Monday, August 3, 2015

Inner and outer meaning in Zen Gardens, part II

Tenryu-Ji, Kyoto

It's useful to see the Zendo as representing the inner quality of a human being. This inner part needs to become quite empty so that it can receive impressions of the outer world objectively. Instead of being filled with assumptions and associations, it is filled with nothingness — and this prepares it for relationship with feeling that is quite different than the one dominated by assumption and association.

The Zen garden represents the outer quality of life— and it retains both its beauty and its exuberance, which are in extraordinary contrast to the absolute emptiness of inner being represented by the Dharma Hall. There is an intention behind the juxtaposition of these two realms: taken together, they are complementary and necessary. We can't live without inner life; and we can't live without an outer one. Yet both of them need to be rediscovered in a new way, made sacred together, in order for the intellect to function in a balanced manner.

The Zen garden is meant to remind us that we are designed to receive impressions. Impressions are, essentially, a feeling-based activity; as we receive them, it is our emotional part that manifests the greatest sensitivity towards experience. It tastes and encounter the outer world in a way quite different than the intellect or the body, acting as a unique translator. The intention is that once we have emptied ourselves of our ordinary associations in the silent, limitless emptiness of the meditation hall, we will be prepared for a new influx of deeply emotive feeling-experience as we walk through the garden.

This feeling-quality represents a new kind of freedom. Now, it might seem paradoxical to speak of the structured, obsessively tended Zen garden as an environment that bestows freedom; yet we need to understand it from the point of view of the Dharma Hall that sits at the heart of this exuberance. There could be no greater contrast; yet it's created with the simplest of relationships: an interior, and an exterior. This is an analogy for our lives; and this simple yet subtle lesson conveys an inevitability, once we see it.

The idea here is that an emptiness of Being which is prepared to receive these feeling-impressions of the garden in a new way has a reciprocal action on the garden itself: it creates an order of understanding within the nature of freedom. All of the actions within the garden are a reflection of this. Inner emptiness paradoxically begets an outer order that has an extraordinarily beautiful flexibility contained within an intelligent structure. There is more than a whiff of the sacred in all of this; and indeed, there are connections between this inner and outer juxtaposition in Zen, and the action of Holy Communion as it's understood in Christianity. 

More on that later.


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