Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Inner and outer meaning in Zen Gardens, part III—Karensansui

Ryoan-Ji, Kyoto

Karensansui—Dry landscaping in Zen gardens

The presentation of inner and outer life as reflected in the Dharma and the garden is a brilliant one; yet how to bring these two disparate entities together? They seem so very different from one another.

Intriguingly — and in an unexpectedly ingenious way — Zen tradition has inserted a conceptual bridge between the Dharma Hall and the exuberance of nature itself. That bridge consists of the raked gardens with individual stones placed in an otherwise empty gravel landscape. 

The emptiness of the Dharma Hall extends itself into the emptiness of the raked gravel — and yet this is not an emptiness, because it consists of a ground floor that supports the entry of impressions — the stones sitting on small islands of moss. While it's true that there is an intentionally representational nature to these gardens, they also contain an esoteric or inner message about the relationship between inner emptiness and outer impressions. The emptiness (the gravel bed) isn’t really empty — it consists of waves, raked lines that move in concentric circles and parallel paths through and around the environment. These “waves” represent not only ordinary waves (a commonplace, but entirely superficial, interpretation), but  vibrations— elements of movement through a subtle atmosphere, the atmosphere of being, as impressions travel in and out of Being itself. 

They are carefully ordered because there is an essential lawful structure to reality, an underlying order that we do not and cannot sense in our ordinary selves. When we look at the raked gravel, we may be tempted to use these ordinary outer associations of waves in an ocean to interpret it, but we should remember instead that the raked gravel is an esoteric reference to an inner condition within human beings and their nature.

The gravel itself is absolutely not an arbitrary medium; it is carefully chosen to represent the fact that there is a granular nature to reality itself, that reality has a microcosmic texture to it. While we already know that this is true from quantum exploration of the standard model universe, it is not just intuited through Zen practice — there is a practical experience of that granular nature of reality, which a certain range of vibration within human beings can encounter without any technological assistance. This is a subtle and mystical experience, not subject to reductive thinking; it brings us very close to the nature of reality itself, a place of perception that allows us to participate in an intimate understanding of how the world arises and manifests. 

The gravel and to the raked lines, in other words, form the support of reality — and at the same time represent an extremely high level of understanding about the nature of the cosmos… while also managing to be nothing more than sand and gravel. Levels are at play here; levels of both manifestation, understanding, and even Being itself; and what better way to indicate levels than with rocks both lying flat and docile against the sand, and also thrusting up out of it like powerful mountains?

The individual stones within this medium represent arising and manifestation. They are surrounded with the exuberance and freedom of life, as expressed by the moss islands they rest on; yet each one is a solid and immovable expression of Being that arises, unique and unyielding, in the midst of this fluid movement. Among other things, the stones represent the many different aspects of personality and being expressed within a single individual; on another level, collectively, they represent all beings; and at the highest level, taken together with the raked gravel, the garden represents Being itself, which is composed of an infinite number of individual manifestations, which become a whole and single thing (the garden itself.)

The invitation the raked garden issues is to enter and participate in this environment, which is a bridge to the greater freedom of the unraked garden with its paths, flowers, and plants. The garden is furthermore structured to allow a fluid movement through all of the environments, emphasizing the potential for a great deal of independence within the many different types of manifestation expressed by the physical structures.


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