and manicured, it still contains the unpredictable exuberance of life itself. It is, in a word, beautiful; and the experience of beauty is an emotional, not rational, thing.

In other words, the garden evokes feeling — it represents an emotional quality that contains a quality quite different than that imparted by our intellectual capacities. 

In Zen meditation and other Buddhist practices, meditating on emptiness in the Dharma Hall is juxtaposed by meditative strolls through the garden environment. So there is an implicit reciprocity between the emptiness of the hall and the fullness of the garden.


This representation of feeling-quality represents the third force of Being. Mankind has three minds or intellects which make up Being; they are intellectual being, physical being, and emotional being. Intellectual being is well-developed and man, and generally dominates human existence and interaction. It is the other two forms of being—physical being and emotional being—that generally go begging. The balance between the Dharma Hall and the Zen garden represent these two essential elements of Being which are, in a general sense, neglected: the body and the emotions. Emptying the body of mind and then moving into the emotional territory of the garden — which is an objective external invocation of beauty — provides the kind of food that is needed for the development of a balanced Being arising from all three parts.

Hosanna.

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